Beginning in 2005, Charles Lewis began conducting research on his sixth book, “The Future of Truth,” about truth, power, the news media and the public’s right to know. Intrigued by how easily the national news media had been misled in the post-9/11 period by the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War, he and a team of researchers at the Fund for Independence in Journalism prepared a 380,000-word Boolean-searchable chronology called Iraq: The War Card. Lewis had co-founded and led the nonprofit Fund for Independence in Journalism to foster independent, high-quality, public service journalism, including legal defense and endowment support to the Center for Public Integrity.
Lewis and his research team found that in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials had publicly made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The number of these erroneous exhortations had spiked upward at politically strategic moments – specifically before the October 2002 congressional vote on the war, and between January and March 2003, from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s United Nations presentation to the invasion itself. The cumulative effect of these false statements – amplified by thousands of uncritical news stories and broadcasts – was massive, and much of the saturation media coverage provided additional, “independent” validation of the administration’s misstatements. This extensive research and analysis was undertaken specifically for “The Future of Truth” and given to the Center for Public Integrity, which published the findings – covered heavily by the national and international news media – just before the five-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.1
Wondering how the Iraq War situation compared with the past, Lewis and his researchers then began systematically examining the most consequential, deadly deceptions by government and companies, the origins and trajectories of public relations and propaganda, and the truth-telling capacity of journalists and their news organizations over the past century.
And it was against this intellectual backdrop that Lewis then decided that it was necessary to closely examine national “moments of truth” in contemporary U.S. history, in which news organizations, through their independent news reporting, had exposed egregious abuses of power. In close consultation with veteran journalists Bill Kovach and Geneva Overholser and many others, and after substantial historic research, he began assembling a list of some of the most notable, living national journalists since 1950. Lewis recognized that this first group of interview subjects was necessarily subjective, but he also knew that he had to start somewhere; as a result, it is a work in progress that will become more thorough and inclusive over time. Scheduling two-camera interviews in three cities with very busy people was no simple matter logistically; complicating matters, among other things, two well-known journalists declined to be interviewed, one agreed to participate but died before he could be interviewed, and another resisted being interviewed for more than a year before finally agreeing.
Around this time, Lewis decided, in part because many of these reporters and editors were of advanced age, that the interviews should not be audio recorded but should be preserved for posterity on the highest-quality, high-definition video. It took most of 2006 for him to secure sufficient funding (approximately $300,000) to conduct the videotaped conversations. By the time that had occurred, it became clear that this had moved beyond mere book-related research – that it must also become a stand-alone, ongoing, multimedia oral history project that was accessible online.
After the Investigating Power interviews were conducted by Lewis and videotaped in three cities in 2007 and 2008, they were transcribed while the first iteration of a website was designed by Tarek Anandan. Between May 2010 and late April 2012, more than 100 hours of two-camera F900 high-definition video material was screened and distilled into 51 produced videos (42 conversations and nine short documentaries) by project senior producer Margaret Ebrahim, producer/editor Ted Roach and Lewis.
With more than 100 hours of footage, the production team wrestled with what exactly the focus should be. The first impulse was to select one or two video conversations per journalist and save the rest of the footage for a documentary to be produced at a later date. But there was so much wonderful history about journalism in the 100-plus hours of raw video material that Lewis and his producers decided to also incorporate short documentaries into the overall presentation, in addition to the individual conversations.
The producers approached the documentaries as first-person testimonials about significant moments in history when journalism spoke “truth to power.” The video testimonies were interwoven with historical footage and photographs as well as music. There also are dozens of video conversations between Lewis and the journalists on specific topics, including the state of journalism, how important national stories were approached, and what it took to break important news.
Everyone involved came to the production process with different experiences and sensibilities. Lewis is a longtime investigative reporter who had been a television news producer during the late 1970s and 1980s at ABC News and the CBS News program “60 Minutes.” His sensibilities were firmly planted in traditional broadcast journalism. Ebrahim, too, is a journalist and came from the same broadcast news background, but she also has had a documentary background in more recent years. Roach was an MFA candidate at American University’s Film and Media Arts program while he was working on the project. While Roach has worked professionally as both a video journalist and documentarian, his sensibilities reflect a strong film background and a preference for modern documentary technique.
At times, melding these different sensibilities into one for this project and the Web was challenging. An example of this challenge surfaced over sound effects. In some of the documentaries, subtle sound effects were incorporated over the historical photographs. In one particular case, Roach found an audio recording of a U.S. Army Huey helicopter flying over Vietnam during the war there. He used this sound over a photograph of a Huey helicopter flying over Vietnam during the war. This is a common practice for filmmakers. Lewis, however, felt that if sound was to be used, it must have been captured at the exact time the photograph was taken. In the end, the sound effect was taken out of the documentary. Originally, all the documentaries had music and sound effects laced throughout the stories. Both Ebrahim and Roach felt these added to the emotion and authenticity of the short films. But Lewis regarded the music as a distraction from what the journalists were saying in the interviews and felt sound effects were anathema to honest and transparent journalism. After several heated discussions, the producers settled on subtle, unobtrusive music at the beginning and the end of the films and stripped almost all “unnatural” sound effects from the documentaries. Trying to blend both the journalism and film sensibilities for this project was difficult, to say the least. What the producers can say is that they feel they ultimately found the right blend for this project.
In terms of the historical footage, photos and music for the videos, we either sought to buy licenses or received donations. In one instance, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute donated dozens of historical photos shot by photographer Joseph Postiglione. The images were pictures of a Freedom Ride that journalist Moses Newson covered in which the bus he was riding was firebombed outside of Anniston, Ala. We are very grateful for the photo donations that were made to this project. We also relied on images, footage and music in the public domain. And in certain limited instances, we claimed “fair use.”
1 This research took 2½ years of culling through thousands of Iraq-related statements by the top Bush officials between Sept. 11, 2001 – Sept. 11, 2003, and affixing them on a two-year calendar, reading more than 50 government, journalistic and other Iraq war-related books and reports written between 2001 and 2008, and then juxtaposing what was said by officialdom against what was privately known and being thought and said inside the government, day by day, gleaned from those accounts. See Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith, “False Pretenses,” in Iraq: The War Card (Center for Public Integrity, Washington, D.C.: January 23, 2008), http://projects.publicintegrity.org/WarCard/.
With additional resources, we hope to interview more journalists and increase the range and density of available content on Investigating Power. Please help us continue this important work by sending a tax deductible contribution (check or money order) to:
The Investigating Power project
c/o The Investigative Reporting Workshop
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Washington, D.C. 20016-8017
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