On August 5, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson went on national television and told the following story: Three days earlier, North Vietnamese PT boats attacked US warships patrolling in international waters. US crewmembers repelled the attacks. Two days later, the North Vietnamese attacked again. Claiming the attacks were deliberate and unprovoked, the president now ordered a muscular response: Sixty-four planes bombed four North Vietnamese boat bases, destroying most of the vessels stationed there.
Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on August 7, giving Johnson a free hand to defend any member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Thus began the American military escalation that became the Vietnam war. The only problem was that the “facts” Johnson presented to Congress and the public were false.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave the White House the legal cover to wage a war that ultimately claimed 58,000 Americans and failed to achieve its stated objective—keeping communism out of South Vietnam. And it was all predicated on bad intelligence, lies, and misrepresentation.
935 Lies, the new book about government dissembling and media enabling from veteran investigative journalist Charles Lewis, starts with the Gulf of Tonkin and wends its way through one shameful episode after another, culminating with the arguments justifying the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. “My career in journalism has coincided with a tragic period in American history—one in which in which falsehood has increasingly come to dominate our public discourse, and in which the bedrock values of honesty, transparency, accountability, and integrity we once took granted have been steadily eroded,” writes Lewis, who is a contributing editor to CJR.
The book’s title comes from a study published by the Center for Public Integrity, the nonprofit investigative journalism outlet Lewis founded in 1989. Released in 2008, “Iraq: The War Card” found that President George W. Bush and his senior officials made 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq during the lead-up and immediate aftermath of the US invasion. What Lewis calls a “carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths” led America to war under false pretenses—reminiscent of the events preceding the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Though the book is about government and private-sector efforts over the last five decades to keep truth beyond the public’s reach, Lewis spends considerable time targeting his colleagues in the commercial press and their failure to aggressively, and consistently, hold society’s power brokers to account. He acknowledges the many exceptions—the publication of The Pentagon Papers by The New York Times in the face of withering political pressure, for instance, and The Washington Post’s pursuit of the Watergate break-in and other Nixon administration misdeeds—but mostly Lewis is deeply critical of American journalism.
He lays much of the blame on the shift to public ownership of newspapers that began in the 1960s, and the consolidation of broadcast news under large corporate umbrellas that began with deregulation by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. These changes made the media more beholden to a bottom-line, offend-no-one corporate mentality, and to the short-term profit demands of shareholders. (Oddly, he makes almost no mention of how media companies fumbled their adaptation to the internet, inadvertently conditioning the public to expect its news for free. The subsequent collapse of the ad-based business model made expensive investigative reporting difficult to sustain.)
Among the incidents Lewis uses to make his case was the fallout from 1994’s “Smoke Screen,” a segment by the ABC News primetime program Day One that claimed tobacco companies had manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes to increase addiction. The story included interviews with a whistleblower code-named Deep Cough, a former employee of R.J. Reynolds. The piece won a George Polk Award.
A month after the broadcast, Philip Morris filed a $10-billion libel suit against ABC and the show’s producers. ABC publicly stood by its story, but behind the scenes corporate knees were quivering. The network had another show in the works called “Tobacco Under Fire.” It was an investigation into Philip Morris’ efforts to convince the government to help open foreign markets to American cigarettes. By early March 1994, the show’s rough-cut had been screened and approved by its producers, network news president Roone Arledge, and ABC’s lawyers, with an anticipated air date in early April.
Once the libel suit was filed, “Tobacco Under Fire” was put on hold, and ABC eventually spiked it as Philip Morris aggressively pursued the suit. The network was negotiating an historic $19-billion merger with Disney and needed this bit of unpleasantness to go away. In August 1995, a few weeks after the merger was announced, ABC settled the libel suit. Diane Sawyer read a formal apology to Philip Morris during halftime of Monday Night Football.
ABC’s experience with Philip Morris put the industry on notice, and later that year CBS’ 60 Minutes toned down its own investigative piece on Big Tobacco.
Commercial journalism, Lewis concludes, will never provide a reliable bulwark against bullying by powerful interests, public or private. Investigative journalism—the kind that “focuses on affronts to public integrity”—can no longer exist in organizations that must keep financial and competitive realities in balance with a mission to uncover the truth at all costs. The latter will eventually get marginalized, or snuffed out altogether.
Lewis knows whereof he speaks. In 1989, he resigned as a producer at 60 Minutes after tampering by network brass forced changes to one of his stories. Lewis was producing a story for Mike Wallace about former US officials trading on their connections to work as lobbyists for foreign entities. As word of the story got out, some of the officials named in it began pressuring network executives, who in turn pressured Lewis to soften the piece. Disgusted, Lewis quit after the piece aired, and went on to create the Center for Public Integrity. “My dream was a kind of journalistic utopia,” he writes, “an investigative milieu in which no one would tell me who or what not to investigate…. and untrammeled by the power of corporate or government interests bent on the truth.”
In the 25 years since, he has nurtured the nonprofit model, running the center for more than a decade and creating at least five other similar organizations or networks of journalists. The last fifth of 935 Lies is a detailed account of these experiences, including reports published, awards won, and libel suits successfully defended. It sometimes reads like an advertisement for Lewis’ no-advertising model, but the collective work produced by these groups and others is a deeply-reported boon to accountability journalism and an informed public.
Lewis is confident about journalism’s future: “When it comes to the pursuit of truth without fear or favor,” he writes, “nonprofit journalism is an integral part of the present and the future.” But a big unanswered question lingers at books’ end: Who’s going to pay for it? In its State of the News Media 2014 report, the Pew Research Center found that the US news industry generates roughly $60 billion in annual revenue. Advertising and subscriptions and other audience fees make up more than 90 percent of the total, while philanthropy and angel investments contribute a paltry 1 percent. Lewis spends a few paragraphs raising questions about the long-term funding challenges facing nonprofit outlets, acknowledging that they will have to experiment with advertising, content sales, and paid memberships. But the reader is left with no clear sense of what a sustainable funding mechanism might look like—and that’s because, for now anyway, there isn’t one.
935 Lies is at once a history of investigative journalism and a prescription, however incomplete, for its future. For all that is right with Lewis’ diagnosis of the problem, his vision of a nonprofit-dominated solution—unadulterated by commercial interests—feels too narrow. Investigative reporting is expensive, and as the ecosystem of nonprofits grows—and according to Lewis it will—these outlets would be wise to diversify their revenue streams. According to “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability,” a report published by the Knight Foundation in 2013, a significant majority of nonprofit funding still comes from foundations and individual donations. But the report is clear that “the strength of an organization’s revenue base depends not only on the total amount generated, but also on the consistency and diversity of its revenue sources.” Philanthropic support will have to coexist with a variety of earned-revenue streams, including corporate sponsorships, organized events, subscriptions, content partnerships, training courses, and even some advertising. All of this will require nonprofits to develop more mature business and organizational capabilities to manage these experiments.
Lewis builds a convincing case for the truth-seeking value of nonprofit investigative journalism, which makes it even more imperative that these organizations have the resources to prosper.