Muckraking and Fundraising
Center for Investigative Reporting conquers money issues, celebrating
By Sarah Schaffer
Sarah Schaffer is a former AJR editorial assistant.
Investigative reporters have a tough job--dangerous assignments, tedious research and impatient editors. But at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a small group of reporters and editors have weathered yet another challenge for more than two decades. In fact, Burton Glass, executive director of the
San Francisco-based CIR, says it's not mounds of cryptic data or menacing sources that worry his nonprofit--it's money.
Since 1977, CIR has struggled to find funding for investigations into corruption and abuses of power. The group has produced reports on issues such as pollution, gun trafficking and school choice. But CIR not only endures, it celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
CIR began in Berkeley, California, the brainchild of ex-Rolling Stone reporters Lowell Bergman and David Weir. Weir says that when Rolling Stone moved from San Francisco to New York City in 1977, the two were "left behind and unemployed." The reporters, who had produced investigative pieces for the magazine, were eager to continue working, yet lacked an outlet. They joined forces with Bay Area reporter Dan Noyes and began to build what Bergman calls "a base of operations for people to do in-depth reporting."
"We used my garage as an office until we moved to downtown Oakland," Bergman, immortalized in the movie "The Insider," recalls with a chuckle. Inspired by reporters who covered Vietnam and Watergate, the scrappy trio began working with other journalists looking to uncover injustice and corruption.
The organization's first major investigative story, a 1978 piece titled "The Party's Over," gave New Times readers a detailed account of Huey Newton's destructive reign over the Black Panther Party. Since, major newspapers and magazines have published hundreds of CIR stories. And CIR reports and film documentaries have received awards from numerous organizations, including Investigative Reporters and Editors. The group's 1997 television investigation, "Hot Guns," produced for PBS' "Frontline," won a national Emmy award and spawned other TV reports on gun trafficking that led California lawmakers to pass stricter gun legislation.
Brant Houston, IRE's executive director, applauds CIR's work, saying its reports have educated the public about complex issues. "They are absolutely important, and we are great supporters of them," he says. "They have produced some excellent work and any time that is done, it helps to set a standard."
But the money woes persisted despite the critical acclaim. In fact, financial collapse has threatened the group more than once. In 1996, CIR was forced to downsize and restructure, but Glass says it now operates like a small magazine, employing a core of staff writers and freelancers.
In October, CIR celebrated its 25th year of muckraking with a fundraising gala at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco. More than 350 supporters and staffers past and present gathered to reminisce about the humble beginnings, unique assignments and award-winning investigations. The party raised more than $80,000, money that will no doubt help the organization turn over even more rocks in the years to come.###