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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   December/January 2008  issue

Center of Attention   

Bill Buzenberg is in the spotlight as he moves to bring back the glory days at the Center for Public Integrity.


By Anath Hartmann
Anath Hartmann (ahartmann@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.      

When he became executive director of the Center for Public Integrity in January, Bill Buzenberg joined a well-respected, if recently challenged, professional family.

The center, founded in 1989 by former ABC and CBS reporter Charles Lewis, has long occupied a place of honor in the minds of journalists and others who follow Washington reporting, and rightly so. It has received awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists. It has put out 17 books and issued nearly 400 comprehensive investigative reports including the ones responsible for breaking the news of Enron's financial donations to George W. Bush and the Clinton administration's Lincoln bedroom flap, in which overnight stays in the vaunted (and putatively haunted) room were swapped for campaign contributions.

Such watchdog reporting by nonprofits is increasingly critical as newspapers slash their budgets in an effort to adapt to the tough realities of the Internet era, leaving them with limited resources for time-consuming projects.

But the new millennium has presented the center, which is largely funded by donations, with a few bumps in the road.

In September 2005, the center disclosed that it had asked one of its staff writers, Robert Moore, to resign after it came to light that some of the work Moore had presented as original (including work he had done on a center-authored book) had been cribbed without attribution from other writers.

In January 2006, center reporter Bob Williams raised concerns about a no-bid consulting contract that the Tennessee Valley Authority awarded to the center's then-deputy director, Pulitzer Prize winner Wendell "Sonny" Rawls Jr., before Rawls joined the center. The center found no ethics conflict. Rawls did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Williams, who says he was asked to leave the center shortly thereafter for challenging Rawls to "step outside" when Rawls made a comment about his masculinity, calls Buzenberg "an innovator" and says he believes his clash with Rawls could probably have been avoided entirely had Buzenberg succeeded Lewis directly.

"We loved him when he interviewed" for the position in 2004, Williams says of Buzenberg, who ultimately took over the center's leadership from Rawls. Rawls had been named interim executive director in May 2006 to temporarily replace Roberta Baskin, who had succeeded Lewis. Unfortunately, "when [Buzenberg] did get there, he inherited a much weaker organization than he would have had he come earlier," says Williams, now director of Consumers Union's hearusnow.org Web site.

Buzenberg, 60, acknowledges that his timing could have been better. "I had regretted not doing it before," he says of not coming to the center in 2004, when he was still at Minnesota Public Radio. "It's been a real challenge, period. It's a great, great place, but I will not mislead you... [Lewis] quite frankly left the center in great shape financially, but when you have a visionary who leaves, how do you continue? 'With difficulty' is the answer."

Buzenberg, credited with being one of the reporters who helped spearhead "Morning Edition" at National Public Radio in 1978, stands well over six feet and has the broad-shouldered build of a rower not too far off, perhaps, considering that one of his hobbies is sailing. His no-nonsense demeanor, the one that may well push the center to the forefront of investigative journalism and keeps him at the office 50-plus hours a week, would send the meek scurrying.

He is frank about the center's challenges but not apologetic. What about criticism like the kind made in a January 3, 2004, Wall Street Journal editorial , in which Journal editors included the center in billionaire George Soros' "web of left-wing activists" for accepting $1.7 million from the wealthy anti-Bush activist's Open Society Institute? Buzenberg says: "That's absolute junk, trash, stupid. The center is incredibly nonpartisan. The work that we do is not free, and there's no apology to be made. We are incredibly independent."

As he approaches his one-year anniversary, Buzenberg, formerly vice president of news for National Public Radio and a longtime journalist, already has a few notches on his executive director belt. In June, the center's Web site (publicintegrity.org) received the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In May, the center released "City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina," and in August its lobbying-watch project won first place in the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors' in-depth online reporting category, the fifth time the center has won the award.

Under Buzenberg's leadership, the center is focusing increasingly on the Web. While he won't reveal specifics, Buzenberg says he's working with in-house designers to create a "more engaging and more interactive Web site" and build up publici.org, a domain name that currently takes Web users to the center's homepage.

One area that has proved a struggle is finances. "I learned long ago in radio you can't spend money you don't have," Buzenberg says. When he arrived, he says, "expenses were greater than the revenue raised. We've had some people leave over the last year. It's fair to say it's a smaller center than it was a year ago... [But] we recently had an audit that says we're turning the corner financially, and that's good. We're a leaner, more efficient center than we were a year ago." The organization once had a staff of 40; now that number is 25. Its $4 million annual budget comes mostly from grants.

A typical workday for Buzenberg, an avid marathoner, bike rider and recreational cook who will soon be a first-time grandfather, begins around 8 a.m. and is divided between investigative projects and administrative tasks. One constant focus, however, is fundraising.

Buzenberg was able to get Barbara Schecter, director of development during Lewis' tenure, to come back to her former post when he became executive director. With Schecter's help, Buzenberg said, the center has already managed to raise more money this year than it did last year.

"I probably do more fundraising here than I did in radio," he says. "We're looking at all the ways we can bring in revenue and..do the highest level of investigative work. There's a tremendous need for what the center does."

The center's challenges have not escaped Lewis' attention, nor has the founder shied away from publicly critiquing his brainchild. In an April 2007 essay for Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Lewis called the previous two years at his creation "very difficult to watch," citing a hemorrhage of "the center's carefully assembled, very talented senior staff" by late 2005 and "generally unremarkable" investigative reports in 2006.

"When I say 'unremarkable' ... it's no secret that some of the reports had some problems at that time, which is always the bane of existence for all journalists," says Lewis, who is currently teaching journalism as a Distinguished Journalist in Residence at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. "There were reports that stood out in that period..but I meant that the quality of some of the reports didn't have the pop" of some of the earlier ones.

Lewis, who says he left the center after 15 years because he didn't want it to become "an institution that was Chuck's Excellent Adventure," is glad to have Buzenberg at the helm of the organization he launched.

"Bill Buzenberg is immensely talented," Lewis says. "He is trying to fix an organization that went through a bumpy period, but I think it's beginning to become known about the center that there's a new sheriff in town. When I look at what he has done over the last eight months organizationally, he's done really astonishing things. He's a pro."

Lewis says reporters and editors should stay abreast of the center and its investigative journalism under Buzenberg's leadership. "I think the fruits of some of the [current] labors are going to become apparent in a few years," he says. "We should all just keep watching."

Baskin, now director of the I-Team at WJLA ABC 7 News in Washington, D.C., says she still very much believes in the center's mission and thinks the organization will thrive. "I believe in the [investigative] model," Baskin says. "I think it's important to have independent journalism. The center is able to provide information to the news set that they can't get anymore... I think there should be more [places] like it, and I'm optimistic" that it will continue to do high-quality investigative journalism.

Missouri School of Journalism professor Geneva Overholser was named chairman of the center's board of directors in June. Overholser, who worked with Buzenberg 36 years ago at the Colorado Springs Sun, says the executive director has a "proven record of really terrific work" and that the center's reports are especially needed in the current journalism climate. "Unfortunately, given the kind of profit pressures most commercial media are under, it's going to be very difficult for them to do the kind of deep reporting that our nation depends upon, especially Washington," she says. "We've already seen reductions in [news] bureaus, and I'm afraid we're going to see more. More and more nonprofits are" having to do the kind of investigative journalism that newspapers used to do.

"We're going to do some terrific stuff," she says of the center.

In all likelihood, Buzenberg will be there to see that "stuff" through. "This is my work," he says. "I'm here to stay."