Center for Investigative Reporting
|Method||Foundation and member-supported|
Christa Scharfenberg, CEO
Matt Thompson, Editor in Chief
Phil Bronstein, Executive Chair
The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) is a nonprofit news organization based in Emeryville, California, and has conducted investigative journalism since 1977. It is known for producing stories that reveal inequities, abuse and corruption — and hold those responsible accountable. In 2010, CIR launched its California Watch reporting project; in 2012, it merged with The Bay Citizen. In 2013, it launched an hour-long public radio program and podcast, Reveal, that airs on 470 public radio stations. The budget for the CIR was approximately $9.3 million in 2016. The current business model emphasizes cooperation with partners and other news outlets rather than competition. Phil Bronstein is the organization's executive chair.
David Weir, Dan Noyes, and Lowell Bergman founded the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting in 1977 in downtown Oakland, California. This was the first nonprofit news organization in America that was focused on investigative reporting. The Center's first large investigation exposed the criminal activity of the Black Panther Party, a subject the organization revisited in 2012.
In 1982, a story published in Mother Jones magazine revealed testing fraud in consumer products. The center worked together with the magazine to produce the story. The investigation won several awards, including Sigma Delta Chi and Investigative Reporters and Editors awards.
CIR began producing television documentaries in 1980 and has since produced more than 30 documentaries for Frontline and Frontline/World, dozens of reports for other television outlets and three independent feature documentaries. ABC’s 20/20 and CBS’s 60 Minutes have featured reporting from CIR. Major stories in the 1980s included studies of the toxicity of ordinary consumer products, an exposé of nuclear accidents in the world’s navies, and coverage of questionable tactics by the FBI during the Reagan administration.
In 1990, CIR produced its first independent TV documentary, Global Dumping Ground, reported by Bill Moyers on PBS’s Frontline. The film spurred federal investigations and was rebroadcast in at least 18 nations.
In 1992, CIR produced The Best Campaign Money Can Buy for Frontline, an investigation of the top funders of the presidential campaign. With correspondent Robert Krulwich. Produced by Stephen Talbot with reporters Eve Pell and Dan Noyes. The documentary won a DuPont/Columbia Journalism Award.
Other notable CIR reports included a look at the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, as well as a study of education and race in an urban high school, "School Colors." An investigation for the New York Daily News and Fox's Front Page revealed lethal dangers in a common diet drug.
In 2005, the Center's investigations into wiretapping and data mining prompted Congressional hearings on privacy. The Center also exposed the forensic practices of the FBI that resulted in false imprisonments.
Robert J. Rosenthal became executive director of the Center in 2007. He had more than thirty years of experience as a journalist and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and The New York Times.
In 2010, the Center released the documentary film, Dirty Business, which exposed the myth of clean coal and the lobbying tactics of the coal industry.
The organization's stories have regularly appeared in news outlets around the country and in California including NPR News, PBS Frontline, PBS NEWSHOUR, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, The Daily Beast, Al Jazeera English and American Public Media's Marketplace.
In April 2012, it partnered with Google to host “TechRaking”, an informal conference that brought together journalists and technologists. In September 2012, the second “TechRaking” brought together journalists and gamers, at IGN in San Francisco.
Amy Pyle took the helm as Editor in Chief in 2015 after two decades of award-winning journalism at The Sacramento Bee, where she was Assistant Managing Editor/Projects and Investigations, and the Los Angeles Times, where she led coverage of the Northridge Earthquake from the parking lot of the quake-damaged San Fernando Valley office.
In February 2019, Matt Thompson was announced as the new Editor In Chief. Thompson was formerly the executive editor of The Atlantic, where he oversaw major editorial projects and new initiatives, such as the launch of the magazine’s podcasting unit, membership strategy and talent development teams. During his time as deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, he helped lead the magazine’s digital team through three record-breaking years of audience growth. Prior to The Atlantic, he was director of vertical initiatives for NPR, where he created several broadcast and digital journalism teams, including Code Switch and NPR Ed. He is a former board member of the Center for Public Integrity, where he served for eight years.
Merger with The Bay Citizen
In 2009, the Center for Investigative Reporting created California Watch, a reporting team dedicated to state-focused stories. Its website launched in 2010. Editorial director Mark Katches explained that the site would function as a watchdog team focusing on government oversight, criminal justice, education, health and the environment. In 2010, the Online News Association honored California Watch with a general excellence award. In 2012, California Watch won the George Polk Award for its series on Medicare billing fraud. The authors of the series were Christina Jewett, Lance Williams and Stephen Doig. California Watch also was a Pulitzer finalist for its "On Shaky Ground" series by Corey G. Johnson, Erica Perez, Kendall Taggart and Agustin Armendariz. The series detailed flaws in state oversight of seismic safety at K-12 schools. The "On Shaky Ground" reporting team won a Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Public Service. California Watch won a second Polk award in 2012, this time for Ryan Gabrielson's series about the failures of a unique police force to solve crimes committed against the developmentally disabled living in state board-and-care hospitals. The series also won an Online Journalism Award from the Online News Association.
In August 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting created “The I Files” channel on YouTube. The Knight Foundation provided an $800,000 grant to make the channel possible. The channel, renamed as Reveal, presents investigative videos produced by CIR and from a variety of news outlets, including The New York Times, BBC, Al Jazeera English, ABC News, National Public Radio, and members organizations of the Investigative News Network.
Reveal utilizes multiple digital platforms to get its information out to the world on its website. The radio program which the website is named after airs on 470 radio stations in the Public Radio Exchange network and the show is also available in podcast form. The main website for Reveal contains links to each podcast episode, video, and multimedia story shared by the outlet. Each video is also available on their YouTube channel, and all the podcasts can be subscribed to via the usual podcast outlets. Reveal is active on social media including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. The outlet also has a blog, Dig, where the staff posts about internal updates and how they created data-driven stories.
All of CIR's digital reporting is now available on Reveal's website where the CIR shares podcasts, videos, and many data-driven investigative projects.
The Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit so it relies heavily on foundation grants and individual donations to fund its efforts. In addition to publishing reports directly on its site, the Center produces content for a wide range of other news outlets, including local TV affiliates, newspapers, public radio, and PBS. More recently, the Center has invested in multimedia, particularly video, as a means of reaching bigger audiences and producing a new revenue stream. In general the CIR only accepts donations from individuals or groups who are not affiliated with government officials or political parties.
Awards and recognition
In 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting received the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Leadership. The award is a monetary prize from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Center received a prize of $1 million. Executive Director Robert Rosenthal explained that the money would go toward new forms of video distribution. With the prize, the Center also plans to improve its technology and create a fund for innovative projects in the future.
CIR stories have received numerous journalism awards including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, George Polk Award, Emmy Award, Scripps Howard Award and numerous Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards. Additionally, it received a Peabody Award in 2013 for the Reveal show "The VA's Opiate Overload". In 2012, its “On Shaky Ground” investigation was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
- The Boomerang Crime, by David Weir, Mark Shapiro and Terry Jacobs. Published in Mother Jones.
- ABC's 20/20 airs a CIR investigation of a fundraising organization for the UN International Year of the Child that found ties to gun and drug trafficking.
- Operation Wigwam exposed the cover up of potential ill effects from an underwater nuclear test in the Pacific Ocean.
- Citizen Scaife, by Karen Rothmyer, appears in the Columbia Journalism Review and The Washington Post.
- The Illusion of Safety, by Douglas Foster and Mark Dowie. Appears in Mother Jones.
- The Bad Drug, a report featured on 60 Minutes about the dangers of blood pressure drug Selacryn.
- The Nuclear Navy, an explosive report on the thirty-year history of naval nuclear accidents, makes headlines worldwide.
- The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden... Is Screwed by Phil Bronstein. Published in Esquire.
- The Best Campaign Money Can Buy, an investigation of top donors to the presidential race, produced for Frontline by Stephen Talbot.
- The Heartbeat of America, an investigation of General Motors produced for Frontline. Producer: Stephen Talbot.
- Who's Watching the Watchdog, a look at the Better Business Bureau, by Richard H.P. Sia.
- Hot Guns, a Frontline and CIR story on cheap handguns.
- Justice for Sale, explores corruption in America's court system. Producers: Stephen Talbot and Sheila Kaplan.
- Tobacco Traffic, by Mark Schapiro and producer Oriana Zill de Granados, explores illegal smuggling. Print story “Big Tobacco” appears in The Nation.
- Reasonable Doubt, a CNN documentary on shoddy forensic science at the FBI.
- No Place to Hide, by Robert O’Harrow Jr., an investigation of government data mining as part of the war on terror.
- Conflicts on the Bench, reveals ethics violations by Bush court nominees. Will Evans partnered with Salon.com.
- Banished, an independent film on race relations in small towns, produced by CIR, premieres at 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
- The Chauncey Bailey Project, a joint investigation made possible by the Northern California Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the Newspaper Guild and The California Endowment. Investigators sought answers in the assassination of editor Chauncey Bailey.
- Carbon Watch, a project tracking various aspects of global warming science and policy.
- The Civil Rights Cold Case Project, a team effort involving CIR, the Concordia Sentinel, The Clarion-Ledger, the Anniston Star, the Detroit Free Press, hungryblues.net, and Paperny Films of Vancouver, BC.
- Dirty Business, a documentary film narrated by Big Coal author Jeff Goodell.
- Worst Charities, is a series that began with a joint investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and the CIR in 2012 uncovering the worst charities in the US which resulted in their 2013 report, "America’s 50 Worst Charities".
Their team of investigators analyzed charities' IRS tax returns "line by line" and exposed how "money, donated by generous Americans, was squandered by non-profit charities" that wasted donors' money by paying for-profit telemarketing corporations to do their fundraising. Based on their data they compiled a list of America's 50 worst charities. The Times/CIR team "pieced together tens of thousands of pages of public records collected by the federal government and 36 states", starting in states where "regulators require charities to report results of individual fund-raising campaigns". Investigators were looking for charities that contracted for-profit corporations—marketing companies that used telephone solicitors "to raise the vast majority of their donations year in and year out".
In their June 6, 2013 Times article,[Notes 1] Kendall Taggart, a CIR data reporter and Kris Hundley, a veteran reporter with the Tampa Bay Times, a member of the Times' investigative team, reported that the "nation's 50 worst charities have paid their solicitors nearly $1 billion over the past 10 years [2003-2013] that could have gone to charitable works".[Notes 2] They described how "nonprofits adopt popular causes or mimic well-known charity names that fool donors".
In their 2013 report, "America’s 50 Worst Charities" ranked Kids Wish Network as the worst of all the charities in the United States. The report described how Mark Breiner, the founder and one-time president of Kids Wish Network, operated the charity out of a "metal warehouse behind a gas station in Holiday", raising millions of dollars annually in "donations in the name of dying children and their families" while spending "less than 3 cents on the dollar helping kids". In 2010, Breiner retired from Kids Wish—his mother-in-law remained on the board of directors. In their August 22, 2013 Hundley and Kendall described how Kids Wish raised about "$128 million in cash donations through for-profit" marketer/solicitors from 2003 to 2013 of which over 85 percent was retained by the fundraisers. Mark Breiner owned several of the fundraising/marketing companies and his companies were paid more than $5 million to do work for Kids Wish according to tax filings. In response to the Times/CIR report, Kids Wish representatives said the report was "unfair and claimed that the majority of charities rely on paid solicitors".
For this series, CIR/Times interviewed 30 charity experts including Columbia University professor Doug White, author of The Nonprofit Challenge, Charity on Trial, The Art of Planned Giving, and Abusing Donor Intent: The Robertson Family's Epic Lawsuit Against Princeton University who has worked in field of philanthropy for over 30 years. White said that the worst charities are "ripping off the public under the guise of an organization that's supposed to do good for society." White dismissed the "argument made by charities that without telemarketers they would have no money..When you weigh that in terms of values, of what the charity is supposed to be doing and what the donor is being told in the process, the house comes tumbling down".
Anderson Cooper 360° featured the story, The 50 worst charities on June 13, 2013 with CNN's Drew Griffin and David Fitzpatrick, a CNN senior producer. As part of their CIR/Times partnership, Griffin and Fitzpatrick described how they traveled across the United States for over a year "exposing corrupt charities". They reported that "[u]nderstaffed and overworked federal regulators" could not monitor and therefore stop these organizations that profit from their non-profit status. By June 13, 2013, the "IRS repeatedly declined to comment" on the joint CNN, Times/CIR report.[Notes 3]
Part 1 of the series America's worst charities included the June 6, 2013 article "Dirty secrets of the worst charities" which focused on Kids Wish Network. Part 2 included "A failure of regulation" published on June 7, 2013 which explained why it is so difficult to regulate charities and how easy it is for bad agents to transfer clients from state to state to avoid being caught.
Part 3, which was published on June 13, "How one family turned your goodwill into their livelihood" described how James T. Reynolds Sr.—who was the founder of Cancer Fund—and his family, became wealthy on donations to cancer charities that they spun off the original Cancer Fund, "each with a similar mission and a relative or close associate in control."[Notes 4] After the three-part series was published, a "leading watchdog group" reviewed its "ratings of charities on the Times/CIR list" and Florida regulators considered possible changes to its monitoring of nonprofits, according to a July 5, 2013 article entitled, "In wake of report, charities come under increased scrutiny". The Knoxville, Tennessee-based Cancer Fund of America agreed to shut down in 2016.
In their September 13 article, "Meet the lawyer who keeps some of America’s worst charities in business", Hundley and Taggart described how Kansas City, Missouri-based lawyer, Errol Copilevitz, who became the "undisputed king of the charity world". By 2013, Copilevitz & Canter had represented almost 75 percent of the charities investigated in the Times/CIR report and "their for-profit telemarketers and direct mail companies".[Notes 5] In September 28 Sam Ward presented "The advocate for America’s worst charities" in which Kendall Taggart met with Attorney Errol Copilevitz who explained why he did not "think these bad charities should close".
The Southfield, Michigan-based Associated Community Services, which was then one of the "largest charity fundraisers" in the United States, was the focus of the November 14 Times/CIR article. In one year Associated Community Services marketers persuaded a 72-year-old retired secretary" "to write 25 checks to 11 different charities" including charities for "cancer patients, homeless veterans or disabled firefighters".[Notes 6]
As part of their Charity Investigator series, in a July 16, 2013 article, based on their 2011 IRS 990 filing, the Wounded Warrior Project spent only 11 percent of donations raised on professional solicitors’ campaigns compared to veterans' organizations that were included on Times/CIR list of America’s worst charities, such as The Veterans Fund at 65 percent, National Veterans Service Fund at 82 percent, Vietnow National Headquarters at 84 percent, Circle of Friends for American Veterans at 85 percent, Veterans Assistance Foundation at 89 percent, Our American Veterans at 89 percent, and Healing Heroes Network at 89 percent in 2012.[Notes 7]
According to a May 19, 2015 article in Reveal News, FTC officials said Children’s Cancer Fund "agreed to shut down and pay a total of $900,000 to be divided among the states to cover investigative costs and to help cancer patients." They are also "barred from operating a nonprofit and from soliciting contributions."
As part of the CIR/Times investigation, "data from regulators in more than 40 states" were collected from which reporters complied the "first national list of regulatory actions against charities". Prior to the existence of this list, there was no systematic way for charity regulators in one state to verify which charities and fundraisers had been banned in other states. They seamlessly moved their telemarketing or charity from one jurisdiction where they were banned to another, without being challenged.
In response to the CIR/Times report, in 2013 Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla) requested a review of charity regulators which resulted in a 66-page report by the government "watchdog"—United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). In their report published in July 2015, entitled "IRS Examination Selection: Internal Controls for Exempt Organization Selection Should Be Strengthened",[Notes 8] the United States Government Accountability Office "flagged" the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) "for failing to track how well its charity regulators are doing their jobs, according to a December 17, 2014 article by Times' journalists. Repeated budget cuts over the years had resulted in Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) shrinking workforce, and regulators expected even more cuts as a result of the December 2014 federal budget bill. The GAO report said that only "0.7 percent of the charities that file tax returns" were reviewed in contrast with "1 percent of individual taxpayers and 1.4 percent of corporations".
Adam Putnam, who is Florida's Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner, crafted two pieces of legislation—CS/SB 638 and CS/HB 629—intended to "prevent the misuse of Floridians' charitable contributions by cracking down on fraudulent and deceptive organizations.' in response to the CIR/Times series. By March 2014 this "comprehensive legislation had passed two of their three referenced committees.
- America's 50 worst charities rake in nearly $1 billion for corporate fundraisers originally published on June 6, 2013, was updated and republished on October 2, 2017.
- Others contributors to this article include Caryn Baird, a researcher at Tampa Bay Times, Connie Humburg—a computer-assisted reporting specialist, and Bill Higgins, a web developer Bill Higgins and David Fitzpatrick, a CNN senior producer. CNN joined the partnership in March 2012.
- According to a May 19, 2015 article in Reveal News, in March 2015(?), CNN joined with CIR and the Times in their investigation of America’s Worst Charities.
- In a February 16, 2016 Reveal article about Cancer Fund of America closing, the original 2013 article was quoted, "While Cancer Fund provides care packages that contain shampoo and toothbrushes, the people in charge have personally made millions of dollars and used donations as venture capital to build a charity empire. Less than 2 cents of every dollar raised has gone to direct cash aid for patients or families, records show. For years, Cancer Fund founder James T. Reynolds Sr. and his family have obscured that fact with accounting tricks, deceptive marketing campaigns and lies." CIR/Times listed it as the second most "wasteful" charity in the United States in 2013.
- According to Hundley and Taggart's report, "Copilevitz has won landmark First Amendment cases that have undercut government efforts to regulate sham charities and helped unleash an avalanche of junk mail and telemarketing calls on the American public. Thanks in part to Copilevitz, the government can’t limit how much charities spend on fundraising. And their for-profit solicitors don’t have to disclose how much they keep unless donors ask."
- Bill Schuette, then-Attorney General of Michigan "reached a $45,000 settlement" with Associated Community Services, "following complaints that the firm wrongly used the Attorney General Office’s name to convince senior citizens to provide their credit card information". In a May 2016 lawsuit filed by Minnesota's AG Lori Swanson, Associated Community Services was accused of "using deceptive statements and sending false pledge reminders to convince individuals, mostly senior citizens, to donate". According to Swanson as reported in a May 31, 2016 article in Detroit News, the Foundation for American Veterans, for example, paid ACS and its affiliates more than $27 million for its fundraising services from 2010 to 2016. Of that the telemarketer retained "85 percent of cash donations" while the Foundation for American Veterans spent "about 10 percent to help veterans".
- The Palm Harbor, Florida-based Healing Heroes Network founded in c.2008 by Dr. Allan Spiegel when he was serving on Kids Wish Network's board of directors. From 2009 through 2011, Spiegel hired Mark Breiner's marketing companies.
- The GAO July 2015 report said that there were "1.6 million tax-exempt organizations" and that regulatory oversight was not stringent enough in the "Exempt Organizations (EO) unit within the Tax Exempt and Government Entities (TE/GE) division at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)." For example, EO staff made decisions related to tax-exempt status and reviews without without seeking executive management approval.
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- Special report: Amid Newsroom Cutbacks Are 'Watchdogs' Still Awake? And Can Outsiders Fill the Gaps?
- California Watch Teams Up with KQED to Air Investigative Reports
- California Watch Says 'Yes' to Open, Networked Investigative Reports
- CIR's Rosenthal on Origins of California Watch: The Idea Was to Become Part of a New Media Model
- Non-Profit News Publisher Helps Readers Dig for Stories
- Can Newspaper Muckraking Carry On in Nonprofits?
- Center for Investigative Reporting website