Recently, whistle-blowers converged for their first ever conference in the capital. The festivities celebrated the evolution of whistle-blowing from a solitary act-of-conscience to a veritable subculture. New Republic editor Eve Fairbanks brings us news from the front lines of informing.
AMY EDDINGS: Woodward and Bernstein may have remained shoe-leather metro reporters were it not for their man on the inside, Deep Throat. The portrayal of Deep Throat in All the President's Men sums up the whistleblower in popular culture, a lone and lonely middleman in the shadows, compelled by his conscience to expose the truth. Jeffrey Wigand, whistleblower against Big Tobacco, and Karen Silkwood, who blew the whistle on the nuclear industry, round out the portrait.
What to make then of the first Whistleblowers' Conference, a weeklong gathering of whistleblowers held a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C? The occasion was ostensibly to urge the Senate to renew a stalled federal whistleblower protection act. But Eve Fairbanks, an assistant editor for The New Republic, attended the conference and reports a newfound sense of community might be the real news from the front lines of informing. Eve, welcome to the show. EVE FAIRBANKS: Thank you. AMY EDDINGS: Can you set the scene for us? What did this gathering consist of, and who attended? EVE FAIRBANKS: It was the fifth anniversary of the passage of a bill called No Fear, in 2002, which extended whistleblower protections, and they were sort of celebrating that. And they had a ton of events. It was all sort of organized by some of these whistle-blowing advocacy groups. I didn't even know that there really was such a thing, but there are about 40 groups which, at least in part, handle finding lawyers for whistleblowers, tips, finding them therapists and all that kind of thing.
And they organized this conference, and they had like a kick-off reception on a Monday night. There were the sort of heroes - Jeffrey Wigand, along with a couple of female Enron whistleblowers. They screened Jeffrey Wigand's movie, The Insider.
But then there were also people there who, as recently as a year ago, had not even understood that their issues or claims or problems with their institutions fell under any kind of label of whistleblowing, and they were sort of brought into this whole tent. So from the small to the large, I guess. AMY EDDINGS: You imply in your article that staring down your employer and risking your livelihood is a defining experience for whistleblowers, and those who do it once are more inclined to do it again. Are there serial whistleblowers? EVE FAIRBANKS: Many people that I met at this convention are what you could call serial whistleblowers. There is a guy that I met named Joe Carson who was very proud of the fact. He introduced himself as “the dean of federal whistleblowers.” And his business card actually said that he was a prevailing whistleblower. He blew the whistle eight times, I think, at the Department of Energy; he's still employed there.
There is a guy who heads a V.A. Whistleblowers Coalition whose blown it I don't know how many times. And an element of this is that often the first time you blow the whistle can be very extreme. And then you have that experience, smaller and smaller things you can want to blow the whistle on, like some mismanagement in the institution, maybe things that a different type of person would put up with, but that becomes an opportunity for you to blow the whistle. AMY EDDINGS: One of the panel discussions was Whistleblowers and the Press, and another was the ABC’s of a Successful Whistleblower Case. What advice was given about how best to frame a whistleblower case for the press? EVE FAIRBANKS: They gave a lot of advice about how to deal with reporters, and the idea that reporters are, obviously, very interested in whistleblowers because there's a real symbiotic relationship. A lot of what reporters are trying to find, ones who work in politics, for example, is the testimony of whistleblowers, that they then can bring that into the press.
And, likewise, the message was that whistleblowers need to use and learn how to use reporters because frequently institutionally there's not a lot of protection. And so the best way to get yourself out of being persecuted is for your case to blow open.
So they told people to not be too suspicious of reporters, but also not be too persistent. Frequently your whistleblowing case becomes the center of your life, and it's hard to understand that someone else wouldn't be as totally occupied and fascinated by it.
So, you know, don't leave a billion messages. If the person [LAUGHS] wants to call you back, they will. AMY EDDINGS: As you've mentioned, there are a number of advocacy groups that support whistleblowers or people who are contemplating coming forward. But you say that these groups not only assist whistleblowers, they also tend to vet whistleblowers, acting as a kind of filter for the larger cause. Can you explain? EVE FAIRBANKS: I talked to a guy who works for the National Whistleblower Center, but all the groups do this. They really want to make sure that you're, you know, ready to expose real wrongdoing.
I think also there is some inclination, obviously, among these groups to pursue cases that are going to be sexy for the moment, like right now a justice case. A little while back in '05, a FEMA case would have been important. National security cases - Halliburton - always, just because - has more likelihood of turning into something national!
You know, obviously this can also become a point of resentment among some whistleblowers. You know, if you're at the Department of the Interior with a small kind of grievance, that could be a tremendous thing for you and your life, and difficult for you to expose, but in the grand scheme of this administration it's just - it probably doesn't get the spotlight. AMY EDDINGS: So Eve, when are you going to be writing a story about a whistleblower blowing the whistle on these whistleblower advocacy groups? EVE FAIRBANKS: There are a few whistleblowers that I met, just randomly, who feel that some of the big whistle-blowing advocacy groups actually exploit whistleblowers, because their focus is more on, I guess, helping the individual whistleblowers and so forth than on reforming the government organization that's supposed to protect people who do this. And the conspiracy theory is that these advocacy groups would have no business if the government really treated whistleblowers well.
It's sad. I mean, it's just that, to me, proved that maybe there is a whistleblower personality; you even blow the whistle on your own advocacy groups. AMY EDDINGS: Eve, thanks so much for joining us. EVE FAIRBANKS: Thanks. AMY EDDINGS: Eve Fairbanks is an assistant editor at The New Republic. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]