POGO spends a lot of time with whistleblowers: protecting them, reporting on them, and helping them get their voices heard by the powers that be. But one thing we don't meditate on often is America's culture of whistleblowing. What makes an employee go against the grain, and blow the whistle in this country? Is it something in the water, or something in the blood?
These are the kinds of philosophical questions that Eyal Press, journalist and former Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, has sought to answer in his new book: Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. According to The New York Times, Press “splices his case studies with brief accounts of other dissenters, along with insights drawn from sociology, political theory, history, neuroscience, psychology, fiction and philosophy.”
Each of those topics deserves their own college course. So POGO caught up with Press and asked him instead about whistleblower traits, protections, and the recent effort by Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) to hang financial whistleblowers out to dry.
POGO: You have said that Americans’ relationship with whistleblowers is “schizophrenic”—on one hand the idea is romanticized, on the other we’re not likely to support real-life whistleblowers. Can you talk about this?
Eyal Press: Instead of schizophrenic, I would say that deeply ambivalent is a better description. On one hand, there is a kind of lore surrounding whistleblowers in American culture—we see it in Hollywood movies, and in the fact that Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience is taught in high schools. The idea of an individual standing up to institutional corruption really resonates with a lot of Americans.
On the other hand, when it comes to actually paying attention to whistleblowers and protecting their rights, the U.S. record is not so great. I think one way that can be changed is to increase awareness and knowledge of what whistleblowers do to make our democracy healthier. Healthy institutions and government agencies require the airing of alternative views, and the capacity for people on the inside who witness corruption and fraud to speak out about it. We can’t acquaint ourselves with the benefits if we don’t know the stories. The first part of is educational. The second part is political—we need better laws.
POGO: In demonstrating how whistleblowers are vital to saving U.S. taxpayer dollars and lives, is there a case in your book that particularly stands out?
EP: I have a section in my book about the BP disaster that caused immeasurable environmental damage and harm. Subsequent reporting by The New York Times and others revealed that workers on that rig were scared to air their worries about the dangers of an oil spill. In this case, these workers could have alerted regulators and Congress that this was a dangerous situation that would result in catastrophe. There has been repeated evidence that whistleblowers are an excellent and important source of information. But whistleblowers can only have an impact if people listen, and if the whistleblowers feel free to come forward without repercussions. That wasn’t the case with BP.
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POGO: In your opinion, are there special personal characteristics that make someone blow the whistle?
EP: I have to say that I can only answer that fully by referring people to my book. But of the studies I’ve read on the characteristics of whistleblowers, I’ve found that these are not people who set out to rock the boat—they are not, generally speaking, outspoken sixties radical types who have a tendency to dissent. On the contrary, they are people who believe strongly in the integrity of the company and the institution that they work for; and they are very wedded to the notion that integrity must be upheld. When they see the suspected misconduct, they feel they have to act because otherwise the company, hospital, government agency or whatever will be tarnished. They don’t want to see that happen.
POGO: What do you make of Rep. Grimm’s “Whistleblower Improvement Act?”
EP: There were some important positive things put into the Dodd-Frank Act for financial industry whistleblowers, and this bill does away with these protections. To me, it’s kind of astonishing that in the aftermath of the financial frauds that ruined the lives of thousands of Americans, cost them their savings, and contributed to the economic downturn in recent years, Congress would still try to strip whistleblower protections. It doesn’t surprise me, and I don’t think it’s a matter of ambivalence. I think a lot of industry groups fought the Dodd-Frank protections initially, and now want them done away with. It’s not surprising that they would push to weaken perspectives. I seriously doubt that if the actual details of this bill were widely understood, a majority of the Americans would say “yeah, this is great!” The problem is a lot of people don’t know that this is happening, and industry groups rely on that.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.