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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Hey, Economist! Don’t Equate Whistleblowing with "Snitching"

Dylan Blaylock, July 08, 2011

So this article from The Economist starts out with this line:

SNITCHING on your bosses' dodgy doings has never been more rewarding.

You should really watch that, Economist. Using "snitches" really sets the tone of the article by equating whistleblowers with an unfair, negative term that (fortunately) has become less and less synonymous with whistleblowers over the past decades.

Quick history lesson: the phenomenon of whistleblowers really grabbed hold of this country in the 1970s. Ernie Fitzgerald (Department of Defense whistleblower), Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers whistleblower), Frank Serpico (NYC police corruption whistleblower) – these individuals were chastised at the time for their disclosures from many sides, namely those people they blew the whistle on. Retaliation and threats ran rampant. Ellsberg was labeled a traitor, and some even called for his execution. (In fact, last year, Republican Congressman Mike Rogers of Michigan wouldn't rule out his support of executing Ellsberg back in the day.)

Frank Serpico, of course, was shot for his actions trying to expose corrupt activities. Both he and Ellsberg spoke at GAP's Anyone Can Whistle event last year, btw.

Whistleblowers, then and now, face resentment from superiors and coworkers for exposing the truth. For actually being brave enough to stand up and report wrongdoing that affects the public interest (including high-level financial skullduggery).

And do you know what the easiest, cheap shot way to combat a whistleblower is? Call them negative terms that anyone can understand, despite the falsity of them. Call them rats, finks, or snitches. Even though whistleblowers speak for the public to uncover wrongdoing, fraud, corruption, waste, abuse, or a litany of other actions that hurt our economy and democracy.

The Economist is specifically talking about the new SEC rule that allows for financial whistleblowers to be rewarded for providing information about corrupt activities that leads to fines of $1 million or more. It's a good program, and of course, businesses hated it, and tried for months to make it so that the whistleblowers would first have to report wrongdoing internally – potentially to their corrupt superiors. This, of course, would allow the company time to cover its tracks and smear the whistleblower. The SEC made a good decision.

It should be mentioned that the author does bring some good notions about whistleblowers up, specifically how, regarding a decision involving Boeing whistleblowers that limited their protection since they went to the press, overseeing enforcement agencies "sometimes fail to act on complaints promptly or thoroughly, and it takes pressure from the news media to jolt them into action." And that's an important point.

One other aspect of the article should be mentioned, however, and disputed. The ending:

Company bosses, on the other hand, fear what would happen if the courts or Congress extended whistleblower protection to anyone who went telling tales to the press: not only would they be tied up in countless lawsuits; they would suffer having all sorts of confidential information dragged out into public view.

"Telling tales" to the press? No whistleblower protections would cover anyone who knowingly lied to the media. Potential slander is not trumped by whistleblower protection. Speaking the truth against your company is a difficult thing to do, and to insinuate that a decent amount of whistleblowers are liars is flat out wrong. And tied up in "countless lawsuits?" If there's that much dirty laundry at a company, and that much wrongdoing is taking place, shouldn't they be in court all the time?

But I digress. To reiterate to the Economist: Please don't brand whistleblowers as snitches and keep an unfair stereotype alive at the expense of people who bring out the truth. Basically, it's a method of diminishing people who are essential to a functioning democracy.

This post originally appeared at On News. Dylan Blaylock is Communications Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.