Remembering Ron

The Whistleblower Paradox by Randy Fertel

We remember Ron Ridenhour's heroic life as both a whistleblower and an investigative reporter, and we honor those who pursue truth in the relentless way that Ron did.

The paradox of whistleblowers is this: They are thought of as heroes and treated as villains. Speaking truth to power, whistleblowers are crucial to the health of a free society and inevitably troublesome to the powerful. In a democracy, whistleblowing is one of the unlegislated checks and balances. Or, if investigative journalism serves an open society as a fourth estate, watchdogging the activities of the other three, then whistleblowers are a kind of fifth estate. They help to make organizations accountable and individuals responsible for their actions. Corporations and public servants can do nefarious things behind closed doors, but they never know who in their ranks will feel ill at ease enough to come forward and make wrongdoing public.

One half to two-thirds of all whistleblowers lose their jobs. They often lose their colleagues and friends; they sometimes lose their families. But the greatest shock, as one commentator writes, is learning that nothing he or she believed is true. That an open society is open. That our neighbors and colleagues care about truth. That our friends and family will be loyal. We need to believe these things. The whistleblower learns they are not always so.

Government bureaucracies and corporations are hierarchical, not democratic. Your immediate superior and those above you often have limited tolerance for dissent. Bosses and owners often have more dedication to the longevity and profitability of their organizations than they do to the public welfare.

"Doublethink," George Orwell's term, here comes into play. The psychological phenomenon behind it is called doubling. Say you are a mid-level functionary in a bureaucracy or corporation and you possess some truth that you know does not conform to your institution's or your boss's agenda. Doubling, splitting yourself into two, means you can hold true to your personal morality while maintaining a separate public or institutional morality. At home, you would never think to lie or to withhold truths that could injure your family. On the job, telling the truth may hurt not only your boss but your institution and therefore your livelihood and the health and safety of your family.

In such situations it's helpful to be able to hold contradictory positions, to separate out your different selves or different lives. You can be a good person even while you do things that aren't so good.

Doubling allows you to follow orders or to go along with the herd while imagining yourself a moral individual. But whistleblowers can't manage to double or split themselves. Whistleblowers personify philosopher Hannah Arendt's idea of the heroic in men and women—people who talk seriously with themselves about what they are doing. Thoughtful people. People who cannot double. Ron and men and women like him carry on a conversation between the parts of their lives, professional and personal, heart and head and conscience. They can't not tell the truth. They feel a compulsion to do the right thing. They often speak of it this way:

"I had to do it; I couldn't live with myself if I didn't speak up. They can't not choose to abide by their conscience."

The trouble is, blowing the whistle usually separates whistleblowers from their former lives. Ron Ridenhour found himself along with Dan Ellsberg on Nixon's enemies list. Organizations, constrained by law not to fire or otherwise retaliate against whistleblowers, nonetheless find a way of doing so. A nuclear scientist who has blown the whistle suddenly finds herself assigned to making copies or emptying wastebaskets. Then her office is moved to a broom closet. For the first time, her efficiency reports are negative, and she is passed over for her long-awaited promotion. Eventually she may be fired for not doing a good job of emptying wastepaper baskets, or her position may be downsized. The law prevents explicit retaliation, but there are lots of ways to get around it. Lawsuits that whistleblowers file to regain their jobs are expensive and rarely successful. Protected by law, lionized by our "individualistic" society, whistleblowers often end up underemployed and alone. Near the end of his life, Ron—an investigative reporter par excellence—did personality profiles for People magazine, because he needed the money.

Even language reveals this truth. In German, there is no strict translation of the metaphor we use, someone who blows a whistle. Instead they employ the English word. I learned this from Dan Ellsberg (our first Ridenhour Courage Prize winner) who received a "Whistleblower Prize" last year from the Association of German Scientists. Dan pressed his hosts for the German words that were the nearest equivalents, and the German scientists hesitantly pronounced them: Verräter, "traitor" or Petzer, "tattle-tale."

While free societies see the need to acknowledge the heroic service of whistleblowers, suggested by the number of laws that seek to protect them, at the same time these societies retain evident ambivalence. Whistleblowing protection tends to rely on strong laws and policies, combined with weak implementation.

Tom Devine who heads the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a whistleblower support group which helps administer the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize, calls token whistleblower protection laws "cardboard shields" because, he writes, "anyone relying on them is sure to die professionally." Devine asserts such laws are "counterproductive." He adds, "Employees have risked retaliation thinking they had genuine protection, when there was no realistic chance they could maintain their careers. In those instances, acting on rights contained in whistleblower laws has meant the near-certainty that a legal forum would formally endorse the retaliation, leaving the careers of reprisal victims far more prejudiced than if no whistleblower protection law had been in place at all."

My message is two fold and contradictory: First, if ever someone you know and love is tempted to plant himself upon his conscience and become a whistleblower, do everything in your power to stop him or her, as Ron Ridenhour used to do in his career as an investigative reporter. Ron was not just a reporter but a former whistleblower himself. He knew what would happen to his source and he would warn them: your enemies are going to make your life miserable. Do this only if you feel you have to, and do it with open eyes knowing how little good may come of it, how powerless in the end we are to stop corruption, and how rough it may get for you.

My second message contradicts the first: we must do everything we can to support whistleblowers and their compulsion to do the right thing. Open societies must encourage whistleblowing, not with cardboard shields but with defenses that provide meaningful protection. Anyone who knew Ron Ridenhour sensed in his presence and voice his great pride in doing the right thing. Each of our Ridenhour winners conveys that same feeling. And I hope that this public recognition of their courage to speak the truth gives them greater confidence that it has been worth all the trouble.