What It Takes to Be a Whistleblower
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I scribbled the instructions in my notepad as fast as the strange man with the faint twang could give them: Ride the DC Metro red line out to the final stop. Walk to the commuter lot. Wait there. Look for a black Cadillac.
It was my first encounter with a real-life whistleblower, a man I’ll call Roger. He had read my Mother Jones reporting in 2009 on the subprime mortgage crisis -- so he told me in an early email exchange -- and wanted to discuss some documents that had come into his possession. "This is a huge story, Andrew, and you're gonna blow it open." He always called me Andrew. (My parents don't call me Andrew.)
Half a dozen emails and phone calls later, I was sitting shotgun in Roger's car as we zipped through leafy suburban Maryland, and later holed up in his apartment. It was unnervingly clean, like the model unit that no one lives in. Instead of the usual socks and pants and shirts, his dressers overflowed with papers and cassette tapes. I spent hours riffling through those papers while picking at fried chicken and guzzling bottles of iced tea. Roger never ran out of iced tea.
He could be difficult and exhausting. He called at odd times and talked for hours. He described conspiracies against him, the mounting legal bills he'd incurred for taking on The Man. He also had a big heart, and his documents and his contacts helped me write one of my biggest stories.
Journalists wouldn't be able to do their jobs without whistleblowers. Theirs is the lone voice emerging from the din, the one that tips us off, gets us started, delivers the key documents, provides an insider's view of an otherwise unknown world.
Whistleblowers and those who act against the injustices of a system from the inside don’t have to be perfect souls (and they rarely are) for us to celebrate them -- as Eyal Press makes clear. In his moving (and well reviewed) new book, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, he paints remarkable portraits of four people -- a Swiss police captain who saves Jewish refugees against orders, a Serb who defies his superiors to save Croats, an elite Israeli soldier who refuses to serve in the occupied territories, and a corporate whistleblower named Leyla Wydler who captures the strangeness of whistleblowing here in the U.S. in a moment when, it seems, celebration isn’t the first thing on official Washington’s mind. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Press discusses the treatment of American whistleblowers, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)
Editor's note: You can read Eyal Press's story on AlterNet here.