Will the 2021 Whistleblower Appreciation Day Address the Elephant in the Room?
The term whistleblowers relates to those who disclose information about wrongdoing that otherwise would not be known. Most often, the activity resides in a twilight zone of definition somewhere between heroism and civil disobedience. This creates conflicting impulses in whistleblowers. By challenging and exposing transgressions by the powerful, they perform a vital public service, yet they are likely to face severe repercussions for their actions.
Originally, the term attached itself to law enforcement officials in the 19th century who used whistles to alert the public or fellow officials of wrongdoing. Today, a whistle still signals sports violations, but the physical whistle has disappeared and been replaced by sets of rules, laws and protections for those coming forward to expose wrongdoing. One of the best definitions of modern whistleblowers is offered by the National Whistleblowing Center as “someone who reports waste, fraud, abuse, corruption, or dangers to public health and safety to someone who is in the position to rectify the wrongdoing. A whistleblower typically works inside of the organization where the wrongdoing is taking place; however, being an agency or company ‘insider’ is not essential to serving as a whistleblower. What matters is that the individual discloses information about wrongdoing that otherwise would not be known.”
Whistleblowing in the United States was behind much of the reason for the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. This little-known history began in 1773 when Benjamin Franklin leaked a few letters to a Boston newspaper in what was called the Hutchinson Letters Affair. The letters, written several years earlier by Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, called for the abridgement of colonial rights. The incident increased tensions between the Massachusetts colonists and the British government prior to the American Revolution. As a result, the implementation of the 1773 Tea Act was met with resistance that culminated in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773.
The response of the British government to the publication of the letters served to turn Benjamin Franklin into a committed patriot. Five years later, in the Continental Congress, a resolution was unanimously passed on July 30, 1778, that stated “it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any person in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”
The first act of the Continental Congress regarding whistleblowing came in the 1777-78 case of two seamen, Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven. They accused Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy Esek Hopkins of torturing British prisoners of war. The Congress dismissed Hopkins and then agreed to cover the defense cost of the pair after Hopkins filed a libel suit against them under which they were imprisoned. Shaw and Marven were subsequently cleared in a jury trial.
* * *
In a different world or time, a whistleblower might be labeled a hero or heroine. But the public’s view of whistleblowers today, in 2021, seems mixed and negative. The views are evident in the various dictionary synonyms for whistleblower such as betrayer, canary, deep throat, fink, informant, informer, nark, rat, snitch, squealer, stool pigeon and tattler. For many, they are similar to that unpopular grade school tattletale or snitch.
It has not always been like this as the public’s view of whistleblowers has changed over time just as the subjects they were whistleblowing on have changed. One of the leading observers of the history of whistleblowers is political science professor Allison Stanger. In her book Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump (2019, Yale University Press) Stanger analyzes a range of whistleblowing episodes, from the corrupt Revolutionary War commodore Esek Hopkins to Edward Snowden and whistleblowing in the Trump administration.
While she reveals the centrality of whistleblowing to the health of American democracy, she also argues that the changing technology and increasing militarization, makes exposure of misconduct even more difficult. The difference in modern whistleblowing is emphasized by the overall division of her book into two parts: Part One is titled “From the Revolution to 9/11” and Part Two is titled “The Internet Age.” The first part of this history deals largely with the corruption of big business and treason against the government. The second part, beginning after 9/11 with the development of the Internet, deals less with corruption against the government but corruption by the government with chapters about secrecy, surveillance and Edward Snowden.
More than any whistleblower in history, the Snowden episode of revealing secrets of the NSA, represents the public’s mixed attitude towards whistleblowers who reveal secret, surveillance operations of the government. Many argue that he is a hero, and many argue that he is a traitor.
* * *
Like the mixed view of whistleblowers by the American public, Hollywood has also presented a mixed view of them over the years. Many of the earlier noir gangster films present the whistleblower as a mob snitch or rat intent on receiving some benefit from federal authorities for whistleblowing actions.
Certainly not all Hollywood whistleblowers are low-life characters and Hollywood has created a number of award-winning whistleblower films such as On the Waterfront (1954), All the President’s Men (1976), The China Syndrome(1979), The Firm (1993), Erin Brockovich (2000) and Michael Clayton (2007) among others. All of these involve the exposure of some form of corruption by a whistleblower coming forward. These power sources are based around important subjects like law firms, nuclear power stations, police departments, churches and labor unions.
Yet as important as the work of these Hollywood whistleblowers are, they always fall short of challenging and exposing the real “elephant in the room” in the form of the government narrative of reality carried forth by its lapdog in mainstream media. The closest films get to challenging government narrative is with independent filmmakers and genre of documentary films. The most successful and influential has been Michael Moore with his film 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11, the largest grossing documentary in history. The film examined America in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and record of the George W. Bush Administration and alleged links to Osama bin Laden. Another successful documentary filmmaker is conservative media pundit Dinesh D’Souza with films like Hilary’s America and Death of a Nation. Yet independent documentary films usually have limited distribution and suffer burning criticism from mainstream media labeling them little more than conspiracy films.
* * *
The United States Senate first recognized National Whistleblower Day in 2013. Each year since then, whistleblowers have been honored on July 30, the day in 1778 the first whistleblower law was passed by the Continental Congress. The day features panels discussed current aspects of whistleblowing as well as film festival with old and new films on whistleblowers. The event this year will be a virtual one.
This year’s event in 2021 is unique in that there will be a grand “elephant in the room” that involves the largest whistleblowing event in history including a massive government narrative and thousands of whistleblowers who challenge this narrative. We’re talking about the government narrative about the Covid pandemic and the whistleblowers in the medical and scientific profession who have come forward to present an alternative narrative to challenge this narrative. The pandemic has brought the “elephant in the room” government narrative of events to the forefront more than at any time in history.
Whistleblowing Appreciation Day of 2021 has the potential to address this “elephant in the room” and inaugurate a new post-pandemic era of whistleblowing. The conference this year might have great whistleblower films and panels but overall, it will miss a huge opportunity to begin a new era of whistleblowing if it doesn’t address a number of questions on millions of minds. One of these questions is whether there has been corruption and lies in the creation of the government narrative about the pandemic. Is the virus origination story untrue and fabricated? Have false statistics and data about the virus been presented to the American people? Are vaccinations for Covid needed? Are they safe? Or are they a method for population control? Is the pandemic related to what is termed the great “reset?” Have lockdowns been necessary? Are the whistleblowers in the medical and scientific profession to be believed?
The government does not want the alternative narratives of the pandemic to be believed and have defined many of the pandemic whistleblowers with their dismissive label of “conspiracy theorists.” Interestingly, while conspiracy theorists and whistleblowers are two different groups, the dynamics between them are fluid and often whistleblowers merge into conspiracy theorists. This change from whistleblower to conspiracy theorist is starkly evident in the current pandemic where widely respected doctors and scientists are given the name of conspiracy theorists and their alternative views of the pandemic labeled conspiracy theories.
Now, in the second year of the pandemic, the ranks of medical and scientific whistleblowers offering alternative views of virus and vaccinations has created the greatest whistleblower outbreak in American history. Unlike the typical whistleblower situation where one a few individuals come forward, medical and scientific whistleblowers related to the pandemic now number into the thousands not just in America but around the world.
* * *
A few months before the annual Whistleblowers Appreciation Day of July 29, topics for the panels are still being determined but a list of Hollywood whistleblower films has already been chosen for the Film Festival. The title of the festival this year is “Celluloid Justice: The Greatest Whistleblower Films Ever Conceived.” There are five films featured: Serpico (1973), Silkwood (1983), Chasing Madoff (2010), Spotlight (2015) and Mark Felt (2017). In addition to these films, the festival is accepting new films on whistleblowing from independent filmmakers.
Most of these are well-known and highly awarded about important whistleblowing topics like corruption in the police, the nuclear power industry, financial advisors, the church and a political scandal. As we mentioned with the Hollywood whistleblowing films we listed before, all of these films focus on important areas of corruption, but none attack the corruption of a government narrative about a major event like the pandemic. Perhaps this will be the topic of some of the films from independent filmmakers that have been submitted to this year’s festival. Like the topics for this year’s panels, it remains to be seen if any of these films will deal with the big elephant in the room regarding corruption and lies in the government narrative of the pandemic.
As Allison Stanger notes in her important book Whistleblowers, the history of whistleblowing in America has played a central role in creating a healthy American democracy. They have done this by attacking the greatest corruption of their times. Important Hollywood films have been made about this corruption and the whistleblowers who exposed it. But as she observes in the second part of her book, the Internet and increasing technology has created a new era and need for a new type of whistleblower.
Will this new tye of whistleblower come forward? The 2021 Whistleblower Appreciate Day is a good place for this new type of whistleblower to appear. One hopes this will happen yet maintains a cautionary, wait-see attitude about the whole thing. Whistleblowing started as showing corruption towards the federal government but in the Internet age of surveillance and secrecy it has evolved more and more into showing government corruption. While it is good that a national Whistleblower Appreciation Day has been created, it is wise to remember that this day has been created by the government. Are whistleblowers increasingly considered enemies of the govfernment? A 2,500 year old saying from the Chinese philosopher Sun-tzu comes to mind. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Sign up to attend this year’s virtual Whistleblowers Appreciation Day.
National Whistleblowers Center
1201 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite #624
Washington, DC 20035
National Whistleblower Legal Defense Fund
1800 M Street, NW #33888
Washington, DC 20033
National Whistleblower Day
1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite #624
Washington, DC 20036
The Whistleblower’s Film Festival
Front Line Whistleblower News
1800 M Street, NW # 33888
Washington, DC 20033
Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa)
135 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510