NWC Seminar on Whistleblowers and the Media available on C-SPAN

C-SPAN aired today’s National Whistleblowers Center (NWC) seminar on Whistleblowers, Lawyers and the Media. It is available on C-SPAN online. The seminar features insights about some of the most famous whistleblower cases in the media, and general comments about what whistleblowers should know before talking with the media. The panelists include Rich Bonin (a producer for 60 Minutes), Jim Popkin (formerly of NBC Nightly News and now with Seven Oaks Media Group), John Solomon (formerly of the Washington Post, the Washington Time, the AP, and now with the Center for Public Integrity) and Stephen M. Kohn (Executive Director of NWC). The seminar covered key strategies and laws for spotlighting whistleblowers in the media. Here is a photo of Rich Bonin and Stephen Kohn and the seminar:

Bonin and Kohn 20100401


For whistleblowers considering whether to go to the media or not, watching this seminar would be an excellent way to learn about issues one should consider. For example, these journalists have the impression that whistleblowers tend to be “persnickety” or “gruff.” After all, they reason, it is their unwillingness to go along with misconduct that makes them whistleblowers in the first place. While I might find this assessment to be a generalization, all whistleblowers should be mindful of how they come across so they can attenuate their presentation to a journalist. Showing a willingness to listen to the journalist’s questions, answering them directly, and avoiding interruption could go a long way to helping the journalist to bond to you and your cause. The panelists agree that for each story they do based on whistleblower information, their could be two or three times as many that they turn away.

Rich Bonin said that whistleblowers he has worked with are all motivated by altruism. Bonin said that whistleblowers still need to be prepared for a counterattack. If you are challenging rich or powerful interests, such as the government, they are going to use their resources to find damaging claims to make against you. “Being a whistleblower is never easy,” Bonin says, “but is has value.”

Because adversaries will go after whistleblowers with a fine-toothed comb, journalists need to do that too. They need to find what the other side will find, before they find it. Obviously, this is easier for the journalist if the whistleblower can just be open about what the other side might find or say. When blowing the whistle on the federal government, be mindful that agencies have access to personnel files, including background investigations of those with security clearances. While privacy laws generally prohibit release of this information, it is not unusual for information to leak out when agency heads want it to leak out. Whistleblowers suffer from social isolation after they blow the whistle. They are used to working on something important, and then they get ignored or shunned.

John Solomon of the Center for Public Integrity presented “Seven Principles for Working Together.” By understanding the difference between speaking “on” or “off” the record, or “on background,” whistleblowers can avoid misunderstandings about what the journalist will print. Journalists want facts, accurate and new facts. Whistleblowers need to expect that the journalist will check and verify facts before printing them. So, come to the table with facts, and with information about how to verify them.

Steve Kohn discussed how his firm won a whistleblower case against the Savannah nuclear weapons facility just by going to the media. At the time, there was no legal protection for whistleblowers in the nuclear weapons industry. When a hearing was called, attorney Michael Kohn decided to walk out without presenting any witnesses, on grounds that the rules for the hearing did not provide due process. Then, the Washington Post started with a page 3 story about hazards at the facility. Plant management overreacted and fired one of the witnesses. Then the Washington Post ran a page 1 story! That led to action by the Secretary of Energy, the Inspector General, and an order for reinstatement. This is a rare case, and whistleblowers cannot expect to see it repeated.

Jim Popkin of the Seven Oaks Media Group answered a question about how investigative journalists will be able to sustain themselves in this era of cutbacks. He mentioned a web page where members of the public can read about investigative projects and make contributions. Here is the link to the Knight News Challenge selection of Spot.us. When asked how to sustain a journalist’s interest in a story, Jim explained that sustaining interest is the job of advocates, not journalists. Journalists report what is new, and it is not their job to repeat it for the sake of obtaining a desired result. Whistleblowers need to have realistic expectations of what a journalist can do.

Michael Kohn reported on a case where media attention had an undesired effect. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he worked on a story about how the NRC had known about the risks of an air attack on nuclear power plants. Once the story got out, the concern became focused on the accessibility of information about these dangers. The result was that NRC removed information from its web pages, and the public lost an opportunity to access information that could hold officials accountable.

John Solomon is working through the Packard Media Group to encourage news editors and producers to accept the public responsibility to continue investigative journalism, and to recognize ways in which it can still be profitable, if it is done the right way. “It is such an important part of democracy,” he says.

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