Last week saw the fifth stop of GAP’s American Whistleblower Tour take place. And the moving, two-day event – hosted by Florida International University (FIU) – packed auditoriums and classrooms, to the point that there is now talk of an academic course on whistleblowing being launched there.
Altogether, including the three major panel discussions and multiple classroom visits, this stop was able to communicate our message of whistleblower importance to an estimated 900 students, faculty staff, and members of the public.
This particular Tour stop focused on the vital relationship between journalists and whistleblowers in protecting the public interest. The star-studded event featured noted journalists Lowell Bergman, Mark Feldstein, and Carol Marbin Miller, and prominent whistleblowers Frank Casey (Madoff Ponzi scheme) and Dr. Jon Oberg (Education Department), along with GAP President Louis Clark and FIU law professor Howard Wasserman.
The two-day event kicked off at FIU’s main campus with a screening of “Smoke in the Eye,” the PBS Frontline documentary examining how CBS executives blocked the airing of a “60 Minutes” investigation on the tobacco industry. The film features former “60 Minutes” producer Bergman and former Brown & Williamson executive Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on the tobacco company’s calculated efforts to increase the addictive properties of their products. Bergman and Wigand’s story, of course, was the basis for the highly praised movie, The Insider. After the documentary, Bergman, Wasserman and Feldstein joined GAP’s Clark in a riveting panel discussion on whistleblowing, investigative journalism, and corporate influence on media.
During the hour-long presentation (with more than two-hundred students in attendance), the panelists focused on the legal, ethical, and practical issues faced by whistleblower and reporters in pursuing the truth and getting out news that is of great public interest. Highlights included:
- Bergman discussing the time-intensive nature of developing trusting relationships with whistleblowers, noting that he spent two years interviewing Wigand and investigating his claims before the “60 Minutes” segment was filmed.
- Feldstein remarked that due to the resource-intensive nature of investigative reporting, this field is often the hardest hit by the decline in print journalism. He implored to the audience of journalism students that the future of muckraking and investigative journalism depends on young, energetic future journalists.
- Wasserman discussed the First Amendment legal rights of both journalists and whistleblowers to speak out about issues concerning the public interest, and how these rights can be constrained by confidentiality agreements.
When Bergman was asked if self-censorship in the news industry has gotten worse or better since 1996 (when “Smoke in the Eye” aired). In response, Bergman stated that, unfortunately, it is likely that news outlets bow to corporate interests just as often today. The good news, however, is that he stated the Internet offers new possibilities for journalists to reach wide audiences – even if these possibilities have not been fully realized yet.
The panel concluded with rousing questions from students, who were particularly interested in the conflict of confidentiality agreements and the public’s right to know about issues of great importance to public health. One student asked, “Given the great challenges facing investigative journalism today, should I still pursue a career as a journalist?” Feldstein responded, “Absolutely.”
In the evening, Feldstein headed over to the Biscayne Bay Campus to discuss his new and highly acclaimed book, Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture. The event, which drew over two-hundred students, was a public interview with journalism professor Dr. Fred Blevens, focusing on the Nixon White House’s attacks on the media and Jack Anderson’s unconventional investigative reporting tactics.
The next day, the speakers hit the ground running with morning classroom presentations at both FIU campuses. Dr. Oberg delivered a wonderful class presentation to students at the College of Law on the main campus. Meanwhile, Feldstein joined Dr. Blevens for a capstone multimedia class in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the Biscayne Bay Campus. Following this presentation, Feldstein delivered a lecture to an overflowing room of over two hundred students as part of the Hearst Distinguished Lecture Series.
In the afternoon, Oberg joined Frank Casey and Carol Marbin Miller for the final panel discussion of the event. Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Dr. Raul Reis, and Dr. Blevens introduced the presentation. Through the presentation, which drew over three hundred students, both whistleblowers discussed their decision-making processes and the ethical issues that drove them to blow the whistle. Both Dr. Oberg and Casey came across the issue of massive fraud – perpetrated by student lenders and Bernie Madoff, respectively – during the course of performing their job duties. Since it was not under either of their job responsibilities to pursue these matters, both men investigated the issues in their free time over a number of years. Dr. Oberg emphasized that as a Navy officer, he had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and the law, and this oath guided him as he sought to save the taxpayers billions of dollars by stopping illegal payments to student loan companies. Casey echoed the importance of the oath, which he had taken in the US Army. Casey also emphasized the relentless persistence of Harry Markopolos, who blew the whistle to the SEC with Casey on Madoff’s Ponzi scheme for nine years.
Turning to journalism, Casey remarked on the importance of investigative financial journalism in drawing public attention to the Madoff scandal. Dr. Oberg related how he worked with the New York Times as an anonymous source for a time, before agreeing to be publicly named as a source for a front page story. Miller emphasized the importance of anonymous sources coming out in the open for the credibility of the story, and also acknowledged the huge amount of personal and professional risk whistleblowers face in doing so. She also detailed how corporate interests have tried to discourage her sources from speaking out, in hopes of killing a damaging story. She stated, “These people will never miss an opportunity to try everything they can do to intimidate you.”
Our tour is really connecting with the public. We at GAP are grateful to the heroic speakers who stand up for the truth, protect the public interest, and showcase why whistleblowers are essential to our democracy.
Special thanks to the FIU School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the School of Accounting, College of Law, School of International & Public Affairs and the Honors College – who generated interest and discussion around the issue of whistleblowing by promoting the Tour stop, and helped us organize the most events related to a single stop thus far!
Heather Hoffman is American Whistleblower Tour Coordinator for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.