How to blow whistles for fun and profit

Most stories about whistleblowers make them seem miserable. For example, the 1973 movie Serpico told the true story of Frank Serpico who went undercover to expose corrupt police. For his efforts, he got shot. This episode of Australian Story tells a similar tale: “When Australian Story first met young Detective Sergeant Simon Illingworth, he’d taken a brave stand against crooked colleagues and was paying a terrible price. He’d been bashed, isolated and threatened by police connected to Victoria’s notorious Gangland Wars. His personal life was non-existent and he was he says ‘Victoria’s most ineligible bachelor’. But for Simon Illingworth, speaking out was a ‘game-changer’. He unveils his unlikely new life, as a farmer in regional Victoria…”

I expect that the primary reason that whistleblowers rarely go on to happiness is that happiness is primarily measured by the quality of your connections, and when you blow the whistle on your peer group, you lose them for life. Life usually requires a group strategy, a sense of us vs them.

My father was a whistleblower of sorts, he blew the whistle on the Seventh-Day Adventist church’s essential doctrine, and as a result, his last 49 years were lonely and sad.

William G. Johnsson wrote the most perceptive analysis of my dad’s story under the headline ‘Des Ford: The Perils of Being Right’:

We became friends, more on the intellectual level than the emotional. Des did not open himself to others….The format for discussion was always the same: Des would say, “Let’s walk,” and we’d head for the hills, he striding out briskly, I panting to keep up. He did most of the talking…

On the Sabbath afternoon after the Glacier View conference ended, several of us went walking together. We fell in with Des and his wife Gillian. Gill was upset, urging Des to form his own ministry where he would, she said, get the respect he deserved. Des seemed unsure what to do. Along with others in the small group, I strongly urged him to stay with the church…

If Des had chosen to start a new church, he would, I think have attracted a large following of Adventists in the South Pacific, America, and Canada…

Des Ford is an Australian tragedy. You can’t begin to grasp the dynamics of his love-hate relationship with the Adventist church in the South Pacific without factoring in the culture. Australian culture lacks niceties, nuances, subtleties. Theology and politics reduce issues to distinctions of black and white. Australians tend to be suspicious of shades of grey. Election campaigns are a no-holds-barred, slam-bang brawl, lasting only a short time.

Des Ford was a child of the culture. By both temperament and environment his proclamation, whether oral or written, fell naturally into a debate, either/or mode. His clear proclamation of the gospel helped thousands to find peace and hope; inevitably it generated “concerned brethren” (their name) who bitterly opposed him.

Des Ford is an Adventist tragedy. This man of charisma, unmatched in debate — could not Adventism have found a place to accommodate his many gifts? As the years went by and Des passed into his 80s, I kept waiting and praying that at long last I would learn of a reconciliation. Des needed it; no less did the Adventist church, especially in Australia. He trained a generation of ministers and teachers; after he left the ministry hundreds of former students gave up on Adventism. The church in the South Pacific suffers from a deep, unhealed wound.

I need to make one thing clear: in my judgment, the blame doesn’t lie wholly with church leaders. Reconciliation requires action from both sides, from both parties. Des was so sure that he was right that he made reconciliation very difficult.

Margit Heppenstall, wife of Dr. Edward Heppenstall, Des’ mentor, shared a revealing vignette with Noelene and me when we visited them in their retirement home at Carmel, California. She related a conversation that went as follows when Des and Gill stayed at their home:

Margit: “The trouble with you, Des, is that you are always right.”

Des: “No, I am not always right — except in matters of theology!”

If my father could not set the terms of engagement, he was not usually interested in engaging with others. He was not a good listeners. He was more adept at preaching, even in private conversation.

To blow the whistle on a matter of theology is to enter a world of subjectivity (as theology depends upon faith).

I would assume that most whistleblowers are low in the personality trait of Agreeableness.

How can one blow whistles for fun and profit? You would need to have an accurate sense of yourself, which is difficult as most of us have an exaggerated sense of our own importance and goodness. Perhaps the key question to ask in such circumstances would be — how will this look like to most people? Will they support what am I doing? The way to get ahead in life is to enlist other people as allies. So can you blow whistles in a way that will enlist valuable allies? Many of the women who’ve blown whistles for the #MeToo movement have probably benefited. If they had tried to pull this in the 1950s, it would not have gone off as well.

Prior to the 1960s, having the status of a victim was shameful. After the 1960s, it became a badge of honor.

The desire to get the respect you feel you deserve usually leads people to part from their group and to start their own group on their own terms. It usually does not work out well. Most people feel that they deserve more respect than they’re getting because they have an exaggerated sense of their own importance and righteousness.

To blow the whistle in a way that enhances your life would require a clear perspective on wider trends around you and how you will be perceived by outsiders. For everything there is a season under heaven.

I’d expect that people with a strong internal compass, people who are self-validating, are better suited to whistleblowing than those who depend on others to tell them who they are. For example, when I enjoy reading a piece I’ve written, I know it is good. When I enjoy watching a video I’ve made, I know it is good. I don’t need anyone else to back up my opinion.

If you can get paid sizable amounts of money for blowing the whistle, that makes the option more appealing.

The Washington Post reported in 2017:

To begin with, whistleblowers must have a healthy understanding of what they’re getting into. The consequences of blowing the whistle shouldn’t be underestimated, said Carney Shegerian, a Santa Monica, Calif., lawyer who has represented whistleblower clients in court. He cited one client who spoke out about safety concerns with his company’s production process. As a result, Shegerian said, the man went through a long stretch of unemployment, lost his home, and had to move in with friends. “It’s just a living hell,” he said.

U.S. gymnasts always knew what would be in store if they aired dirty laundry, Moceanu said. “They could use it against you at a later time. If someone were to speak up, their Olympic dream could be hanging in the balance,” she said. And in fact, when Moceanu went public about the abuse she’d seen and experienced, she was ostracized from the gymnastics community and lost friendships and lucrative endorsement opportunities. “I’ve kind of been that outlier every time, going to gymnastics events and having people give me the awkward eye,” Moceanu said.

A whistle-blower’s belief in the rightness of his or her action must be strong enough to overcome the hazards of speaking out. In a recent Boston College study, researchers asked people questions to gauge their moral priorities. People who valued fairness above loyalty were more likely to say they would blow the whistle on someone who committed a crime. “A lot of it comes down to their ability to hold on to a set of principles in the face of countervailing social information,” said Zeno Franco, a psychologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “That’s a very tough call. Most of us don’t want to be in the out-group.”

Franco is an expert in the study of heroism. Like others in his field, he regards whistleblowers as members of a category called “social heroes,” who typically make some kind of personal sacrifice on behalf of the greater good. (Other categories include military heroes, who show bravery that surpasses the call of duty, and civilian heroes, everyday people who risk their lives for others — running into a burning house to save a child, for instance.)

Whistleblowers are typically also comfortable with a certain degree of nonconformity. Sometimes that’s because they feel secure in their professional roles: Moceanu felt freer to speak out once she had retired from her sport and her income no longer depended on her gymnastics ability. Ohio State University studies have found that whistleblowers are more likely to be male, have high status, and have a long work history — which makes the sacrifices of less powerful whistleblowers even more notable by comparison. Situational factors matter, too. People tend to blow the whistle more when their organization is known for addressing problems effectively.

What most distinguishes whistleblowers from bystanders, though, may be their ability to stick to their principles when they’re under extreme pressure in the moment.

Many whistleblowers are shocked when people they had relied on for support back away. So to successfully navigate such a situation, you need to be able to read other people accurately and to understand what incentives will operate on them in the changed circumstance. For example, when I started blogging about Dennis Prager in late 1997, I lost all friends I had in common with Dennis. I was prepared to lose almost all of my friends in Los Angeles if necessary as I made this painful turning point in my life away from following and towards blazing my own trail. I was devastated when I went through this, I entered weekly therapy for most of the next 15 years, but I knew I had the stuff to make it and form new friends.

What are some primate parallels? Let’s look at whistleblowing as a move for increased status. If you are #17 in the status hierarchy in your group of warrior apes, you won’t have the stuff to knock off any of the top ten apes on your own, but you can join forces with others to replace the alpha ape, and as a result of such a successful coup, you’ll likely raise your own status as long as you are a loyal follower of the new rulers. On the other hand, if you just launch out against your whole group, you’ll be crushed. That seems like a good model for whistleblowing. Assemble allies and present your actions in the guise of the public interest. If you do something controversial and unprecedented, make sure you it will be widely seen as in the best interests of the group.

When I outed Marc Wallice as the likely Patient Zero of the porn-HIV outbreak of 1996-1998, I was not a part of the porn industry, so I could handle the negative blowback from the powers that be. At the same time, I needed to maintain access to some of the porners I was writing about, and I was sure that my actions would be widely seen as in the group interest (though not necessarily in the interests of certain power centers). From 1998 to 2007, I was best known in porn as the guy who blew the whistle on the guy who was transmitting HIV to a dozen or more porn girls and to unsafe industry practices that facilitated such spread. On the other hand, if I became known as the guy who broke the code and as a result the industry was banned in California, I would have had to leave town.

When I later broke stories about Orthodox rabbis committing sexual abuse, I knew I could count on wide support in Orthodox Jewish life in Los Angeles because such Jews would see this reporting as in their group interest. When I published in 2009 a list of five Orthodox rabbis who were converts to Judaism, I knew that some of these rabbis would take offense, but this knowledge was in the Orthodox community’s interest given that there are certain things that rabbis who are converts should not do.

One misunderstanding that many whistleblowers suffer from is that they put priorities on principles rather than interests. They want to cry, “But this is wrong!” They want to appeal to abstract principles. Most people however care more about their interests rather than abstract principles. So who will be hurt and who will be benefited by your whistleblowing? For pragmatic reasons, this is an essential question to ask. It’s not enough to be right. What will be the consequences of what I might do?

For example, organized crime is often essential. As the book McMafia pointed out:

* No societies are free from organized crime except for severely repressive ones (and although North Korea has undoubtedly very low levels of organized crime, its state budget is decisively dependent on the trading of narcotics to criminal syndicates in neighboring countries). But when you replace one set of rules (the Five-Year Plan) with another (free market) in a country as large as Russia, with as many mineral resources, and at a time of epochal shifts in the global economy, then such immense change is bound to offer exceptional opportunities to the quick-witted, the strong, or the fortunate (oligarchs, organized criminals, bureaucrats whose power is suddenly detached from state control) that were absent hitherto. It is certainly true that the Yeltsin government made some appalling errors. But they were under considerable economic pressure at the time, as the crumbling Soviet system was no longer able to guarantee food deliveries to the people and inflation (even before the freeing of prices) had hit at least 150 percent and was still rising. Something had to be done. By the mid-1990s the Russian government estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of its economy was in the gray or black sectors, and it is within this context that Russia and the outside world needs to understand the phenomenon of organized crime: it emerged out of a chaotic situation and was very brutal, but its origins lie in a rational response to a highly unusual economic and social environment.

* The oligarchs understood instinctively that Russia was a capricious and dangerous environment and that their billions of dollars were not safe there. They overestimated their ability to control President Putin, the man whom they chose to replace the weak and easily manipulated, alcoholic president Yeltsin. Yet their instincts served many of them well—as an insurance policy, they needed not just to get their money out of the country. They needed it to be clean once it arrived at its destination. So did the organized crime groups. Everybody needed to launder his cash. But before they could establish a worldwide launderette, they all—oligarchs and mobsters alike—needed to establish themselves abroad. The criminal groups now entered the most challenging stage of their development: phase three—overseas transplantation.

* Organized crime and corruption flourishes in regions and countries where public trust in institutions is weak. Refashioning the institutions of Kafkaesque autocracy into ones that support democracy by promoting accountability and transparency is a troublesome, long-term process. The task is made doubly difficult if economic uncertainty accompanies that transition. Suddenly people who have been guaranteed security from the cradle to the grave are forced to negotiate an unfamiliar jungle of inflation, unemployment, loss of pension rights, and the like. At such junctures, those crucial personal networks from the Communist period become very important. The Red Army evacuated its bases in Eastern Europe, but the equally effective yet more seductive force of favors owed and promises once made stood its ground to exert a strong influence over the transition.

* For their part, the oligarchs and organized crime bosses started colonizing Israel for a number of reasons. It was an ideal place to invest or launder money. Israel’s banking system was designed to encourage aliyah, the immigration of Jews from around the world, and that meant encouraging their money to boot. Furthermore, Israel had embraced the zeitgeist of international financial deregulation and considerably eased controls on the import and export of capital. And, like most other economies around the world in the 1990s, it had no anti-money-laundering legislation. Laundering money derived from criminal activities anywhere else in the world was an entirely legitimate business.

* The main reason for Israel’s popularity was the simplest—many of these iffy businessmen were Jews, and in Israel they were not treated like dirt but welcomed as valuable and respected additions to the family. A disproportionate number of the most influential Russian oligarchs and gangsters were Jewish. Before the huge wave of immigration to Israel, Jews made up only about 2.5 percent of the population of Russia and Ukraine. But they were hugely influential in the vanguard of gangster capitalism during the 1990s.

* It is no coincidence that among organized crime bosses, the other two chronically overrepresented nationalities in Russia were the Chechens and the Georgians, whose talent for overcoming the daily consumer misery of the Soviet Union was similarly the stuff of legend. The criminals and oligarchs emerged from communities who inhabited the twilight periphery of the Soviet Union—although usually denied access to the central institutions, they were not pariahs. Instead they were compelled to seek out the possibilities of social and economic activity that existed in the nooks and cracks of the state.

* From an economic point of view, a person’s decision to enter into the drug trade as a producer, distributor, or retailer is entirely rational because the profit margins are so high. This is all the more compelling in countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia where chronic poverty is endemic. Time and again, narcotics traffickers have demonstrated that their financial clout is sufficient to buy off officials even in states with very low levels of corruption, as in Scandinavia. In most countries, traffickers can call on combined resources of billions of dollars where national police forces have access to tens or hundreds of millions (and are further hamstrung by a complex set of regulations constraining their ability to act).

On the whole, governments do not argue that drug prohibition benefits the economy. They base their arguments instead on perceived social damage and on public morality.

Why would you expect people in narco states to inform against narcos? That’s suicidal and it won’t necessarily do their country any good. If incentives align in such a powerful way that a state turns into a narco state, why would you risk your life battling the inevitable tide?

Here’s a 2013 article:

Whistleblowing—Is It Really Worth the Consequences?

* Because whistleblowing can have deleterious effects on nurses’ professional and personal lives, they should consider exhausting all remedies before reporting infractions to authorities.

* Once nurses weigh the professional and personal ramifications for reporting a violation and determine that time is remaining to report the violation, they must know how to report the violation. Unfortunately, reporting requirements can be strict, and nurses must comply with all technicalities or the case will be dismissed.

* In Hollywood, a nurse who was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on her employer would be protected under whistleblower laws, returning to the job unscathed, and be heralded by coworkers for reporting an employer who endangered others. Unfortunately, real life does not have a Hollywood ending. Deciding to blow the whistle on an employer can be one of the most difficult decisions employees face during their careers because they may be viewed as a traitor, a tattler, or someone who cannot be trusted. Even coworkers who are loyal to their employer or employees involved in the violation may be angered by whistleblowing.

Whistleblowing is especially difficult for nurses because nurses have a duty to protect and advocate for clients; therefore, nurses who witness violations that harm clients are in the difficult position of maintaining client safety while risking retaliation or ignoring client safety and maintaining employment. Whistleblowing has both professional and personal consequences. Nurses who witness violations and report them risk losing their current position and any future employment. Additionally, nurses may endure physical and emotional strife from reporting the violation. Not reporting the violation can even cause distress in nurses’ personal lives because nurses are responsible for protecting clients.

Another common mistake that whistleblowers make is to assume that reality will comport with laws on the book. All laws are enforced by human beings and hence are somewhat arbitrary. There is law as it is stated in books and there are laws as they operate in real life (for example, plenty of freeways may have a 65 mph speed limit and most traffic is flowing north of 80 mph). Also, you can be legally right and judged by your group as morally wrong. You might think you are legally protected from adverse consequences, but nevertheless find yourself descending into a living hell. As my dad found out, there is no free speech protection within the SDA group. All groups have rules, formal and informal, and if you break important rules, you get pushed out.

When we act against other people, they always react and it’s often not what we like or expect. Our opponents are rarely inert.

Perhaps the best move about whistleblowing is 2009’s The Informant:

Mark Whitacre, a rising star at the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) office in Decatur, Illinois, during the early 1990s, blows the whistle on the company’s price-fixing tactics at the urging of his wife Ginger.[3][4]

One night in November 1992, Whitacre confesses to FBI special agent Brian Shepard that ADM executives—including Whitacre himself—had routinely met with competitors to fix the price of lysine, an additive used in the commercial livestock industry. Whitacre secretly gathers hundreds of hours of video and audio over several years to present to the FBI.[3][5][6] He assists in gathering evidence by clandestinely taping the company’s activity in business meetings at various locations around the globe such as Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, and Hong Kong, eventually collecting enough evidence of collaboration and conspiracy to warrant a raid of ADM.

Whitacre’s good deed dovetails with his own major infractions, while his internal, secret struggle with bipolar disorder seems to take over his exploits.[3][7] The bulk of the film focuses on Whitacre’s meltdown resulting from the pressures of wearing a wire and organizing surveillance for the FBI for three years, instigated by Whitacre’s reaction, in increasingly manic overlays, to various trivial magazine articles he reads. In a stunning turn of events immediately following the covert portion of the case, headlines around the world report Whitacre had embezzled $9 million from his own company during the same period of time he was secretly working with the FBI and taping his co-workers, while simultaneously aiming to be elected as ADM CEO following the arrest and conviction of the remaining upper management members.[3] In the ensuing chaos, Whitacre appears to shift his trust and randomly destabilize his relationships with Special Agents Shepard and Herndon and numerous attorneys in the process.

Authorities at ADM begin investigating the forged papertrail Whitacre had built to cover his own deeds. After being confronted with evidence of his fraud, Whitacre’s defensive claims begin to spiral out of control, including an accusation of assault and battery against Agent Shepard and the FBI, which had made a substantial move to distance their case from Whitacre entirely. Because of this major infraction and Whitacre’s bizarre behavior, he is sentenced to a prison term three times as long as that meted out to the white-collar criminals he helped to catch.[3] In the epilogue, Agent Herndon visits Whitacre in prison as he videotapes a futile appeal to seek a presidential pardon. Overweight, balding and psychologically beaten after his years long ordeal, Whitacre is eventually released from prison, with his wife Ginger waiting to greet him.

Steve Sailer writes:

Watching Steven Soderbergh’s comedy The Informant! (with Matt Damon as that guy back in the 1990s who squealed to the feds about how he fixed the price of lysine for Archer Daniels Midland) reminded me of Econ 101, where you learn about the glories of competitive markets. Traditionally, economists draw their examples of “perfect competition“ from agricultural commodities like corn, which ADM processes into other commodities, such as lysine, an amino acid used in animal feed.

What the professors sometimes forget to tell you is that you don’t want to work in an industry where the invisible hand sets the price.

Before the Sherman Anti-Trust Act was finally enforced in 1911, the first thing the more respectable sort of businessman would do when a new commodity like oil came along was to sit down with his rivals to agree on how to cut production and raise prices. American captains of industry prided themselves on their cooperativeness, not competitiveness. ADM’s internal byword “Our customers are our enemies; our competitors are our friends” would have struck J.D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan as sound thinking.

To this day, business strategy largely consists of trying to wield market power so you can charge more than the commodity price.

Trust me, it’s no fun competing in a commodity market. In the 1980s and 1990s, I worked for two archrival marketing research firms who each invested a fortune to turn a lazy and lucrative little industry of idiosyncratically guesstimating supermarket sales into a precise but unprofitable commodity industry where, it was often said, there was room only for 1.5 firms. The facts, it turned out, were a commodity — a lesson the newspaper business has painfully learned in this decade.

In contrast, it’s much nicer to be in an industry driven by the mystique of brand names, where you can slack off and let your past successes carry you for awhile…

The Informant! largely works as Soderbergh’s self-parody of the heroic-whistleblower-inside-evil-multinational-corporation genre, as epitomized by his Erin Brockovich and by his buddy Clooney’s Syriana and Michael Clayton…

Soderbergh, of course, has no interest in the economics of anti-trust. Instead, he’s fascinated by Whitacre, whom he portrays rather harshly until the very end, when he absolves him with the excuse that he was manic-depressive.

I’m not crazy, however, about letting bipolar disorder become established as an all-purpose excuse. The problem is that manics get credit for a surprising fraction of the big events in the history books. Think of Ross Perot, for example, surging into the lead in the 1992 Presidential race as a third-party candidate, then disappearing into seclusion all summer, then finishing strongly to win 19 percent of the vote. Therefore, since they get the credit, we can’t afford to let them wriggle out of the blame when their self-confidence runs amok.

I suspect that Soderbergh might be too focused on jocularly depicting Decatur’s small town schlubiness to emphasize fully the more alarming aspect of Whitacre’s story. Whitacre, who obtained an Ivy League PhD in biochemistry, then rose rapidly up the corporate ladder in Germany before becoming the youngest corporate officer of ADM, was a man of immense ambitions. Perhaps he was attracted to ADM because it was a massive player in DC. He reminds me a little of Lee Harvey Oswald who traipsed all over the world, defecting to the Soviet Union, for example, looking for a conspiracy to join so his name would go in the history books.

What Whitacre found unsatisfactory about ADM, I speculate, was that it was a family firm, with countless Andreases standing between him and the CEO position. His plan appears to have been to use the FBI to take down the Andreases. Then, when he had the most politically well-connected job in corporate America by the time he was 40, well, who know where his ambitions would have led him next?

Whitacre turned out to be a little too crazy. Yet, how many of our leaders got to where they are because they are just crazy enough?

John Dean seemed to have been a successful whistleblower. He made a whole career out of it. James Comey, Eric Ciaramella, and John Bolton also seem to have done well for themselves. If you can count on media support, blowing the whistle should be fun and profitable.

Becoming an enthusiastic member of the majority religion is usually a savvy move for a whistleblower. Christianity in particular loves penitent sinners.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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