From My Lai to Mortgages: The Importance of Whistleblowers

He delivered the biggest scoop of the war as a former soldier—his account of a search and destroy mission where U.S. infantry soldiers killed unarmed women and children in Viet Nam changed the course of history—and all I could offer him was a part-time reporting gig where we paid him using a company gas card.

It ‘s hardly a newsflash that America does not treat its heroes well; but this was Ron Ridenhour, the citizen-soldier who blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre.

I was assistant news director at a news talk radio station (WGSO) in New Orleans in the 1980’s and Ron wrote for print. We had a running joke between us concerning what to my broadcaster’s eye appeared to be the impossibly long length of his investigative stories.

“Nobody has time to read all that,” I would say. Ron would just smile through his brown and grey flecked beard and offer a stoic chuckle. He seemed to know that ultimately “the fuckers,” a term he often applied to those in authority—the frequent targets of his probes—would someday have to pay attention.

His stories certainly got my attention. I knew Ron could use a little extra work and we needed him doing shorter versions of his print stories for radio. We had no budget to pay freelancers, but we did have a Shell card, and that’s how the investigative journalist who broke the story that helped to turn the American public against a war ended up working part-time for our station—for what amounted to gas money.

“Going up against the Department of Defense media machine, replete with its huge staff and budget in the millions is very daunting and, frankly stated, intimidating.” That could easily have been Ron talking, but instead it was Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, telling me this week about his decision to blow the whistle on his superiors for distorting the truth about America’s war effort in Afghanistan.

Davis will be honored today at the National Press Club in Washington as a co-recipient of the 2012 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.

If Ron were still alive and Davis had come to him with his allegations, Ron likely would have replied with his nervous “I don’t know about this” laugh. It’s the one he sometimes shared when reflecting on the power that people in authority have to retaliate against those who cause them trouble. The laugh was just Ron’s way of acknowledging that things might get hairy.

I am certain he would have made the same decision Davis did to go public. Davis told me that he had little choice,”In the end, I had to take the action I did simply because it was the right thing to do. I didn’t calculate whether or not my effort might be successful; merely, that I had a moral obligation to try.”

Upon returning stateside in January of 2012, Davis did more than try. Using detailed classified and unclassified reports, he illustrated how his military superiors were slanting reports. In one unclassified document he reported that, “Senior ranking U.S. military leaders have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.”

Unlike Davis, a superior officer, Ridenhour described things from the grunt’s perspective. But the picture Davis painted is strikingly similar to one Ridenhour detailed for the Los Angeles Times on the 25h Anniversary of the My Lai massacre.

“For me, as I am sure for most American soldiers who went on combat missions in Vietnam’s rural countryside, it quickly became clear that whatever was happening there, it was not what the U.S. government was telling the public, nor what military authorities had told us, the front-line soldiers.” Simply change the location of the war and Ridenhour’s depiction of the disconnection from reality aptly describes what Davis reports is happening to our soldiers today.

Ron would be worth remembering if all he ever did was uncover gross misconduct in the military, but his investigative reporting ranged far and wide. In the mid-1980’s Ron was digging into fraud and favoritism in the collection of sales tax revenues at New Orleans City Hall.

This was long before the mortgage crisis that threatened to topple the US economy, but Ron was ahead of his time in digging into complex financial wrongdoing. He certainly would have admired the courage and tenacity of Eileen Foster, the Countrywide Financial Vice-president who exposed systematic fraud by loan officers at her company. During her investigation, Foster rejected more than $200,000 in what she called hush money.

“I can certainly attest to the fact that you don’t become rich by being a truth-teller; it’s quite the opposite. But, I didn’t do this to become rich,” Foster told me. And in reflecting on the events that lead her to become a co-recipient of the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Award today, Foster says whistleblowers often have to depend on deeply committed journalists; “I was trying to right a wrong. It’s important for the media to have the tenacity to follow these stories through. People may point to the fact that Madoff went to jail, but he stole from the rich and very well connected. The average American has not seen any justice.”

Eileen Foster was fired for her whistle-blowing; it took her two years to find another job in the financial services industry. And, for his tenacity, Ron Ridenhour won a visit to an Orleans Parish grand jury where DA Harry Connick Sr. demanded that he reveal his sources. Ron refused, and the state Supreme Court decision that backed his stand remains the leading case protecting reporter privilege in Louisiana to this day.

As for those impossibly long stories, Ron got the last laugh there. In 1987 his print reports for City Business on sales tax fraud at New Orleans City hall won him the prestigious George Polk Award. I believe it’s important that these awards are presented each year in memory of Ron and his courageous actions as both a soldier and a journalist, because as I mentioned earlier, America does not always treat its heroes well—especially when they happen to be whistleblowers.

Michael Clifford Longman

Michael Clifford Longman is a freelance journalist based in New York who contributes to CityLimits and Public News Service. He worked in radio and television news in New Orleans for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter at @mlcliff.