Persons of The Year 2002: The Whistleblowers


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And what to make of the fact that all are women? There has been talk that their gender is not a coincidence; that women, as outsiders, have less at stake in their organizations and so might be more willing to expose weaknesses. They don't think so. As it happens, studies show that women are a bit less likely than men to be whistle-blowers. And a point worth mentioning--two out of the three hate the term whistle-blower. Too much like "tattletale," says Cooper. But if the term unnerves Cooper and Rowley, that may be because whistle-blowers don't have an easy time. Almost all say they would not do it again. If they aren't fired, they're cornered: isolated and made irrelevant. Eventually many suffer from alcoholism or depression.

With these three, that hasn't happened, though Watkins left her job at Enron after a year when she wasn't given much to do. But ask them if they have been thanked sincerely by anyone at the top of their organization, and they burst out laughing. Some of their colleagues hate them, especially the ones who believe that their outfits would have quietly righted all wrongs if only they had been given time. "There is a price to be paid," says Cooper. "There have been times that I could not stop crying."

Watkins, Rowley and Cooper have kick-started conversations essential to the clean operation of American life, conversations that will continue for years. It may still be true that no one could have prevented the attacks of Sept. 11, but the past year has shown that the FBI and the CIA overlooked vital clues and held back data from each other. No matter how many new missile systems the Pentagon deploys or which new airport screening systems are adopted, if we can't trust the institutions charged with tracking terrorists to do the job, homeland defense will be an empty phrase. The Coleen Rowleys of the federal workforce will be the ones who will let us know what's going on.

As for corporate America, accounting scams of the kind practiced at Enron and WorldCom will continually need to be exposed and corrected before yet another phalanx of high-level operators gets the wrong idea and a thousand Enrons bloom. And the people best positioned to call them on it will be sitting in offices like the ones that Watkins and Cooper occupied. The new Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires CEOs and CFOs to vouch for the accuracy of their companies' books, is just one sign of what Cooper calls "a corporate-governance revolution across the country."

These were ordinary people who did not wait for higher authorities to do what needed to be done. Literature's great statement on unwelcome truth telling is Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People. Something said by one of his characters reminds us of what we admire about our Dynamic Trio. "A community is like a ship," he observes. "Everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm." When the time came, these women saw the ship in citizenship. And they stepped up to that wheel.

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