The Essential Role of the Whistleblower in American Society

Seth Shire with Frank Serpico (right) whose story was the basis for the 1973 movie "Serpico" starring Al Pacino, at the Paley Center for Media on February 17, 2010. Photo by Gary Joseph

On February 17 The Paley Center for Media, formerly the Museum of TV & Radio, presented a panel discussion entitled “The Essential Role of the Whistleblower in American Society.”  The panel consisted of seven whistleblowers, people who exposed corruption in different areas.  The areas included the FBI (Mike German and Coleen Rowley), the meat industry (Kit Foshee), racial profiling (Cathy Harris), telecommunications (Babak Pasdar).  The most famous panelists, and of most interest to someone who writes about film, were Frank Serpico and Daniel Ellsberg.  Serpico, whose story was the basis for the 1973 movie “Serpico” starring Al Pacino, was the first New York City police officer to report on widespread corruption in the NYPD.  Daniel Ellsberg was an architect of the Vietnam War who leaked the Pentagon Papers, documents that showed the Vietnam War was based on lies, to the “New York Times.” Ellsberg’s whistleblowing eventually contributed to ending the war and bringing down Nixon’s presidency.   An Oscar nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” is now back in release at Cinema Village in New York.

Moderator Juan Williams, analyst for NPR and Fox News, introduced Ellsberg as the “patriarch of whistleblowers.”  Ellsberg graciously responded that he could not be called “patriarch” when Frank Serpico was in the room.

The emphasis of the evening was on the virtue of speaking out when something is morally wrong and the sacrifices made by those who do.  Sacrifices include being shunned by colleagues and loss of livelihoods with the hopeful results being restitution and vindication.  Ellsberg pointed out that in our culture there is a virtue to keeping one’s mouth shut and that loyalty to the boss is the highest virtue.  He said it is important to break that rule.  Coleen Rowley added that anytime you have a job where loyalty is the number one virtue get out.  In terms of his own whistleblowing Serpico said, “I believe everybody wants to do the right thing…When they don’t there’s denial.”  Serpico’s life as a police officer came to an end when he was shot in the face and was then left by fellow officers as payback for his having exposed police corruption.  Serpico explained “Part of the sacrifice (for whistleblowing) was that I lost the job I so loved.”  When asked about restitution he said, “This is the restitution,” meaning being in a forum with an appreciative audience.  Serpico explained that vindication also came from police officers all over the country and the world.  “My father took me to see your movie when I was eight years old,” officers have told him.  Serpico said that the Police Commissioner of Amsterdam said the movie made him want to become a police officer.

Despite vindication for his heroic efforts, Ellsberg regrets not having leaked the Pentagon Papers earlier, in 1964.   Ellsberg recalled Senator Wayne Morse telling him that had he released the Pentagon Papers in 1964 this would have provided key evidence and, as a result, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution would have never even made it out of committee.  In other words, Morse explained, the Vietnam War might never have happened at all had Ellsberg acted sooner.  Ellsberg said that if the Pentagon Papers incident happened today he could have just bought a scanner and put the papers on the internet.

The event can be viewed in its entirety at


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on February 20, 2010, in Documentary, Personal Appearances. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. A reminder that film can be a powerful force of inspiration and change when the paralysis of greed and hubris strike at any level of a democracy.

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