Defending the whistleblower moniker amidst modern scandals

Kelly A Adkins
May 15, 2023

The ‘cleaning house’ of media conglomerates like CNN & Fox prompts the discussion of emerging whistleblowers. Michael McCray, co-founder and managing director of the Whistleblower Summit & Film Festival (WSFX), spoke on the dangers behind misidentifying such informants and public figures, which he refers to as “fake whistleblowers,” and the purpose of defending the moniker.

The term “whistleblower” has been under scrutiny since the post-Watergate era and its inaugural legal recognition with the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1778.

McCray said that the way the term is used now, being roughly 50 years old, is often synonymous with pejoratives. Merriam Webster lists “rat” “snitch” and “betrayer” fourth, fifth and sixth to the other synonyms, such as “informer” “informant” and “canary.”

He said that the core mission of the WSFX is “to restore the term whistleblower back to its historical perspective, . . . we’re patriots.”

According to Allison Stanger, a political scientist at Middlebury College, “Whistleblowing is really in America’s DNA — it’s as American as apple pie.”

To McCray, true whistleblowers are people who speak truth to power; they tell the truth when the stakes are high and when they personally have something to lose. On the other hand, there are those who bring attention to scandals or fraudulent behavior after the fact to lessen the blow or earn a plea deal.

McCray referred to Project Veritas and James O’Keefe, former chief executive officer of Project Veritas, as the latter of the two.

Daniel Strack, executive director of Project Veritas, issued a statement to employees, signed by himself and several board members, regarding  management concerns and internal processes. One investigation of the nonprofit investigative journalism organization involves the unethical acquisition of source materials, ​​which has elicited questions since the inception of the organization.

“Those aren’t whistleblowers,” said McCray, “[a whistleblower is] not someone who steals information from the company, breaks in and steals to tell the secrets.”

This tactic also borders the line of gotcha journalism, a form of journalistic misconduct that involves entrapping sources to fit an assumed narrative. In an op-ed, the LA Times referred to O’Keefe as a “gotcha journalist.”

O’Keefe has been a topic of the times since his involvement with ACORN, where he attempted a sting of Juan Carlos Vera, an Acorn employee, by posing as a pimp and offering the smuggling of prostitutes. Since then, this video has been criticized for being altered, edited and deceptive–among other things.

This organization’s practices in particular hit home for McCray, since the Whistleblower Summit & Film Festival originated as part of the ACORN 8 origin story. The ACORN 8 refers to those who separated from ACORN–the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, what the Library of Congress archive lists as “the nation's largest community organization of low and moderate income families working together for social justice and stronger communities.”

After blowing the whistle on the multi-million dollar embezzlement scandal, involving the public misuse of funds, the eight moved forward. Two of the ACORN 8 are WSFX festival director Marcel Reid, who had much to lose at the time she blew the whistle, and McCray.

Reid and McCray were board members committed to the ACORN cause–not the fraudulent behavior they witnessed. McCray said that the first-hand knowledge is part of the high stakes that whistleblowers face.

“The left hated us because we told the truth about ACORN, the right hated us because we wouldn’t lie about ACORN,” said McCray. “We simply told the truth, but we weren't captive to any one narrative, only the truth.”

McCray joked about Plato’s saying, 'No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth.'

When the intention, timing and impact of the act of whistleblowing is in question, McCray often refers to the individuals involved as either “whistleblower-adjacents” or simply “political activists.”

He identified O’Keefe as a political activist working on the side of the citizen’s journal, and the narratives he creates to upload the story of activism.

For McCray, the true test of whistleblowing is testing the moral values of the individual. What are they looking to get out of it? Are they doing it for the right reasons?

“Someone who has walked that walk” is an important identifier, according to McCray.

He used the same ideology in comparison to the House-Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Government, saying that the promotion of whistleblowers from within the Federal Bureau of Investigation does not reflect what has been publicly produced. To him, political activists are those “spouting unfounded truths but given the moniker of whistleblowing.”

In order for whistleblowing to be respected in America, McCray said that the WSFF has to be the white hat and defend the moniker.

Each year, the WSFX provides a new thematic purpose to the conversation. Last year, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE)–the world’s largest anti-fraud organization with about 91,000 members operating out of almost 90 different countries–partnered to discuss the efficacy of whistleblowers on fraud detection.

John Warren, Chief Strategy Officer of the ACFE, said the most effective and important role in identifying fraud comes from whistleblowers/tipsters who alert someone of wrongdoing. Specifically, 42% are caught this way, which is much higher than any single method such as auditors, said Warren.

Celebrating the social, moral, ethical and financial values of whistleblowers is one of many assets of the Summit.

“We consist of whistleblowers, and that’s why our perspectives are a little bit unique,” said McCray. “We have been that voice, but now there are more voices that are joining the choir.”

McCray invites whistleblowers, whistleblower-advocates, activists, allies and more to join in this year’s film festival and summit on July 23.

“This is the only community of these such first amendment revolutionaries where we tell the truth," said McCray. “We speak truth to power, that is the core of what our tribe is, it is the core of what we do, and we are a place where you can meet your heroes, you can support us, and we also have a lot of fun; everyone is welcome.”

Speak Truth to Power

You can help give more power and voice to whistleblowers by supporting the Whistleblower Summit & Film Festival. You will be helping to highlight civil and human rights violations across the globe. Call us at (870) 543-0024 or email us at

Contact us