A picture is worth 1,000 words, so I urge you to take note of this Time double issue cover that appeared on December 30, 2002.

The cover featured three women who the media celebrated for their courage to speak out against wrongdoing and decisions they deemed questionable by their very powerful bosses. One of the women was Sherron Watkins, an Enron vice president who warned chairman Kenneth Lay in a 2001 letter that the company’s accounting practices were improper. Watkins’ warning was ignored, and Enron subsequently collapsed. The Department of Justice in those days was a responsible agency and successfully prosecuted Enron’s top executives, sending several of them to the slammer.

Another woman was Coleen Rowley, an FBI staff attorney based in Minneapolis who broke agency protocol and sent a memo to then Director Robert Mueller decrying how the FBI’s top brass blew off her pleas to prosecute Zacarias Mousssaoui, a French member of al-Qaeda who eventually pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to conspiring to kill U.S. citizens as part of the 9/11 terrorist attack.

The third featured woman was Cynthia Cooper, who informed WorldCom’s board that the company had deliberately covered up $3.8 billion in losses utilizing hocus pocus accounting. The DOJ also successfully prosecuted CEO Bernie Ebbers, securing a 25-year sentence for accounting fraud.

That Time featured three women who were portrayed as whistleblowers reflected what was once responsible U.S. journalism, celebrating the rare individuals who refused to remain silent in wake of what they perceived as wrongdoing or questionable behavior within their organizations. In fact, Watkins, Rowley, and Cooper weren’t whistleblowers, as they didn’t go public with their concerns but rather worked within the institutional structures of their organizations. Only Rowley achieved success.

Nevertheless, a thoughtful and responsible media would have learned from its reporting on Watkins, Rowley, and Cooper and developed an appreciation for the rare individuals within corporations who refuse to turn a blind eye to what they perceive as wrongful behavior. One company with a publicly known surfeit of whistleblowers was Boeing, including John Barnett, who worked for Boeing for more than 30 years and was recently set to complete his deposition for a wrongful dismissal lawsuit he pursued for years when authorities say he went into a hotel parking lot and blew his brains out.

I thought I’d written all I’d have to say about Boeing, but this article in today’s Wall Street Journal set me off, as it was an example of what I call stenography journalism, where reporters dutifully write down what they are told without any critical push back. It was especially painful reading this sort of reporting in the Journal, a publication whose Boeing coverage was once stellar and unrivaled. Indeed, it was the Journal’s previous reporting on Boeing that’s mostly responsible for my railing about the company today.

WSJ reported that another Boeing whistleblower named Roy Irvin has come forward. The Journal said Irvin was a former Boeing quality manager who retired in 2020 and claimed employees working on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner jets were discouraged from flagging problems or recommending changes to prevent manufacturing defects.

“I was told, ‘We don’t have enough time to do corrective actions, so don’t write one,’” Irvin told WSJ. In pushing the company to address issues, “there was always the chance of not necessarily getting fired but moving to a position that would be much less important.”

In response, WSJ quoted an unidentified Boeing spokesman as saying that Boeing slowed 787 production and stopped deliveries for nearly two years starting in 2021 to ensure the planes met engineering specifications in response to employee concerns.

 “This was a clear demonstration of our commitment to listen and take action on employee feedback,” the anonymous spokesman said.

WSJ does a disservice to its readers not identifying PR persons and holding them publicly accountable for their spin, which in the case of Boeing’s spinmeister wasn’t well thought out.

NYTimes, April 20, 2019

Here’s a link to a New York Times story that revealed in remarkable detail the manufacturing problems at the South Carolina plant where the 787 Dreamliner is manufactured. A sampling of what the Times reported:

A New York Times review of hundreds of pages of internal emails, corporate documents and federal records, as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, reveals a culture that often valued production speed over quality. Facing long manufacturing delays, Boeing pushed its work force to quickly turn out Dreamliners, at times ignoring issues raised by employees.

Complaints about the frenzied pace echo broader concerns about the company in the wake of two deadly crashes involving another jet, the 737 Max. Boeing is now facing questions about whether the race to get the Max done, and catch up to its rival Airbus, led it to miss safety risks in the design, like an anti-stall system that played a role in both crashes.

Safety lapses at the North Charleston plant have drawn the scrutiny of airlines and regulators. Qatar Airways stopped accepting planes from the factory after manufacturing mishaps damaged jets and delayed deliveries. Workers have filed nearly A DOZEN WHISTLE-BLOWER CLAIMS AND SAFETY COMPLAINTS (emphasis mine) with federal regulators, describing issues like defective manufacturing, debris left on planes and pressure to not report violations. Others have sued Boeing, saying they were retaliated against for flagging manufacturing mistakes.

Notably, the Times published its story on April 20, 2019, after two 737 MAX planes had already crashed because of issues with that aircraft’s rushed design to better compete with a more fuel-efficient Airbus airplane. Yet by the admission of Boeing’s PR person, the company waited two years until it slowed 787 production and stopped deliveries in response to concerns raised by employees. Quite possibly, Boeing only stopped deliveries because other airlines might have followed Qatar Airways’ example and not accepted them.

In its story today, WSJ quoted Lisa Fahl, a Boeing vice president who previously oversaw 787 quality, boasting that a program in which employees can flag concerns anonymously or by name in January and February received as many entries as it would normally get in an entire year.  

“We have exploded in the amount of ‘Speak Ups’ that have come in, because we’re continually encouraging it,” Fahl said.

Lisa Fahl/LinkedIn photo

According to Fahl’s LinkedIn profile, she is a nearly 13-year Boeing veteran. Pardon my skepticism, but quality assurances from senior Boeing employees who served under CEO Dave Calhoun and his predecessor don’t carry much weight with me. I’m more inclined to trust Boeing’s Dreamliner whistleblowers than I am Boeing’s top engineers who gave a presentation to reporters this week assuring them that Dreamliner tests conducted over several years indicate that most gaps whistleblowers warned about meet specifications, and the ones that don’t do not compromise the plane’s structural integrity. 

I’m not alone here.

A 24-member panel that spent a year interviewing Boeing employees and executives and examining changes made in response to the two deadly 737 MAX crashes released a report on Wednesday saying Boeing employees fear retaliation if they speak up about safety concerns, aren’t sure how they fit into the company’s broader safety management system, and lack confidence that changes would be made if they do make suggestions. 

Also sharing my skepticism is Debra Katz, a lawyer for Boeing whistleblower Sam Salehpour, who testified before a Senate Congressional panel on Wednesday. Salehpour is a Boeing quality engineer who has warned that sections of the fuselage of the Dreamliner were not properly fastened together and that the plane could suffer structural failure over time as a result.

“We cannot speak or respond to data that we haven’t seen, but Boeing has always said ‘just trust us’ when it comes to safety,” Katz said in a statement. “It’s clear that standard is no longer sufficient, and any data provided by Boeing should be validated by independent experts and the F.A.A. before it is taken at face value.”

WSJ surprisingly gave Boeing a pass on a story for which it claimed responsibility and should have been mighty proud. The publication reported last week that CEO Calhoun and other top executives took personal trips worth more than $500,000 on the company’s private jets and other planes that were improperly recorded as business travel.

WSJ said that Boeing’s review and correction was prompted by a story it published last September disclosing that Calhoun and his deputies lived nowhere near Boeing’s Virginia headquarters and were hopscotching across the country on private planes. That story, which I wrote about in an earlier posting, alone should have resulted in Calhoun’s firing because it revealed he and his deputies were absentee executives.

Rest assured, if lower-level employees submitted expense reports seeking reimbursement for $540,000 in air travel they falsely claimed was company related they’d be fired and possibly could face criminal prosecution. Boeing’s possible motivation for the reclassification was the Internal Revenue Service’s disclosure earlier this year it will begin auditing dozens of companies over the personal use of corporate jets by executives.

The media, with its CEO idolization, swallows the claims of major corporations that their CEOs must travel on private planes for security purposes. Yet WSJ reported that Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, known for his ruthless cost cutting and imposing strict budget controls, not only flies commercial, but sometimes on budget airlines. Stellantis is bigger than Ford, which in 2023 paid more than $600,000 to cover the personal travel of CEO Jim Farley, whose spouse and family live in the UK.

Not surprisingly, Stellantis is more profitable than Ford and its stock price has performed considerably better. I note also that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says he flies commercial airlines whenever possible, as do members of Congress.

The media has done scant reporting on the Department of Justice’s supposed criminal investigation of Boeing. After the two 737 MAX crashes, the DOJ let Boeing off with a “deferred prosecution agreement,” which meant the company would escape criminal charges if it behaved responsibly. The agreement was set to expire just days after the 737 MAX incident involving an Alaska Airlines flight where a chunk of the fuselage ripped apart at 16,000 ft.

Most disheartening of all is the media’s scant coverage of the brave Boeing whistleblowers and other employees who acted on their consciences, like the Washington plant production manager who quit his job because he knew there were manufacturing issues with the 737 MAX aircraft, but management ignored his warnings.

“Frankly right now, my internal warning bells are going off,” the manager said in an email four months before the first 737 MAX crash. “And for the first time in my life, I’m sorry to say that I’m hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane.”

There has been scant coverage of the hell Boeing whistleblower John Barnett endured, but Maureen Tkacik of American Prospect reported on it and her accounts (see here and here) should awaken Americans from their apathetic slumbers. Few reporters have questioned that police were quick to rule Barnett’s death a suicide, despite a family friend telling ABC News that Barnett told her, “I ain’t scared, but if anything happens to me, it’s not suicide.” Barnett’s lawyers also reportedly said they doubted their client committed suicide.

That Boeing had the audacity to say the company was “saddened by Mr. Barnett’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends” underscored the dishonesty of its PR. I note that Ford’s PR person feigned the same disingenuous concern for the children of Melvin and Voncile Hill, Georgia farmers whose Ford pickup was crushed after their vehicle rolled over.

A Georgia jury in 2022 awarded the Hills’ children a $1.7 billion punitive judgement after hearing evidence that the pickup their parents were driving didn’t meet Ford’s internal rollover crash standards.

This might come as a surprise, but Time is still in business. If the current editors might be looking for a provocative cover that invariably would spark a cornucopia of clicks, I’m confident a photo of Boeing’s known whistleblowers would generate considerable buzz and possibly some public outrage that their warnings were repeatedly ignored while top executives showered themselves with an embarrassment of riches and benefits.

R.I.P. John Barnett and here’s to the known and unsung Boeing heroes who risked their careers because of concerns for the public’s aviation safety.

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