Peter Perl: ‘I haven’t been fired or suspended or fined’ for keeping Vargas secret

The Washington Post will reassign some of Peter Perl’s duties, but won’t demote or suspend the assistant managing editor, who knew that Jose Vargas was an undocumented immigrant, but kept it a secret for seven years.

I talked with Perl this week about how he reasoned through his decision to keep Vargas’ revelation quiet, how he weighed his obligation to the reporter against his obligation to his employer, and what has happened since Vargas’ revelations were published in The New York Times Magazine.

Perl was new to upper management when then 24-year-old Vargas revealed his secret. Perl said he interviewed Vargas like he would a source for a story. Then, in his mind, Perl played out the possible outcomes. “I became satisfied that he was really screwed,” he told me by phone.

So Perl swallowed the secret. In doing so, he transferred some of the responsibility — as well as the potential harm — for the decision to himself. Here’s how Perl described that moment in time.

“This was, at the time, not a close call. It was clear to me that I believed that my taking action would have resulted in his losing his job and maybe being deported. And I felt like, at his age and his situation, that as much as I trust the leadership of the Washington Post, they would have been obligated to put in motion a whole series of events that were clearly going to result in real damage to Jose.

And I made a tactical judgment. … it seemed clear to me that he was OK in his current status, he had a valid driver’s license. As long as he didn’t attempt to travel outside the country or get, you know, arrested for a crime, or whatever, he could do this indefinitely…

He basically wanted to unburden himself. I said, ‘You’ve done the right thing, and now it’s like our problem and I’ll take care of it.’ Which was like great, what am I going to do now?”

Perl said he recognized at the time that as a member of senior management, he had an even higher duty to the Post than a member of the rank and file. He was also taking a greater risk. He could have been fired. But he calculated that the harm Vargas would endure was unfair and substantial compared to the possible harm the Post could endure. Although he couldn’t discuss his own personnel issue, he said he felt like his employer had been exceedingly fair.

“I haven’t been fired or suspended or fined or anything like that. I’ve had communication about the fact that the Post thinks that what I did was wrong and that some of my duties should be changed. … People were concerned, ‘Am I going to continue in my present job?’ And the answer is yes. … I think people are — both management and the newsroom — satisfied with that outcome.”

While critics point out that the series of lies Vargas told in order to conceal his legal status undermine his journalistic credibility, Perl rejected the language of absolutes in favor of a framework that examines motives and harm. Had Vargas confessed to a more selfish and damaging deception, Perl said he would have responded differently.

“If you took this entire scenario and you substituted the word plagiarism for illegal immigration or anything that would really reflect on [the mission of] this institution — as opposed to just me — I would have made a different decision. … Let’s say somebody comes and confidentially confesses to me, ‘I’m tormented by this but I made this up,’ …then the confidentiality does not apply.”

The Times posted Vargas’ story a week ago and an immediate firestorm of commentary ensued among media watchers. At first the scrutiny was stressful for Perl, he said. But over time, dozens and dozens of people from both inside and outside The Washington Post have contacted him.

“The volume of responses that I’ve gotten and the depth of the responses have been very moving to me. It’s actually turned from a very stressful thing into, in many ways, a very gratifying thing. I had a guy come in here the other day and say, ‘I just want to shake your hand, I’m proud to work for you.’ Yikes. That was quite amazing. That’s pretty gratifying. And if somebody thinks… ‘What a dumb thing he did,’ no one’s come to tell me that. So from my perspective, the election returns are running very well.”

Listening to Perl describe his reasoning was refreshing. Although he was flying solo when he made the decision to keep Vargas’ secret, he describes a healthy and thorough process. He can articulate the duty that arose from his mentoring relationship with Vargas as well as his duty, as a senior manager, to the Post. He weighed the real and likely harm that would come to Vargas against the possible and lesser harm that he believed would come to the Post.

Perl acknowledges that he put his loyalty to someone he considers a young and promising reporter ahead of his loyalty to the newspaper and that from the Post’s perspective, what he did was wrong.

“…we all confront ethical issues because right and wrong are not black and white and I don’t think there is a right or wrong. There are two rights and two wrongs in the situation as I see it, and I totally get the idea that from the perspective of people that employ me what I did was wrong.”

He admits that beyond the legal consequences of employing an undocumented worker, he couldn’t quite see all the potential harm the Post might suffer.

“With the reporting I did, I was reasonably satisfied that my inaction would not hurt anyone. I knew there was a risk, but I believed my inaction was going to remain invisible.”

Ultimately, there was no way that Perl could honor his moral obligations to both Vargas and the Post. He chose to protect Vargas. Now that the secret is out, he can admit that he put his organization in harm’s way, and defend his decision to do so.

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  • Anonymous

    Individuals cannot create their own morality, nor absolutes.  Societies rely on thousands of years of religious tradition to form modern morality. 

    Death is absolute.  2+2 = 4 is absolute.  One claiming to be a citizen when one is not is absolute.  Unenforceable contracts are not contracts.  Our legal system does not decide justice, but determines compliance with laws.  And lastly, hindsight is 20/20. 

  • Anonymous

    I wave around “felony” like it’s a felony. The law is certainly absolute, it’s jurors who sometimes aren’t. If you want to stake your freedom on the slight chance someone nullifies the jury, go for it. It is equally unjust to steal resources from communities that can barely hold themselves together already.

    What you describe is anarchy. Under your guidelines, some rednecks can ignore the laws they think are unjust and start gathering up people, dumping them across the border. The rule of law must be followed in this country. Unlike Nazi Germany we have a defined process to deal with unjust laws, and that doesn’t include people just doing anything they want.

     

  • http://barrkel.blogspot.com/ barrkel

    For a column about ethics, the people commenting on it seem remarkably inflexible in their thinking. “The law is the law” – have you ever reflected on the meaning of this platitude? Its implications for: Apartheid; Communism; Nazism; or even the US War of Independence against Great Britain? People fighting against all those things from within those countries were breaking the law – were they all arrogant and self-righteous?

    The apparatus of the state and its justice machine is composed of people. Laws are written by people. They are enforced by people. All these people are power-hungry and petty in their own way. It’s only by balancing their competing interests that we get a half-decent system out of the whole lot of imperfect cogs at all; but the system is a long, long way from perfect, and it can never be so.

  • http://barrkel.blogspot.com/ barrkel

    These things you talk about are certainly not absolutes. The state is not absolute; the law is not absolute; civil contracts are not absolute. Justice is absolute, but it is not contained in laws; it is in the moral reasoning of individual people. States frequently perpetrate injustices and admit it (with reparations) later, many laws are ultimately struck down as unjust, similarly unenforceable contracts. All of these overturnings start with individuals.

  • http://barrkel.blogspot.com/ barrkel

    You wave around “felony” like it’s a magic word that makes people bad, evil, even morally wrong. But that’s not how it works; laws are written, applied and weighed by people – fallible people. The law is not absolute, and it can never be; moral beings *must* disobey unjust laws, otherwise you get people invoking the Nuremberg defense. Application of law divorced from circumstance is a hell I would wish on nobody.

  • Anonymous

    rvcconeworldonedream (1 week ago)SpamThere are two sides of the story. There will be people who will criticized Jose’s Status and will say things like you broke the “Law”. Others will support Jose’s actions for his work. On My opinion, no one is perfect, no one follows the law 100% and no one will ever follow the law 100%. Martin Luther king once said amid opposition for equal civil rights that “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”. So please let’s do the Human and Right Thing. Hate is not the solution.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RGUK7JGX37FG4SFJ36FSYTCXIA Southern Son .

    The allowance of Vargas ‘ blatant disregard for our country ‘s Laws is indicative of a system that is openly biased towards the illegal redistribution of labor and its ‘ / their access to wealth securing resources . Vargas broke the Law and as such , should be held accountable for his actions . The question of sympathy does not even apply to the situation . How can anyone feel pity for someone that has willfully manipulated the legal structure of the very country that he claims to have a bond with and then go on to boldly claim that he , himself , is a point man for the start of discussion upon a subject that  , quite frankly , is very clearly ILLEGAL in every way ? The real discussion should be upon the fact of how we have super computers that can trace and pinpoint your location , yet we do not appear to possess the resources in order to construct a secure super structure along the Southern Border in order to secure our country .

    The technology and resources are there , but the elites in support of Illegal Immigration , itself , do not want to fund , or allow access to the means in order to bring the concept and construction of its ‘ being to fruition . If anything , Vargas ‘ actions clearly prove that , without any doubt , the Southern Border needs to be secured and militarily maintained . How long are our elected Representatives going to pretend that Illegal Immigration has not affected our country and its ‘ economic state ? Only a fool would attempt to contend that Illegal Immigration is   ” Harmless ” . There is going to have to be some action taken in regards to how this Illegal activity ( Illegal Undocumented Labor ) is affecting our country and our Representatives need to be aware of that fact .          

  • Anonymous

    Then why lock your door when you leave home? Why not leave your house wide open and allow strangers to come in and steal everything you own. Yes stealing is against the law but they need your possessions. Same principal is applied here.  

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    >>
    Say I steal a government vehicle and hide it in my garage for 20
    years. I polish it, work on it, and make it better. Then I lie, commit a
    felony and falsify documentation to get it registered. After I come
    clean should I get to keep it? I would have stolen the resources of a
    country and committed crimes to hide it.
    Hah man it sound realy nice ! Clear true hide hard!)

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  • Anonymous

    There are absolutes.  First, if Vargas had a driver’s license it was obtained through fraud.  Virginia and Maryland require proof of residency.  Falsifying an application is a crime.  Second, Vargas defrauded the Social Security and Medicare System by using a false SSN.  Did he vote, hold a mortgage, have a lease, paid for insurance and carried many other financial obligations that were dependant upon legal standing to sign a contract?  These were all falsified.  Third, any employer as a legal obligation to verify the residency of their workers.  I have to do it every year.  If the Post is lax on this reporting requirement, what else do they falsely report?  If I was a federal or state regulatory, I would give the Post an anal probe that they would never forget.

  • Anonymous

    There seems to be just as many important facts glossed over as addressed. For starters, Perl committed a felony. Everyone who employs Jose from this point forward is committing a felony. Perl also has decided “I don’t think there is a right or wrong.” From the same organization who claimed someone shouldn’t be ‘above the law’. There are lots of laws I don’t like, but I can’t ignore them because I think they are unfair. Most importantly, Jose reported on immigration stories where he had a vested interest in the outcome, without disclosure.

    Say I steal a government vehicle and hide it in my garage for 20 years. I polish it, work on it, and make it better. Then I lie, commit a felony and falsify documentation to get it registered. After I come clean should I get to keep it? I would have stolen the resources of a country and committed crimes to hide it.

    Isn’t it just as unfair for anyone in the world to not be able to have the opportunities of being an American? Wouldn’t a billion other people around the world like to do the same? How do you reward one person for breaking the law but then tell others they shouldn’t or can’t? 

    The fact that journalists overwhelmingly fail to write about this critically speaks to the disconnect between ‘the public’ and who the public calls the ‘mainstream media’ as well as the downturn of journalism consumption.

    That aside, Jose seems like a nice guy, someone I would be happy to have as a neighbor. That doesn’t change the law though.

  • Anonymous

    the post seems to be incredibly lenient with its employees’ indiscretions.  perl is extremely lucky to work for the paper.  in any other job, including in the news industry, i suspect he would have been fired for his action.  the law is the law and he knowingly put his employer in jeopardy.  i think it was very arrogant and self-righteous on his part and the post’s benevolent response paves the way for perl to do something else in conflict with its best interests. 

  • petra

    It’s refreshing to see Perl employ sophisticated and reasoned moral reasoning, choosing to see that there are no absolutes and acting on his conscience. His actions reveals his compassion and humanity.