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.