Badass Supersleuth and the Bozo Factor
A Q&A with investigative journalist Greg Palast
by Suzi Steffen
So, how did an economics sleuth become a superstar journalist?
Bad luck, anger and resentment. I was doing investigations on the Exxon Valdez and corporate bad guys like nuclear plant builders. Enron was one of my targets back when it was still Houston Natural Gas. I'd take my stuff to the newspapers, and story wasn't covered or it was just all wrong — the other side made sure they were all corporate PR horseshit. One day, I was out there in a canoe in Alaska, thinking no one gives a shit about these things, so I have to write about them myself. It was an instant transition. The first things I wrote, though ignored in the U.S., were front page headlnes in Britain. I was hired by The Guardian, then I joined the BBC Nightly News. It was a quick career shift!
Why do you think your stories were ignored in the U.S.?
I call it the "Silence of the media lambs." Investigative reporting is deadly for the reporter, in a career sense. There's not many people that can do it and survive their jobs. Even Sy Hersh was fired by The New York Times, and Bob Parry, who broke the Iran-Contra story, was pushed out of the AP. Most people aren't allowed to even try things which are risky, costly and don't exactly please the powers that be.
One of my better-known stories is Katherine Harris knocking thousands of black folks off the voter rolls in Florida. That had all the elements to get you fired. It's like, you said the president engineered an electoral coup d'état; then there's corporate co-conspirators like ChoicePoint (accusing corporations of criminal acts: a good way to get sued!). It took an enormous amount of time and cost. This wasn't he said, she said, like it was played in the papers; it took thousands of person-hours (not just me, a whole team of people) to go through computer disks and make hundreds of calls. It's money, it's time, it's risk, it's making statements which are completely outside the area of acceptability.
Look at Gary Webb [who wrote the "Dark Alliance" series linking cocaine trafficking to the C.I.A.-backed Nicaraguan Contras], who killed himself over this stuff. I'm a coward, that's why I report for BBC.
The stuff we find is brutal and difficult. Look at the new section of the book about Katrina. We're basically saying the White House left 1700 people to die. You can have Anderson Cooper get on TV and cry about the people who normally mow his lawn, but why are they there in the first place?
The great hope for America is the plummeting of viewership of network news TV and readership of the daily newspaper. That gives me hope that students will stop sucking on the news sewer pipe and go to the original story. All my stuff is replayed on Democracy Now!, and it's huge on the Internet. And I don't charge for that. I want my stuff to reach my own country.
So how do you fund your work?
[It's hard] even at the BBC, which allows me to do stuff and gives me budgets and time. I do real detective courtroom style investigation, and that's way too expensive for a newspaper or network to tolerate. One, royalties from my books subsidize other writing and television, and then my readers send in small donations. People can get a signed copy of my book for $50, for instance. There are no big foundations, none of that stuff, but I get a lot of help by small donations from readers.
A question I have after reading much of Armed Madhouse is: How do you and your researchers stay out of the psych wards with clinical depression?
Yeah, that's why I recently hired Jack Daniels … I'm looking at my chief investigator, asking him if we get depressed, and he's just looking at me like DUH! It can be frustrating, but that's one of the reasons I did the switch to journalism: I can go out there and scream. When I go to Portland, and there's 1200 people listening and rolling with the info, or when people read the book and send me a note saying, "It opened my eyes," that just keeps me going.
Because even when I started writing, though I had a big following in Britain immediately, the U.S. was silent, I didn't know what people were thinking, but now people are reacting to the work.
Is that because of the books?
It's because of the books and radio, Air America, and TV, Democracy Now! getting the word out. I emphasize people reading the books because even though they listen or see me and my goofy hat on Democracy Now! [TV version], it's a smidgen compared to the full impact of the information you can get in the books. The books, they give you all the intricacy and wacky details — and allow me many more opportunities for bad jokes and berserker illustrations.
Yeah, so, how do you mix the serious with your sense of humor?
In Britain, they understand that mix. I took over George Orwell's old column at The Observer. They know it's so grim that you have to laugh. You can't have endlessly depressing stuff without a dark sense of humor about it.
Network news people have to pretend that bullshit baby news, like about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, is deadly serious. On BBC, I can say that when Bush lands on the deck of an aircraft carrier with that flight jacket on, he looks like the first chimp in space — even though the ultimate subject is horrific, the implosion of a Mideast nation.
I hear Armed Madhouse is going to be a graphic novel.
Yeah, we've got artists like Ted Rall, who has been brilliant in my writings on oil, and some of the great comic book writers. Comic books, originally, like Captain Marvel and Superman, were created by activists to educate and encourage people to fight the growing Nazi threat in Europe. In the 60s, we had the alternative comics. So we're going back to comic roots of activism and explanation that can get around the media barons.
From reading the book, it sounds like you think the Dems at the state level sabotage the Dems at the national level. Where does Howard Dean's 50-state strategy come in?
Dean met me, and he says, "I read your book, I carry it around in my briefcase." And I was like, "You're a great politician! You know exactly what to say!" But he opens up his briefcase, and there was my last book! He gets it that there has to be a growing, ground-up movement, not like Terry McAuliffe [former chair of the Democratic National Committee], a corporate suckup who's running Hillary's campaign now.
But I don't put my faith in parties. My concern is that every vote count, no matter who you're voting for.
For instance, gun manufacturers are the only industry in America with an exemption from lawsuits. And that was done — yes, it was pushed by Bush and Bill Frist — but it was totally endorsed by Harry Reid, the so-called leader of the Democrats [in the Senate]. My view of Democrats is, let sleeping dogs lie and lying dogs sleep. A lot of my investigations have been about Dems.
You know, ain't nothing gonna come out of the Republican party, but put your hopes in any party, including the Green Party? No, it's got to be grassroots activism.
What do you think people in Eugene should be doing to safeguard the 2008 elections? How can we fight for real democracy?
Get out of Oregon! Because Oregon's one of the only places in America where you're not gonna expect the election to be stolen. I don't have to worry about election reform in Oregon.
Move to places like New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona. Those will be the states with problems. That's what you're gonna see: the knocking out Hispanic votes. In the new emails released by the House Judiciary Committee, Karl Rove's people are bragging how the U.S. did not pick up stories [about voter fraud] by "that British reporter," Greg Palast.
God, these guys. It's like that new chapter [in Armed Madhouse], Busted, with the story about Homeland Security looking for me. I thought I wouldn't be able to get on a plane and get home. And then what really scared me is that I could get on a plane. These guys were supposed to find Osama, and they couldn't find a guy who is on TV! It's so frightening that it's screechingly laughable. I think they can't handle ridicule. They can handle the ACLU protesting about "Oh, you're taking our civil liberties," but it's not about civil liberties; it's about bozos running around putting us all in danger. I wanted to write about the bozo factor in the war on terror. It's so out of control. All I can think of is it's a world in which half of the Americans have on balloon shoes and wearing red noses.
Greg, I'm teaching a class at the J-School, and I want to give your answer to my students: How can journalists help democracy stay alive?
Don't worry about your career. Forget the goddamned career. Forget wanting to be the local weatherman, work your way up and be Brian Williams. Look what happened to Dan Rather! He made it to the top, and he looked like hell and didn't get to report on stories he care. Do what you want and let the fates make you happy. That sounds really cheap, but I mean, someone somewhere will want to listen to your ravings in the wilderness. I think of Hunter Thompson's line when he quit writing traditional stuff: It's like falling down an elevator shaft and landing on a pile of mermaids. Forget the careerism, forget the job. Don't go work for The Oregonian, go and volunteer at Democracy Now! — or go to The Oregonian and do the writing you want to do, and don't worry about whether they'll keep you there.