by Joe Garofoli
Greg Palast may be the only journalist with a New York office who works, as he says, “in journalistic exile.” There, with a team of a half-dozen researchers largely supported by $50 donations from readers, Palast ferrets out documents and smoking-gun-toting insiders from Washington to Ecuador and uses them to gird his bitingly sardonic investigative essays that most American mainstream outlets won’t touch.
Why? Palast figures it’s because he mercilessly attacks the status quo. He was one of the first to write about the manipulation of voter files in the 2000 election, and he used a combination of unnamed sources, leaked documents and gumshoe reporting to critique the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina.
While he’s long been a critic of the Republican Party, he’s only somewhat kinder to liberals such as Sen. Hillary Clinton (“What do you really know about her views?”) and MoveOn.org (“Their idea is, if we have enough cocktail parties and put enough ads in the New York Times, we win. We may not have influenced any elections, but hell, we feel terrific about ourselves.”)
Or maybe mainstream outlets have avoided him because, as he puts it, “I’m an expensive guy to have around.” He estimates that it cost “over a million dollars” to lawyer the two books that hit the New York Times best-seller list, the latest of which was “Armed Madhouse: From Baghdad to New Orleans – Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild” (Penguin, 2007).
Other than Harper’s magazine and liberal online outlets, the best place to find the work of the 55-year-old married father of two is on BBC.com or his own site, www.gregpalast.com.
Palast has long had an enthusiastic following in the Bay Area, and on Saturday PEN Oakland will award him the Literary Censorship Award for several of the pieces that appear in “Armed Madhouse” and elsewhere. Palast isn’t sure whether he’ll be able to attend – he’s been dashing back and forth to Ecuador for a series of BBC reports on the effects of oil drilling in the Amazon.
“I don’t deserve this, but I accept it on behalf of my sources, many of whom risk their lives and their jobs,” Palast said from New York. “All I do is report on the courage of others.”
How does a writer of best-selling books get classified as “censored?” The answer, according to PEN Oakland spokesperson Kim McMillon, has much to do with the state of U.S. media.
“The average American does not see the type of reporting that Greg Palast is doing,” McMillon said. “The average American gets their news from FOX, CNN and the talking heads at ABC, NBC and CBS. What has taken the place of real journalism is reporting that is safe and will keep the public calm.”
Palast is the working-class kid with a University of Chicago MBA. He never studied journalism; he was more fond of the informal writing education he received from hanging out with Charles Bukowski in Hollywood. He wanted to become a poet, until Allen Ginsberg read some of his work and told him, “You’d be a great journalist.”
He reads little mainstream press other than the Wall Street Journal (“which is extraordinarily important”) and the New York Times (“to know what I’m supposed to know”).
Palast says his desire to expose class-warfare stories is rooted in his upbringing in the “ass-end of Los Angeles,” a neighborhood wedged between a power plant and a dump. Kids in the neighborhood had two choices, he said: go to Vietnam or work in the auto plant. “We were the losers,” he said. He was saved from the war by a favorable draft number.
“A lot of people didn’t make it out. Because I made it out, and my sister (Geri, a former Clinton administration assistant secretary of labor) made it out, I feel I have this obligation to tell these stories on behalf of all of those people who didn’t make it out.”
After graduate school at the University of Chicago (where he studied under free-market economic guru Milton Friedman – “an evil brilliant mind” who “taught me to be skeptical of liberal nostrums”), Palast became an investigator, a “forensic economist,” unearthing documents exposing fraud and racketeering on behalf of labor unions and consumer groups. In the late 1990s, frustrated by the toothless reporting he saw in much of the mainstream press, he turned to writing. One of the first stories that received widespread attention – initially first in England – was about the manipulation of the Florida vote count during the disputed 2000 election.
In a new afterword to “Armed Madhouse,” Palast predicts the 2008 election won’t be stolen by faulty touch-screen voting machines or even through computers at all. It will be done by making it hard for voters – particularly people of color in traditionally Democratic enclaves – to register and vote by a series of challenges to their registration.
“I’m seriously concerned that people see Florida 2000 as a fluke. But in fact, what we see is a systematic manipulation of the electoral system.”
Sadly, Palast said, little of this is discussed in coverage of the 2008 White House campaign. And neither is much else of substance.
“I don’t think anybody knows a goddamn thing about Barack Obama. We know that (former GOP Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckabee lost weight. John Edwards has some pretty substantive policy papers, but all we know about him is that his wife has cancer. Basically, (the coverage) is an endless, endless, endless discussion of B.S.,” he said. “And NPR (National Public Radio) is no better. They’re just Connecticut accents repeating the same information.”
At the same time he criticizes American mass media, he longs to appear there. He wants mainstream television to broadcast his muckraking work to the more politically conservative heartland. He so wants to reach a mass broadcast audience that he used to accept invitations to appear on Fox News programs (“I’ll agree every once in a while to go on to be beat up”), but the invitations have largely dried up in the past year.
So to support his investigative work, three years ago he created a nonprofit fund. It raises more than $100,000 a year – most of it in $50 and $100 donations from individuals. “It’s the only thing that’s kept us alive,” said Palast, who takes no money from the fund. The BBC didn’t pay for his team’s airfare to Ecuador, so he used $15,000 from the fund.
He wouldn’t have these problems if he could crack the American broadcast market.
“Broadcasting means just that – you’re capturing a wide audience that isn’t looking for you. I have a huge Web presence and a huge readership. But they’re self-selecting; they want to hear me,” Palast said. “I want the people who don’t want to hear me, or have never heard of me or have no idea about me. That’s a tough thing – reaching out to those who have never heard of me.”
Greg Palast was honored at the 17th annual PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles National Literary Awards this past Saturday.