by Ed Rampell
Not everyone gets to be Woodward and Bernstein, cracking the big story and coming out a hero. BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast is getting the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union's 2004 Upton Sinclair Freedom of Expression Award this weekend – but he was also recently sued for $15 million by former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat. Investigative journalism, the pride of the reporting profession, can be an exercise in pure masochism these days: As a big story takes one closer and closer to power, the costs and consequences mount.
Palast has emerged as a Grand Inquisitor of corporate wrongdoers and their political lackeys, from Baghdad to Sacramento to Washington. Britain's Tribune Magazine called him: “The most important journalist of our time dominating journalism in two continents.” About 1,000 people turned up for his appearance at Immanuel Presbyterian church in L.A. last week. But ruffling feathers right and left has its price, earning Palast powerful enemies. Born in Los Angeles and raised in the San Fernando Valley, he was recently inducted as a “patron of the Philosophical Society” of Trinity College in Dublin, but Palast called it “one of the great and bitter ironies for me. I'm part of the European letters establishment, but in America, I'm the ‘kook,' the ‘conspiracy nut,' which is pretty disconcerting, because I want to be American.” Previous patrons include Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and Salman Rushdie.
Consider the company. Socialist author Upton Sinclair was savaged by Hollywood moguls when he ran for governor of California during the Depression on a radical anti-poverty program. And Rushdie lives still under the threat of a Muslim fatwa, a death sentence, for his book, The Satanic Verses. So maybe they're not doing him any favors with all these awards, even if a lot of folks want to laud the author of the bestselling The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High-Finance Fraudsters.
Florida's ex-Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, called Palast's exposé of alleged electoral tampering during the 2000 election “twisted and maniacal.” Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced Palast in Parliament. And Palast says his reporting about Washington's purported role in an attempted coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has earned him death threats, while gold-mining associates of George Bush Sr. sued Palast over charges that African miners were buried alive during land disputes in Tanzania.
The nonpartisan Palast also pulls no punches when it comes to Democrats. Cuomo's suit came on the heels of Palast's allegations regarding a Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant court case. “I enjoy being sued by both parties, it gives me a sense of balance,” quipped Palast, although he added, “a very costly balance,” estimating legal fees for winning libel suits cost $1 million.
Palast rose to prominence as a journalist for the BBC and the UK's Guardian and Observer newspapers. Best Democracy exposes scams such as “California Reamin': Deregulation and the Power Pirates,” but revelations regarding the Bushes' alleged fixing of Florida's vote probably put Palast on the map more than anything else. His charges about the purging of Florida blacks from voter rolls also appear in the hard-hitting documentary film, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election.
Best Democracy spent six months-plus on The New York Times' bestseller list peaking at number four, selling 250,000-plus copies. A book tour for the just-released “expanded election edition” is returning Palast to L.A., where Britain's journalistic enfant terrible attended John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley. “We were Vietnam cannon fodder and working class lubricant for Chevy and Lockheed plants … My mother worked in a school cafeteria, my father sold furniture,” Palast told CityBeat. Through scholarships, Palast attended UCLA and the University of Chicago, “where I studied under [free marketeer] Milton Friedman, which gave me a real view of how the ruling class ruled.”
The 50-ish writer recounted: “Before I was an investigative reporter, I was an investigator, which is why I can do it with a totally different spin. I did some of the really big racketeering investigations for labor unions, government, and consumer groups … I also worked on the Exxon Valdez investigation – uncovering frauds committed by Exxon and the oil companies up in Alaska.”
Along the way, he discovered that this information is a hard sell to America's papers. Because of the litigious climate, no one wants to be first with any hard news. “I realized editors didn't want original muckraking,” he said. “So I said ‘I'm going to write it myself.' I immediately figured out the only way to survive doing real muckraking was by leaving the country. Europe's most influential newspaper, The Guardian, and top television network, BBC, said: ‘We're thrilled to have a real investigator.'”
Best Democracy's new chapter notes Florida's “changeover to touchscreen voting was made on orders of [then-]Secretary of State Katherine Harris.” Palast warns “Digital Klansmen” are conspiring to undercount “one million black ballots” in November. “We're running apartheid elections in America, and they're going to make it worse in 2004. That's the point of computer voting … to make sure [Democratic-leaning black votes are] technically voided,” Palast contends.
The latest edition of the book also includes “inside administration documents written two years before the invasion of Iraq, in which the Bush boys targeted the oil fields for sale and divided all of Iraq's state-owned assets,” added Palast. On BBC's March 22 Newsnight, he interviewed General Jay Garner, the first Bush-appointed “viceroy” of Baghdad, about the “armed corporate takeover of Iraq,” and Garner's firing for apparently placing Iraqi interests ahead of this privatization scheme.
While Palast is championed by the non-Cuomo left, he is vilified by the right. Neocon David Horowitz, editor of frontpagemag.com and author of Left Illusions, sparred with Palast on Dennis Miller's February 25 CNBC show, and told CityBeat, “I don't think very much of him. It's not just because Palast has obnoxious politics, but he's obnoxious himself.” Horowitz claimed that Palast slighted him in the greenroom. During Miller's show, Horowitz and Palast (both Jewish) argued over whether Mel Gibson's The Passion was anti-Semitic. Horowitz praised the film, while Palast wisecracked he hadn't seen The Passion yet because his TV didn't get Al-Jazeera. At the end of their heated exchange, Palast mock choked Horowitz – which was not shown when the show aired. Palast said he pretended to strangle the ex-radical-turned-reactionary because “it's illegal under California law to asphyxiate him for real.”
Horowitz said the title The Best Democracy Money Can Buy made him “nauseous … it's such a stupid, left-wing cliché. Politics is expensive. What people like Palast want is communism, where the state runs elections. He's a neocommunist [and] has the same political outlook as Pravda and The Daily Worker had in the 1930s.”
In his typically jaunty way, Palast laughed: “Am I going to be tried soon? Is he talking to Tom Ridge about my homeland security trial in a dungeon? If I go to Guantanamo, will Horowitz pick out my orange suit?”
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by Ed Rampell