Muckraker Says Things You Don’t Want to Hear

Greg Palast

Reprinted from April 2002

by Eric Zorn

Take my advice, dear readers, and spare yourself a couple of days like I’ve just had–days of anxiety, frustration and even a bit of despair.

If you see the new Pluto Press title on your bookseller’s shelves, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” by former Chicagoan Greg Palast, don’t pick it up.

If someone directs you to gregpalast.com to watch the BBC-TV “Newsnight” report in which the director of the Florida Department of Elections rips off his lapel microphone and scurries away from an on-camera interview with Palast, don’t touch that mouse.

If a friend asks you to go hear Palast speak Friday at 7 p.m. at the C. G. Jung Institute in Evanston, or to attend one of his appearances at bookstores in Chicago and Oak Brook Friday and Saturday, beg off. Invent an illness or something.

The book, which was No. 21 on Amazon’s best-sellers’ list Wednesday afternoon, is very disturbing and may cause excessive teeth-clenching. The subtitle promises “the truth about globalization, corporate cons and high finance fraudsters,” and it goes on in great, if somewhat scattershot, detail about an international litany of outrages.

What are those radicals carrying on about when they riot at meetings of international trade and banking groups? Palast, whose 1976 MBA from the University of Chicago gives him a sharp understanding of the issues as well as the ability to go undercover as a “fellow free-market fruitcake,” as he says, offers evidence of the damage such organizations do to citizens in struggling countries.

He details, among many other scandals, the troubling history of bovine-growth hormone’s approval, of energy deregulation and of the safety and regulatory violations that led to the Exxon Valdez disaster (Palast’s only Tribune byline is a 1994 op-ed on that subject). And trust me, you can do without the sick feeling that the average citizen is being played for worse than a fool by those in business and government with their fists wrapped around the levers of power.

Palast, who now reports for the Guardian and Observer in London, as well as the BBC, distinguishes himself from many other advocacy journalists both left and right with his near obsession with documentary evidence–memos, correspondence, e-mail, briefing reports and raw data, much of it stamped confidential–and his painstaking research methods.

Author and liberal commentator Jim Hightower calls Palast “a cross between Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes” in a quote on the back of that book I made the mistake of buying earlier this week. He refined his gumshoe technique by working as an “investigative economist” first here for labor and progressive activist organizations and then in New York for a broader, international range of clients. He was, he writes, an “anti-corporate scourge with his head buried in bureaucratic file cabinets.”

Only in the mid-1990s did he join the Fourth Estate full-time. His first sensational story was “Lobbygate,” an undercover investigation into a payola scandal in Prime Minster Tony Blair’s cabinet. Read about that, if you must. It’s at the end of “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” and won’t make you mad unless you’re British.

But avoid, by all means, Palast’s most recent splash, his expose on how Florida purged its voting rolls before the 2000 election in a way that almost certainly gave the White House to George W. Bush.

We’ve mentioned the story in our pages. The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Salon, the Nation and other publications have also outlined how a sloppy and arguably cynical effort to purge ex-felons from lists of eligible voters cost Vice President Al Gore thousands of votes–roughly 22,000, Palast figures–in a race he officially lost by 537 votes.

It’s not about chads or overvotes or butterfly ballots. It’s about citizens denied their right to vote in a process that seemed designed to target mostly Democrats.

And it was Palast’s first-hand research, detailed in the very aggravating 37-page opening chapter, that everyone, even the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, followed.

But you’ve moved on, am I right? This country is fighting a war against terrorism, the Middle East is looking apocalyptic. Fussing about whether your president was legitimately elected just elevates your blood pressure and makes you question our nation’s commitment to democracy.

Well don’t make the same mistake I did. Avoid Greg Palast.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune

At www.GregPalast.com you can read and subscribe to Greg Palast’s London Observer columns and view his reports for BBC Television’s Newsnight.