Swimming Against the Mainstream

Greg Palast

By Christopher Horton
Asia Times Online

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the man widely considered as the top investigative journalist in the United States is persona non grata in his own country’s media. For Greg Palast, an accidental journalist, this is not upsetting. “Our news is like Pravda,” he stated matter-of-factly from his New York office in a recent interview with Asia Times Online.

Palast is content to continue his investigative reports into what he perceives as an American oligarchy – a nexus between politicians and corporations in which the line between the two is increasingly blurred – an endeavor which he pursues across the Atlantic in the British media. However, he is gradually being “discovered” by Americans tired of channel surfing only to find the same version of events coming out of the mouths of different talking heads.

“Fair and balanced” Palast is not. He has an agenda: to answer his paramount question, “Who are the real bad guys?” A bloodhound with an MBA and an allergy to what he calls the “straight-faced solemn style of American journalism”, Palast is making few friends in American political and corporate circles as he is emerging as an intelligent and confident voice of the people whose opinions rarely make it into American media. His work is garnering support from a variety of quarters, including filmmaker Michael Moore, Hustler magazine, and Dead Kennedys singer and punk icon Jello Biafra. The funny thing is, this was never his intent.

American media asleep at the helm
In Palast’s own words, “bad luck” pushed him into the field of journalism. After obtaining his Master’s in business and economics from the University of Chicago, Palast found employment as an investigator of white-collar crimes in the US and Europe. His early accomplishments include negotiating contracts for United Steelworkers Union in Chicago and helping found a consumer advocacy group in Peru. In 1988, Palast directed the US government’s investigation of a nuclear plant builder in which the jury awarded the largest racketeering penalty in American history. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, Palast was hired by native Chugach Alaskans who wanted someone representing their interests to investigate America’s worst environmental disaster.

While most people remember the finger being pointed at Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood, Palast found that there was more to the story than a ship captain who enjoyed a frequent tipple of the hard stuff: the ship’s radar system had been broken for more than a year. What’s more, the ship’s third mate was at the helm while Hazelwood was below the deck fast asleep.

“We were all told that it happened because the captain was drunk,” Palast said over the phone, his voice taking the tone it does whenever he states “official” versions of events which he has discredited. “It was declared to be a result of ‘human error’, but what it really was was a case of corporate penny pinching leading to disaster.”

Palast attempted to get his findings into the American media, but there were no takers. The version of the accident as explained by Exxon and British Petroleum, who had their images and large amounts of money at stake, was enough for the mainstream media.
This didn’t sit well with Palast, who felt that if he didn’t get the word about the radar system out, nobody would. He finally did in 1999 – 10 years later in the London Observer after having already contributed a few similar corporate exposes to the publication. One year earlier, in 1998, Palast was awarded Britain’s highest journalism honor for his undercover investigation of influence peddling within Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet by American corporations, including Enron. By the end of the 1990s, Palast had made the jump from investigator to investigative journalist.

Challenging the Foxification of American media
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, fresh off of his award-winning investigation of the manipulation of the Florida ballot count which gave George W Bush his father’s old job, Palast decided to take a look into what was being done by the US government to get to the bottom of the biggest intelligence failure in US history.

In November 2001, Palast discovered that the Bush administration was blocking federal probes into both the bin Laden family and the Saudi royal family. The findings he presented in his report on BBC Newsnight didn’t make it into mainstream media across the Atlantic until recent weeks – almost two years later – via a report issued by Republican Thomas H Kean, former New Jersey governor and chairman of the independent commission on September 11, and former Representative Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat and vice-chairman of the commission. The report said that the Justice Department and Pentagon were not providing enough information to the commission’s investigation. The Bush administration initially opposed the creation of the commission.

“It’s taken two years, and it’s only coming out now because some white Republicans are saying it,” Palast said. “Before then, it couldn’t get reported in the US.” Palast is disappointed, but not surprised, by what he perceives as US newspapers functioning more as distributors of information that is given to them, rather than aggressively trying to find and pursue leads on their own. “Why aren’t papers trying to find that material for themselves?”

Palast emphasized that he does not subscribe to any notion espousing the idea that the Bush administration is suppressing September 11-related information because of any foreknowledge of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “Bush did not know of the attack in advance, but the investigations are being blocked because the United States government has slavishly protected the Saudi royal family.”

For observers of the US since September 11, the compliance of the American media has played a pivotal role in stoking patriotic fervor which has given the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt several times, while failing to represent the voices of Americans who see things differently – including Palast.

For Palast, the state of alarm in the US since the attacks of September 11 is not necessarily unwarranted, but it conveniently serves the interests of the ruling elite. “America was attacked by maniacs. Our president didn’t do anything to prevent it and hasn’t done anything since. The truth is America is still a safe place – but the administration doesn’t like that image because they think it’s easier to control people when they’re afraid.”

While many pundits state that the popularity of Bush is vulnerable to US troop casualties in Iraq, Palast insists that American voters are unlikely to remove Bush from office over anything but domestic concerns – the sputtering US economy in particular. “I think Bush will have a difficult time getting re-elected,” Palast said, “Once the yellow ribbons fall off of the trees, people will start to wonder where their pensions have gone.”

Palast noted that US unemployment is at its highest since the presidency of George H W Bush, according to the current Bush administration’s figures. Palast said that the administration intentionally released the new unemployment data on the Fourth of July in order to minimize press coverage.

Palast cited the story attributed to the recovery of Private Jessica Lynch as another example of unquestioning media obedience. “They swallowed the whole PR sausage,” he said. The majority of world media has not demonstrated the American media’s appetite for Pentagon sausage. Practically every other media outlet in the world describes the “rescue” of Lynch as an unnecessary Hollywood-style raid on an Iraqi hospital that was treating the injured soldier’s wounds.

Amid the current media focus on Bush’s State of the Union address in January in which he said that Saddam Hussein was attempting to acquire uranium from Niger, Palast said that there has yet to be a major change in coverage of the administration by mainstream US media. “Occasionally backing up is done under the pretense of being ‘balanced’ – this is pretense, it’s not real,” he said.

Palast is obviously dismayed by American media in the post-September 11 age, characterizing it as “gone to hell in a handbag”. Palast views news in the US, television in particular, as being disproportionately affected by the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. “It’s ‘Foxification’, they’ve gone from news to viciousness, barely disguised racism and pseudoentertainment intended to be taken as news – and every station is now trying to follow that formula,” he said.

From the tone of his voice and the words he chooses, it can be easily gleaned that Palast’s opinion of Fox News is less than positive. Likewise Murdoch and Fox News employees such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity in all likelihood have little love for Palast. This did not prevent the network, which constantly reminds viewers that its content is “fair and balanced”, from inviting Palast to be a guest on a show which featured a studio audience. Palast laughed, “They brought me out for about five minutes, and I was booed the whole time.”

Palast, however, seems to have reveled in having appeared on the network whose message he is working to counter. “My appearance on Fox seemed to be for the purpose of beating me up, but that’s okay – let them do it. Some people will still get the word,” he said – a challenge reminiscent of Bush’s recent taunting of Iraqi guerrilla forces to “bring it on”.

Battling the blackout
Palast’s new book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes The Truth About Globalization, Corporate Cons and High-Finance Fraudsters, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for the 20 weeks since its release. While this is not an unheard-of achievement for a book, it is a significant accomplishment for a book that has essentially not been reviewed or advertised anywhere in the mainstream American media.

“While the mainstream media would love to block it out, it has been very well received in America – people are fed up with brain-dead infotainment ” Palast said. Palast also cited the influence of outspoken filmmaker Michael Moore as providing a boon to his book sales. “He [Moore] has been extremely helpful to me in breaking through”.

To counter the blackout of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Palast set out on a 10-week, 27-city speaking tour to support the book. “The tour was received excitedly – it was very heartening”, Palast added, saying that with the book’s recent translation into Japanese and a Chinese version on the way, he plans an East Asian book tour in the near future.

For Palast, after years of investigating corruption and being blacked out of his own country’s media, the US book tour was a refreshing eye-opener. “I learned to like America again. It isn’t the same country that is presented to us and the world by bubblehead politicians and fake-hair news,” he said. “Americans aren’t happy with the current oligarchy.”

Palast said that working Americans see through schemes such as the proposed removal of the inheritance tax or Bush’s recent tax cut for what they really are. “The average American recognizes it as theft,” he said.

Iraq and the next war
Finished with the book tour, and working on an edited US version of his investigation into the Bush dynasty which aired on the BBC under the name “Bush Family Fortunes” (“America can’t take it straight up,” he said), what is Palast up to next?

“I have a document from before the war, an official State Department document about the plan for Iraq’s economy. This includes the privatization of the oil industry. The plan is essentially to turn Iraq into a corporate Disneyland,” Palast said. “If that oil is privatized as planned, the Middle East will catch fire,” he said. “The question is, who wrote this document?”

Since my interview with Palast, he has named one member of the Iraqi “Disneyland”. Palast has said that Hilary Rosen, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), is helping draft copyright legislation for the new administration in Iraq. Currently in the US, the RIAA is using the judicial system to hunt down fileswappers it deems guilty of violating copyright laws. Interestingly enough, none of the accused are America Online subscribers – AOL/Time Warner happens to be an RIAA member. Palast has declared Madonna to be the winner of the Iraq war.

As for speculation on the Bush administration’s next target in its “war on terror”, Palast predicted that Bush’s next war will not be Iran or Syria, but Venezuela or Nigeria – for reasons of oil and geopolitics.

Palast has already written about the negative and one-sided Western media coverage of President Hugo Chavez, and has interviewed the politician regarding the coup attempt against him, which Palast believes was connected to Chavez’s attempts to strengthen the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Venezuela is a member. As for oil-rich Nigeria, Palast said that the Bush administration will attempt to “solidify its control on the country as the French and British surround that nation”.

A journalist who is frequently the only person in his field saying what he says, Palast said people frequently take issue when he challenges the veracity of administration claims and corporate reports. “People come up to me and say, ‘If this isn’t true, then why haven’t I read about it in the New York Times’?” Palast paused – and let a small laugh escape.

“My answer is, ‘You will’.”

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GREG PALAST, adjunct professor of statistics at Indiana University (Gary) many, many years ago, is more recently the author of the New York Times bestseller, Armed Madhouse: Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild. www.GregPalast.com