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   Interview: Investigative Journalist Greg Palast Tours U.S. to Promote His New Book

"The Best Democracy Money Can Buy":

Investigative Journalist Greg Palast Tours U.S. to Promote His New Book

by Alice Cherbonnier

Photo of Greg Palast Those who fear that investigative journalism is dead may be relieved to know that is not entirely true. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the nonprofit The Guardian, a major London daily newspaper and its Sunday companion paper The Observer, have more substantial budgets for heavy-duty journalism than bottom-line-oriented U.S. media are usually willing to outlay for the labor-intensive kind of work that requires original research and reporting.

That's a major reason U.S. investigative journalist Greg Palast moved to London. He wanted his work to be published, and, with a wife and twin five-year-olds, he needed to get paid for it. But money wasn't the only reason: he found that the British media were more willing to publish important stories.

Now Palast has published a book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (211 pages; London: Pluto Press, 2002, $25, on sale for $17.50 at Barnes & Noble!), intending to use the proceeds to fund a team of investigators to do more investigative work.

On Wed., April 3, Palast passed through Washington, DC as part of a whirlwind book promotion tour. We met in the lobby of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, a block from the MCI Center in downtown DC. Palast, 49, looks happier and younger than his website picture at http://gregpalast.com, but he has less hair. Despite the somber and possibly dangerous nature of the topics he writes about, from corporate corruption to the Christian Coalition, Palast doesn't come across as hard-boiled.

He was asked what could be done to increase the kind of reporting he does. "We need more than more investigative reporters," he said. "We need investigative editors and producers. I got lucky because I could actually do the deep serious drilling. It takes courage for BBC to air my work, and for the Guardian and its Sunday Observer to publish it. If there were more of us, where are they gonna go? Look at [investigative reporter] Seymour Hersh. He can't get a job on a U.S. newspaper. And Joe Conason--relegated to the internet world and the New York Observer. They should both be in the New York Times, not a flake like Thomas Friedman."

What will be his "next big thing" journalistically? "I'm going to chase the Florida guys to see how they cook the next one." He reports on a recent meeting with officials at the Democratic National Committee. "I wanted answers on camera about protecting black voters."

How will he fund the research? "BBC will have to fund it, and the Guardian," he says. "I hope to expand it into a documentary." Another near-term project will be to travel to Venezuela to write about the political situation there "before they kill [President] Hugo Chavez."

He adds that all proceeds from his book--"in the six figures," he predicts--will go toward an investigative reporting fund, to be used "wherever I see the need for it." He plans to build teams of researchers, an expensive proposition.

On April 3, about six weeks since the book was released, he was obviously both annoyed and pleased that there were only about 30 of his books available for sale anywhere in the U.S., with a second hardback printing already under way and a paperback deal with Penguin in the works.

One of the book's eight major chapters discusses the real story about the Exxon Valdez, as opposed to the simplistic and fallacious one put out in the major media ("the captain was sleeping off a drunk"). When he covered the story, Palast was an investigator hired by the native peoples who had leased their land to oil companies with stringent environmental safeguards in the agreement. The safeguards weren't followed. He tried to interest the U.S. media in his findings, but "I couldn't get the press to report the Exxon story. They had no guts, no balls, no soul, no courage."

That's when he realized how difficult it was for an investigative reporter to break a story. "You offend the powers that be," he says. "So often the typical career path is to stick your nose up the editor's ass. At the Chicago Tribune, an editor actually told me they didn't run a story of mine about a gas company that deliberately left leaking pipes in the ground, that actually did [later] blow up, killing some people. He admitted that [the Tribune Company] owned stock [in the gas company]." That's the kind of information the public needs to know, he pointed out, but is very difficult to ferret out.

He continues, "I'm not 'out to get' anyone--I'm 'out to get' the truth. Enron is not an aberration. The tree is rotten."

He has found the road to getting press coverage of his reporting, and his book, to be rocky. "No [newspaper] wants to interview me," he says, though he has had considerable publicity through internet, email, talk radio and a little television (he was due to be on "Politically Incorrect" on April 8).

One reason for newspapers' hesitancy to give him press, he believes, is that he has been labeled as being partisan. "People like to use my stuff for political purposes," he says. And even though the left likes to appropriate his stories, he points out that the left is not pleased with him any more than the right is. "Some get extraordinarily annoyed about the non-flattering information [I publish] on the Clintons. But if the Democrats don't like it, there's nothing I can do about it."

In Europe, he adds, "I even had to defend Bush against allegations that weren't true," regarding rumors about the Bush administration knowing in advance about the 9/11 attacks. He said he had not yet found any convincing evidence of this theory.

Palast closes with an observation: "Money lust has killed more people than the atomic bomb." And he signs my copy of his book: "Stay dangerous," it reads.

* * * *

Someone signals to Palast that he has to move on to a radio interview before giving a talk to a couple of hundred people who have wandered in to take seats in the library lobby. As he fields questions from others, the Chronicle's own little investigative team (this writer and Elaine Shen, who works with WYPR-FM's "Marc Steiner Show" and writes for this newspaper) observe the people in the audience. Nobody looks like a Washington Post reporter; there are no television cameras. We see no tell-tale reporter's notebooks at the ready. But we do spot a man with a spiffy Mac titanium laptop and engage him in conversation. He is covering the talk for D.C.'s Indymedia website, and he tells us two other Indymedia people are in the audience. People seated around him chime in about how they had learned about Palast's book and talk. Not from the Post; not from local mainstream television or radio. They came because they received emails from others, or saw flyers, or learned about it through alternative websites.

Dare we call this loose network the new shadow media? And can it do the job the mainstream press could do--if it only would--with Greg Palast's brand of investigative journalism?


P.S.--Watch for a book review to be posted on this website in the next week or so. I've already read the riveting chapters called "Jim Crow in Cyberspace: The Unreported Story of How They Fixed the Vote in Florida" (quiz question: why did Texas provide Florida a list of 7,000 Texas felons, whose Texas voting rights had been restored, a couple of years before the 2000 election?); "Sell the Lexus, Burn the Olive Tree: Globalization and its Discontents" (quiz question: what are the terms of the standard, draconian one-size-fits all contract needy nations have to sign to get IMF loans?); "Small Towns, Small Minds" (quiz question: How do small business people shoot themselves in the foot?); and "Pat Robertson, General Pinochet, Pepsi-Cola and the Anti-Christ: Special Investigative Reports" (quiz question: What does Pat Robertson have to do with the Bank of Scotland, and how is it that we in the U.S. haven't heard about it?).

The final four are "Inside Corporate America," "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," "Cash for Access—'Lobbygate': the Real Story of Blair and the Sale of Britain," and "Kissing the Whip."

 


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This story was published on April 4, 2002.
  
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