THE BEST DEMOCRACY MONEY CAN BUY
by Greg Palast (Pluto Press, $25)
GREG PALAST is an American whose investigative reports for BBC-TV and London's Guardian and Observer newspapers have recently begun to earn him a degree of fame in the United States. With his new book—largely a collection of five years of his investigations and columns, woven together with dry humor—Palast is becoming something the U.S. left has been hungering for: a well-known, credible critic under the age of 60. (After Molly Ivins and Michael Moore, the list gets a bit thin.)
Palast's celebrity comes from his subjects. He is widely credited with breaking the story of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' systematic exclusion of large numbers of (Gore-leaning) blacks from Florida's voter rolls before the 2000 election; he'd been sounding the alarm over the predations and duplicities of Enron for years before the company's collapse last fall. From London to Washington, D.C., to South America and beyond, his files are a highlight reel of the worst abuses of global capitalism and the political systems it has purchased.
Palast's strength—and, to a degree, his pitfall—is meticulous documentation. He has a gift for finding the reportorial gold in stacks of tedious papers (and for cultivating leaky inside sources). But his zeal for such documents and the sweeping arc of his targets give his reporting, inevitably, the uneasy edge of conspiracy theory. If Palast's stories, many concerning America, are accurate—and BBC-TV, one suspects, doesn't air stuff this damning without vetting it through 18 layers of lawyerdom—why don't we ever see them?
Palast spends nearly two hours on the phone ticking off the reasons.
"You can't do investigative reporting in America. It's not allowed," Palast says. "I went undercover for a story. . . . I set up a false front, pretending I was a lobbyist for a company called Enron, and I was getting information on both ends—[about the] influence on American government as well as Britain—but I couldn't get it into American media for nothing. I was able to go undercover getting tape recordings of lobbyists—not entrapping—and you can't do that [in the U.S.].
"These fake investigative units that they have now—they sniff, but they don't go near the water.
"You start by understanding that they lie to you, they're always going to lie to you, and you're going to find out how; you're going to ask yourself, if I were going to commit a crime, how would I do it? I've been warning about Enron at least since 1989, and I was paying attention not because they were losing money but because they were making it.
"If I want to tell these stories, I have to go abroad."
Palast—who spent years as a professional investigator, not a journalist, before moving to London in 1997—also doesn't care much for American reporters themselves.
"You learn how to write for deadlines; you learn how to take shortcuts. On Fox, you can set your watch: Your story will have 40 seconds of narrative, two sound bites, and a close—in 90 seconds [total]. You cannot do that crap for 20 years and then, as your reward, get assigned to the investigative division and know something.
"For starters, your Rolodex is still the same: the official sources, the corporate flacks. It's so much easier to just go to press conferences and get press releases.
"You don't learn how to investigate in [an American] newsroom. I get all this praise; the trick is that I have editors and producers that will give me the money, the time, the backing, and the space. I can get on the air and tell the story of how the election was stolen in Florida; I would have to take hostages to get on the air in America."
Even though Palast's BBC program has a reciprocal, free story-trading agreement with ABC, only Ted Koppel nibbled—but even Nightline eventually backed away from the Florida story. Palast's attempts to get aired on mainstream U.S. television have been largely fruitless. But despite his scathing critiques of American politics and media, he's come home. He will continue to work for British media, but this month Greg Palast moved back to Long Island.
As he puts it, "I don't want my kids to be British. Americans have much more verve. We have much more of a don't-eat-shit attitude."
Palast will discuss his work and sign his new book at Town Hall, 7:30 p.m. Sat., June 22.