The Last Iconoclast
An interview with Greg Palast
Greg Palast grew up in a Los Angeles house sandwiched between a landfill and power plant. Maybe there was something in the air that made him crazy—in a good way. Maybe it's the kind of upbringing he endured in the "scum end of L.A." that gave him his perspective on the human condition, which has led him to become one America's most fearless and yet little known investigative journalists. Little known in his own country, that is, but popular in Europe, where he reports for England's BBC TV network and the nation's leading newspapers, the Guardian and Observer.
But with the New York Times bestseller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: Expanded Election Edition (Penguin 2004), Palast has cultivated a growing following in the U.S. thanks to his investigations into the Florida election debacle of 2000 published first in the U.S. by Salon.com.
His latest work includes an exposé of the Bush administration's plan to seize Iraq's oil fields long before the 9-11 atrocities. In 2000, he exposed the story of Choice Point, Inc.—the company Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris hired to purge the names of thousands of African American voters from Florida's voter rolls. While the story uncovered fairly clear proof that Harris rigged the election for George W. (she was his state campaign coordinator, after all), the U.S. media practically ignored it.
Palast, 50, also has a connection to New Mexico, since he worked as an investigator two decades ago at the attorney general's office. Prior to that, he earned an MBA at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of Milton Friedman, the conservative economist who conceived the trickle-down economic theory that became known as Reaganomics. "What's the point in talking with some lefty Marxist egghead with a beard who doesn't have any information?" Palast stated in a recent Los Angeles Times article, when explaining his relationship with Friedman.
If you are in the mood for a genuine evening of provocative and humorous talk on topics ranging from the U.S. mainstream press to the current state of the electoral process in the United States—Mr. Palast is your man. The Alibi caught up with him last week by phone and here's a preview of what he'll have to say when he comes to town this Friday.
Explain how you became an investigative journalist, and why you're better known in England than you are in the United States, even though you're an American.
Someone explain it to me! Because I'd like to know why the news in this country is getting exiled. I mean, the story of the theft of the election, the black votes, tens of thousands of black votes getting kicked off voter rolls in Florida in 2000, I broke open that story to the BBC and the Guardian papers in England and, you know, you couldn't get a word of that story into the U.S. press. So you tell me why ... the New York Times reported it four years after the fact. I mean, not just four years after the fact--four years after I reported it in England. So when there's no respect for George W. Bush in Europe, they know that he's the product of a coup de tat by computer. He was never elected president; he was never really reelected either.
How did you get onto the story of Choice Point in the first place?
Well, I dig into corporations, and I was looking into Choice Point. I followed the money. I was looking at why this company got a $4 million no-bid contract to go through the voter list in Florida. And their directors, I mean, they look like they're from a Republican Country Club.
Their Board of Directors were known donors to the Republican Party and donated money to George W. Bush's campaign?
More than that. One was a Republican ex-congressman. This was the big bucks of the Republicans—the Bush Pioneers. By Pioneers, I'm not talking about people with little houses on the prairie. I'm talking about people who gave a hundred grand or more to Little George.
What did this company do?
Their talent was to provide a list of supposed felons who illegally registered to vote in Florida. There were 94,000 of them, supposedly. As it turned out, virtually every one of them was innocent of any crime except being black. The majority were African American, and almost none of them were illegal felon voters.
Why do you think the American mainstream press ignored this after you already reported it for the BBC?
Name me a story of import the [national] U.S. [media] covers at all. If it's not put out by the White House, if it ain't official news, it ain't news in America. You can't look at the burial of the report of the theft of the election unless you look at the burial of the theft of my reports on secret plans to dispose Iraq's oil fields, which were developed before the war. I ran that on the BBC nightly news, I saw it in exactly zero places in the United States, except for Harper's magazine, where I'm a contributing editor.
You ain't gonna see it on your Foxified stations. Once in a while, when the truth tries to come out of the cement, or tries to come out of the electronic Berlin Wall, there's retribution. In the case of Dan Rather, he repeated a story I put on BBC television, that George W. Bush dodged the draft, that his Dad fixed it. Rather ran a side note about some memo and they basically destroyed his career and anyone who touched the story. Punishment was swift and complete. So you can't look at just the one story. You have to look at the half dozen stories and say, "Why aren't they covered?"
What is your answer?
Because, in the U.S. press, there is a compromise of what is proper news. Proper news is what comes from an official source. News, the news agenda, you go to the Albuquerque Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post and they have the same front page (national story) every day. They have the same four national stories every day. No one does their own stuff. Everyone is told what the story of the day is. Basically, it's not that we lack investigative reporters, it's just that all the editors have been killed and replaced by editors of the living dead who just simply take the news off the wire.
Literally that's not true, there's not the same four stories in the same four newspapers.
Let's go try it. (Here Palast wants to go web surfing and see the headlines for each paper, but I suggest we move on and let readers try it themselves.) These stories are all determined by the White House, and key corporations, and they set out the news, and that's what it is. If it's not on that agenda, if it's not their topic, you ain't gonna see it. I mean, there's different flavors, there's strawberry at the Washington Post attacking Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and there's vanilla at New York Times attacking Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.
You're saying that the White House is attacking Hugo Chavez and that's the whole story.
Yes. We don't have reports in America, we have repeating. One thing I can do at the BBC, if I've got important information on the presidential election, on Hugo Chavez, documents on the World Bank, I've got documents in my hand from the State Department on Iraq's oil, they'll say "Dig it out, go there, put 'em on camera, put it on the news." That would never, ever happen in an American newsroom.
Why do you think that the U.S. newsrooms don't have the same type of commitment to investigative reporting the BBC does?
It's a triple: money, risk and time. It costs a lot of money to do original investigative reporting. A lot of money, as opposed to pre-canned stuff, videos handed to you, press conferences, "rewrite this." It's cheap. It's like getting sawdust in your cereal. And if you eat sawdust and smile, they'll give you more sawdust.
And now we have news distributed on TV stations around the country that's produced by the federal government, that is pure propaganda, and stations air it without a disclaimer ... I wish George Orwell was around to witness that.
It's falling down the line, whether it's a prefab video or a press conference. What do we care what the president's agenda is today. Same stuff. It's pre-chewed. It's not organic. It's not news grown from the ground. It's news because Karl Rove said, "This is today's news." That's it. That's the problem. One, it's expensive to do it right. Two, it's risky. You know how many times I've been sued? You know, I never lose.
How many times have you been sued?
I get a threat a week, and I've actually been sued a few times.
Who's suing and threatening you?
George Bush's gold mining company Barrick Gold, an evil little company. I reported that when it's gold mining properties in Africa were cleared, 50 gold miners were buried alive.
George Bush Sr.? He had a big stake in the company?
Bush Sr. and his advisor got paid the big bucks by this gold mining company out of Canada. The reason you haven't read anything about this company is because every time a reporter wants to write about the story, their editors get threatening letters from lawyers. It's cheaper just to can the story. I have a stack of these letters. You know, it's expensive. My attitude is quite simple: "Fuck you, I'm reporting it, you son of a bitch."
I bet it costs you a fortune in legal fees ...
Yeah, it costs me. I'm getting eaten up by legal fees. No question. But on the other hand, I'm not going to let these assholes corner me and edit the news through lawsuit threats. So that's money. So you got your money, you got your risk. Then there's time. We have, in America, this kind of Chinese dinner news where it's the story of the moment and CNN headline news. You know, you eat it quick and flush it down.
Like the Michael Jackson molestation case.
Even the news, NPR, so-called "middle ground" news, the Bolton nomination--that stuff. All these news stories have to be done by these horrendous deadlines. If I think a story is important, I'm not going to follow what the news thinks. I take a week or two for a piece for the nightly news. That's unheard of in America. If there's a story today, you know, you've got one day, maybe two for a news report. You know, when CBS wanted to cover the theft of the election based on my story, they wanted to put it on "tonight." And I said, "Well, it takes a little bit more time if you want the investigative stuff." And they said, "No, we don't want the investigative stuff, not tonight."
What's the fundamental difference between the U.S. media and England?
In England, there's the BBC, which is a not-for-profit television network. That's crucial. It ain't in it for the money. The second is that the big print outlet in England is the Guardian or the Sunday Observer, which is owned by nonprofit foundations. Again, not in it for the money. It's just like KUNM in Albuquerque. It's slightly above everything else that stays in it for the money.
Is there any good news? You sound sort of like the last iconoclast ...
I hope I'm the first, actually. The good news is that the daily newspaper readership in America declined two-and-a-half percent this year. Internet news readership has soared through the roof. More than matched the net loss. Which means that people are dumping the parakeet cage liner and going for the hardcore.
There's a lot out there. Folks could be reading NYTimes.com, or they could be reading Drudge Report or some such site.
Well, I don't consider NYTimes.com much different than the Drudge Report. The tone is different, the content is the same. For example, there are more readers of the Guardian newspaper in America than there are in Britain because of the Internet. My report on the manipulation of the 2004 election on BBC was launched by thousands of Americans on Real Video on the net. So what's happening is, yeah, there's junk everywhere, what can I say? To me, junk includes the New York Times. And that's true on the Internet. But now there are resources to get some heavy duty news out there, which is very, very heartening.
Where are the resources coming from?
The resources are coming from around the world. And within the United States as well. It's saved the American news cause you're seeing some real, down, dig the shit news reporting, and real issues in weekly papers. Weeklies are growing and the dailies are dying.
Well, I appreciate that shout out. But we're working with limited resources.
No shit. One of the problems is that there is no way that my investigations, despite the support I get from BBC and the Guardian and Harper's magazine, are built by an entire investigative team. No weekly can do that either on a continuing basis. I've got to go hunt up money in some way to keep a staff going. These stories don't take hours, in some cases, they take months.
How does a guy that gets an MBA from the University of Chicago, after studying economics with Milton Friedman, become a journalist?
I saw the beast up close. Close enough to smell him. And it frightened me enough; therefore, I had to expose him. I've been an investigator for two decades, including working with your attorney general of New Mexico.
When was that?
That was in the '80s. Paul Bardacke was the attorney general and it was nearly impossible to get my stories out about the things I was covering in my investigations. I was investigating a racketeer enterprise disguised as the electric company of New Mexico. Talk about a creepy little conspiracy—the chairman did get nailed but, you know, there are still stories to tell. New Mexico is a cesspool; it's worth several journalistic lifetimes actually. You're so lucky.
I take exception to you calling my state a cesspool.
No, I mean, you're in the belly of the iguana. Between the uranium interests and the power pirates, the gas companies, I found it to be one of the most painstakingly corrupt states of almost every state in America. For example, I was investigating the chairman of the utility commission of New Mexico at the time. Little did I know he was bargaining for a half-million dollar a year job with the electric company while he's supposedly acting as judge over their rates.
We seem to have cloudy ethical standards in some political circles.
Cloudy? I think it's fucking evil. It doesn't require a lot of interpretation here.
So what brings you to New Mexico?
The vote in the enchanted state seems a little too enchanted for my tastes. Basically, the election was not won by the voters in your state, but by the people who got to throw out ballots in the last presidential election. Many local races were affected. There's a nasty little secret of American democracy where 2 to 3 million votes are chucked out, you know, simply not counted after they're cast.
Are you talking about provisional ballots, or ones that were actually cast on a machine?
Both. Yes, the ones put in the machine don't show up or are knocked off for technical reasons. These are called "spoiled" and New Mexico has one of the worst "spoilage" rates in America, enough that "spoilage" is the big winner in your election. The other problem rests with provisional ballots, which aren't provisional, they're brown people ballots. New Mexico has a habit of giving Native Americans and Hispanics provisional ballots and not counting them. And I want to find out why. So what I am trying to do is hunt the missing votes, and initial statistical analysis shows that if you're Hispanic, the chance of your vote being eaten by a machine is 500 percent higher than if you're white. And I want someone to explain that to me.
How does the voting machine know the color of someone's skin?
That's not how it works. No, I'm talking about ... well yeah, the provisional ballot, the color is clear when the person walks up. On the question machine, it's just that in the Hispanic and Native American precincts, the machines are crap. They're vote-eating machines, vote-tearing machines, and this is one issue I want to look at. How does it end up that way? Why is it that you seem to have race sniffing machines? The way it's technically done is you have the worst machines in the poorest areas. I want to investigate that procedure. I want to investigate the entire structure of voting in New Mexico, because I think New Mexico is on the cutting edge of vote manipulation in America. So what we saw in 2004, it's gonna be the national touchstone in 2008.
Have you talked to our secretary of state, or the governor's office?
That's what I'm here to check out. I've talked to your secretary of state, to Bill Richardson. I mean, see, one of the tricks is how the benefit is basically to the Republican party under the noses of two Dems. That's one of the big questions. So, in other words, we don't know. One of the reasons I am going to investigate is because it is a fact that you basically have a Jim Crow system in New Mexico. And it's technologically driven, and I want to learn why this happens and who's doing it.
Right now, you're working on voting reform, is that correct?
I'm working on Democracy. When we talk about voter reform, we're talking about counting the ballots, allowing citizens to vote and counting their vote. Reform sounds like there's some little glitch that has to be corrected. Like the system needs a lube job or something. No, we're talking about taking away people's civil rights in the most sophisticated manner. No one's wearing sheets and burning crosses. It's much more effective than that. It's done at the flick of a switch. It's done through very subtle means. I want to look at New Mexico because in New Mexico, the results are raw but the means are subtle.
Give me a quick list of stories of the day no one's heard about.
Number one, the secret plan for the seizure of Iraq's oil that was underway before 9-11 happened. That's still out there. Second, one of the biggest stories that doesn't get coverage is the manipulation of the economies of the Third World by the World Bank and IMF. That's a very important story. I just came back from meeting with the president of Ecuador and the story involves the IMF, but no one [in America] gives a shit. Where's Ecuador, you know, on another planet? Unless three guys from Ecuador hijack a plane and slam it into a building. Then they would get our attention. And I hope that's not how the world is gonna get our attention again.
So do you think the American audience is primarily a bunch of dumbasses? If you went out and polled folks randomly, would they know what a filibuster is? Do you feel like that's one of the problems?
I just find that when I'm on the air, people are fascinated. My book was a national bestseller. It was actually the No. 1 selling nonfiction in New Mexico for a while. That means that at least someone in New Mexico is trying to find out what the hell is going on. People are deeply fascinated when they get the real stuff, find it a hell of a lot more interesting, than the ...
Yeah, or even as I said, the Bolton nomination. The stuff that the inside of the beltway and the NPR crowd thinks is really important. It ain't. Like I say, Ecuador is important right now; Venezuela is important right now.
One last thing. What do you think of the Jeff Gannon/Jim Guckert situation?
You know what, anyone that goes to White House press conferences isn't a real journalist. So you know, there's a fantasy that the other guys in the room are journalists. That's shit. The other guys in the rooms are stenographers, overpaid stenographers who repeat the White House line. Maybe they get a comment from someone else. They're not journalists at all. And I'm glad that guy Gannon came in and exposed them all as non-journalists. They're all crap writers. They're sitting in that room being told what the news is ...
I've read in the New Yorker and other places where White House correspondents say, "If I don't do things to get along in the White House, I get blackballed. Then I have no access, and I can't do my job."
Right, they have no access. You know, I have to tell you, Prime Minister of Britain Tony Blair personally attacked me on the floor of the House of Commons. OK? I don't have access to Blair. Thank God. I don't have distractions from the propaganda. What they're saying is they want access, which means they want to sit there and suck on the sewer pipe. I don't fuck around with sewer pipes. OK? I go out and get the news. I don't need access. That's a crock of shit if there ever was one. That's because these journalists at the White House, they're not correspondents, they're lazy fucken stenographers who don't report the news. God forbid they lose the plug on someone telling them what the news is.