HOW FREE IS AMERICAN MEDIA?
AN INTERVIEW WITH GREG PALAST
by Celeste Allegrea Adams
Greg Palast, has been called a cross between Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes because of the style of his investigative reporting. One of the topics covered in his new book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: An Investigative Reporter Exposes the Truth about Globalization, Corporate Cons and High Finance Fraudsters includes an account of deceptive reporting around Bushs election and the way votes were counted.
According to Palast, "in the months leading up to the November balloting, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and his Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, ordered local elections supervisors to purge 64,000 voters from voter lists on the grounds that they were felons who were not entitled to vote in Florida. As it turns out, these voters weren't felons, or at least, only a very few were. However, the voters on this "scrub list" were, notably, African-American (about 54 percent), while most of the others wrongly barred from voting were white and Hispanic Democrats."
In November, this story made front-page news in Britain and it was given a lot of television coverage on the BBC, but it did not run in the United States. A hundred thousand U.S. journalists failed to cover the vote theft story! Palast explains that in order to report on this story, he had to leave the United States and move his family to Europe to print and broadcast this and other crucial stories about American politics.
On April 19, 2002, I had the opportunity to speak to Greg Palast about the state of investigative reporting and journalistic freedom.
Adams: Why do you think Americans believe we have a free press, when so much information is suppressed?
Palast: If you havent seen it, you dont know it. A good thing about Americans is that we have to be lied to. As my friend Daniel Elsburg says, they have to fill us up with brain-dead nonsense. They have to give us hypnotic garbage on television, because if they told us the truth, Americans would get very upset. Thats the good thing about Americans. Were told that this is the land of the free and that we have a free press--not having any other information to go on, we cant say that this is not true.
Obviously, when Michael Moore2 comes out with a book, based on my reporting, and then I come up with a book with a dinky-winky publisher in Britain, and Im on The New York Times Best Seller listobviously people are hungry.
Adams: Do you think countries elsewhere in the world have a free press?
Palast: No, I havent found a country yet with a free press. The closest Ive come to is Sweden or Holland. Whats wonderful about the US is that we have a First Amendment. No other country has a First Amendmenta law which says that the government cant tell you what to print or what not to print.
That means, for example, that we have no libel law restrictions, which are very, very serious, around the world. In Britain, Im facing restrictions under the Official Secrets Act. Ive been in the situation where I cant print something because the government says it violates their secrets.
I was stopped, for example, from reporting about the Bush familys involvement in gold-mining properties in Tanzania. Its a horror story. You dont have the same rights to report in Britain that you have in the US; on the other hand, you cant report on certain things in the U.S. because of the powers that be and the commercial restrictions.
So forget the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate stories, from decades ago, they would not print those things today. There is no chance in the world that The Times would publish the Pentagon Papers today.
Adams: Has there been greater restriction made on what will be printed, since September 11th?
Palast: No, actually. In fact, there is more open discussion now. Its very interesting. I just spoke to Noam Chomsky and we agreed that the debate has actually opened up since Sept. 11th.
Ive discussed the connection between money and power, which you cannot discuss in the US. Since September 11th, were beginning to discuss the relationship between foreign policy and the use of US military proxies and what the US is up to. This kind of discussion hasnt happened since the war in Vietnam.
I dont think its worse, though I cant say theres good reporting. Total lies are being told about Venezuela, for instance. Complete lies, actually. The NY Times apologized, because it editorialized in favor of the coup against the elected government of Venezuela. Frankly, I thought theyre just showing their true colors and they shouldnt have to apologize over an editorial which is obviously bone headed, being against a democracy.
The big problem was that they published as truth, a set of lies about Venezuela. They said that Hugo Chavez was unpopularits complete crap that hes a dictator, and unlike our president, he was elected. Finally, they said this fantasy that Hugo Chavez resigned the presidency, which gave legitimacy to the right-wing coup planners. That was a complete fabrication and The New York Times did not check it out--I checked it out and it was false. It was easy to check out that it was false, but they ran that as truth. They never apologized for lying about that.
Adams: How does this time period compare to the McCarthy Period, in terms of restrictions to freedom of expression?
Palast: That was grim. Im old but not that old. Ive had my old partners and I did a lot of work for labor unions. Thats a whole different level of terror. You couldnt say anything or do anything. I mean, youre not going to lose your job because youre walking around with one of Noam Chomskys books. We still arent that bad yet.
Adams: Are you concerned that we could return to that kind of extreme censorship?
Palast: Sure, it doesnt take much for the brown shirts to reactivate themselves. A couple of more terrorist attacks and theyll start looking for the enemy within. Whos helping these guys out? At the moment were still saying its them out there. But the whole con of the McCarthy Era was that Americas enemies had a hit column inside and they used that to smash any progressive sense of America.
My uncle, Oliver Crawford, was a blacklisted writer. Im effectively blacklisted today. Ive won the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in Britain. Yet, there is no way I can get on the air or in major US papers.
Adams: Are you worried about personal safety or your life?
Palast: No. I mean, my wife is good at keeping me out of trouble. She has stopped me from doing some stories and from going to some locations--like meeting an arms dealer in a dangerous spot. But Im more concerned with my sources. Compared to any danger I might face, their dangers are immediately real.
I told you about Bush and his gold-mining company. This company bought another company. To clear the gold-mining property that Bush and his company wanted to buy, this other company buried miners alive that wouldnt leave. We have videotape and film of this, but no one wants to broadcasts it. In Amsterdam, this weekend, Im holding a press conference with this evidence. A press conference is also being held in Toronto, because theyre trying to block this. You cant get this into American papers. We have a right to show this stuff.
My problem is that the guy that was the source, Tundu Lissu, was facing charges of sedition in Tanzania for getting the material, the videotape and witness statement, to me about these killings. He got out of the country with the tapes, and then chose to go back to Tanzania even though he faced prison for outing the truth. I said, please dont go theyll arrest you. He said, if they arrest me Im lucky. It was more likely that they would just do away with him, but he went back. Thats a courage on a scale that I cant match. I worry about the other people, the whistle blowers who hand me documents. Their careers and lives could be ruined, they could be arrested and killed.
Even before I was a journalist, I was doing investigative work and other progressive work. For example, I brought material from the Dalai Lama into Tibet and got material to one person whose brother had already been killed by the Chinese. I was worried that he was taking too many chances. They caught an American photographer who was with me, and they put her on a plane, destroyed her camera and film. If they caught me, in Tibet, handing out material from the Dalai Lama, I would be thrown out of the country. The people I would hand the material to would be jailed, beaten, and probably killed.
Adams: Do journalists refrain from covering certain stories because theyre afraid for their lives or is it that theyre concerned for their careers?
Palast: Most journalists dont report things because they fear for their careers. Seymour Hersh, one of the most celebrated investigative reporters, cant get a job on an American paper. The top American investigative journalists that I know cant get work with American newspaper. You see great journalists working for The Nation Magazine. I like The Nation, but it is marginal, its not the mainstream. You put something in The Nation, and I guarantee that it wont be seen anywhere else. Itll be dismissed because its in The Nation.
Great reporters who try to cover certain stories, see their careers go down the drain. So you have fake guys like Bernard Goldberg, whos on CBS news, and theyre complaining that theres a left-wing bias to the press. Well, if theres a left-wing bias, how come hes on the air and Im not. He doesnt know anything about economics and I do. I have a degree in economics and actually know something about the subject.
Therere a hundred other reporters that could do what Im doing if they were allowed to, but theyre not given the resources or backed up. Theres complete gutlessness and also its cheap and easy to do the obvious. No one apologized for that crap story on Venezuela. They just reported what everyone else was saying, and everyone else was wrong.
They say, well, the NY Times ran it and the NY Times says, well the LA Times ran it, and the LA Times says, well, it was in a Venezuelan paper, or the State Department said so, and that is that. If the State Department says so, then thats good enough. But its impossible for me to report that the State Department is lying, they never tell the truth
There was a period when even the main stream press, especially because of the war in Vietnam, ultimately would turn around and say that the official word is a lie. I can tell you that theyd never run a Watergate story again. Bob Woodward, would never allow someone to write a story today, based on hidden inside sources. I dont think Bob Woodward would run his own story.
Adams: Which subjects would you like to investigate now?
Palast: I want to continue my investigations of the World Bank, globalization, and how Argentina was really destroyed. Ive been trying to run reports on Venezuela for months. Ive been saying to my own editors, theres going to be a coup in Venezuela, but no one believes me.
I have another book coming out, Democracy and Regulation, about power pirates like Enron. This was written before Enron went under, when I was screaming about those guys. What about the other Enrons? Ive been writing about these guys for a long time and finally these stories are coming out.
Adams: What journalists do you admire the most?
Palast: I dont so much admire journalists as activists. My son is named after the lawyer Clarence Darrow, a great labor-union lawyer. The journalist I admire the most is Ron Ridenhaur. He died a few years ago at a young age. In my opinion, he was Americas greatest investigative reporter. He wrote for Gambit Weekly, out of New Orleans. Great reporters are just not given the room. Its like the LA Readeryoud probably get more information from the LA Reader than you would for the LA Times.
Adams: What about the reporting that is being presented on the internet?
Palast: Without question, the best place to get information is the internet. The NY Times stone-cold lied about what happened in Venezuela. If you want to find out what happened there you have to go to the internet. In regard to the paper I write for, The Guardian online version is better than the print edition. Its much more reliable. I think the online community demands a higher standard of information. Newspaper readers are used to reading whats thrown in their face. You get off the page when you realize youre getting crud. The internet is a much more reader-active medium and The Guardian Online has a great editor.
Other alternative outlets include IndyMedia, MediaChannel.org, Guerilla News Network, and BuzzFlash.org. Thats some of the best stuff. Then there are organizations, like Public Service International, which is a big labor union organization; and Council of Canadians, also an excellent organization. Even their organizational websites will give you a lot more information.
Also, I really believe that books are the news. Weve gotten so used to the idea that news is a flashy two-day thing--this minute, right now. We forget that truth has a long shelf life. I must admit that I found it distracting to write articles that were not tied to the weeks events, when I also had to write my column and had to do television broadcast. This weeks hot news is not important. Its the thing that you dont read on the front page thats important. Its what theyre not telling youthats what is worth reading six months later or three years later.
New Yorker Magazine just did a story on water privatization and what happened in Bolivia. I wrote that story in April 2000 and they just put it out in April 2002. That was quicktwo years is faster than normal. Does that mean that the column from two years ago was out of date? No, its obviously very fresh and being dealt with today. I think we need to go back to reading more books.
Im glad there is a spiritual aspect to your site, since there are things that are eternally true. When you discover that, its kind of news too. People watch TV to find out how they should look and thinkwere poisoned by that. I would say, dont watch television news at all. Im a television reporter, but I would not watch television. In the UK there might be occasions to watch it, but in the US I cant think of a single program to watch.
To use a phrase from the great media critic Danny Schechter, The more you watch the less you know.
Adams: Do you think that some journalists develop intelligent and enlightened ideas for solutions to the world crisis because of their continued exposure to the struggles that go on in the world, between nations and within countries?
Palast: Most journalists are careerist and become cynical. They cover Venezuela, by sitting in a bar of the Intercontinental Hotel, then they get some baloney word from a State Department hack and then write it up. The biggest poison of international reporters that you have to fend off is cynicism. That its all cynicism. That its all the same crap. Its the same stuff over and over. That is the number one problem.
Adams: Do you believe there will be world war or world peace in the future?
Palast: Im by nature a pretty dark person and a very discouraged one. Its a mood I have to drop and get rid of because in fact I see a lot of positive things in terms of international movements. Its the last gasp of the violent solutions. Im hoping that at least, in the west, progressives are getting less interested in glorifying killers.
The worst thing that ever happened to progressives was Che Guevara, who turned the guerilla, (which is all about sudden attacks on people), into a fashion statement. Che Guevara was too fashionable and well be better off when we kill that image. Im not saying Im a complete pacifist, but it looks more attractive everyday.
Gandhi was a pacifist through and through. A measure of pacifism is not whether you succeed in a temporal goal, its that you succeed in maintaining your own peace. If you kill youve already lost. I embrace Gandhis vision of active non-violence.
I think the Dalai Lama has a lot to say. The Dalai Lama could have called for violent armed insurrection against the Chinese. The prior Dalai Lama led an armed attack on the Chinese and drove out the Chinese for several decades. That was hardly a permanent solution, because when the Chinese had more guns they won. The current Dalai Lama said that there is internal strength for Tibetans to remain Tibetans, and there is no need of temporal goals of new states.
Im not for the creation of new states. Were not going to solve things by dividing people and armies and creating new borders. We saw that in Yugoslavia, which has been divided and divided, until we have 300 little Balkan states. This will ultimately lead to the next world war, as it did to the First World War. Were not going to solve things by dividing.
In the Middle East, people are calling for a two-state solution. Its a very difficult thing to say. Imagine saying that Israeli and Palestinians have to live together. No one likes that on any side. People prefer war of one type or another, or division.
Division is not a solution, it just sets the terms for the next war. We need to put things together.
Adams: I know that its almost midnight and youre taking off for Amsterdam tomorrow, to hold a press conference. Thank you for squeezing in the time, in your very busy schedule, to do this interview.
Palast: Well Ive enjoyed it, its allowed me to mention a few things that I havent talked about before.
From Greg Palasts website:
Greg Palasts extraordinary reports have been front-page news in Europe, yet blocked out of Americas main stream media. "To Americans who cannot read his stories printed in Britains Observer, he is Americas journalist hero of the Internet."
-- Alan Colmes, Fox Television
"His stories about Bush's election theft, about intelligence agency cover-ups, and globalizationbacked up with smoking gun documents, inside sources and on-the-record interviewswill shock even the most informed readers Guerrilla News Network, naming Palast Reporter of the Year.
Palast won Britains highest journalism honors for his 1998 undercover investigation of influence peddling within Tony Blairs cabinetby Enron and other US corporations. He then turned his sleuthing skills on to the Bush money trail: uncovering for BBC and The Observer the uncomfortable truths of how the Bush Administration quashed investigations of Saudi financing of terrorand Poppy Bushs extraordinary methods for stuffing his bank account and his sons campaign coffers.
Palast, winner of the Financial Times David Thomas Prize and Nominated Business Journalist of the Year (UK) for his exposing "Reverend" Pat Robertsons legally dodgy business scams, has appeared in Salon.com ("Politics Story of the Year" 2000), Harpers and The Washington Post ... yet he remains to most Americans, "The worlds greatest investigative reporter youve never heard of."
--Cleveland Free Times
Not everyone has a taste for Palast. After exposing on BBC TV the contents of a stack of documents from inside The World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the WTO called his writings, "Rubbish rubbish rubbish," and CNN reported, "The World Bank hates Greg Palast" -- for stories the Wall Street Journals Jude Wanniski called, "Extraordinary reporting on the IMF," and Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz called, "Excellent on the WTO."
Before taking up the pen for the The Observer and Guardian newspapers, Los Angeles-born Palast traveled the globe as expert investigator of corporate fraud and racketeering. For the Chugach Natives of Alaska, he unearthed the doctored safety records that proved the Exxon Valdez disaster was an inevitability, not an accident. In Chicago, he bargained contracts for the United Steelworkers Union in Chicago, in Peru he helped found a consumer rights organization. Years ago, he guided the formation of an alliance linking Enron workers in Brazil and India. In 1988, Palast directed the governments investigation of a US nuclear plant builder in which the jury awarded the largest racketeering penalty in US history.
And this summer, the United Nations International Labour Organisation (Geneva) will issue his book, Democracy and Regulation, based on his lectures at Cambridge University and University of Sao Paulo.
"The information is a hand grenade." John Pilger, --New Statesman
© 2002 Celeste Adams
Copyright © This article appeared in The Spirit of Ma'at Magazine
Copyright © 2002, Celeste Allegrea Adams
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, transmitted, or translated in any form whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations referenced in critical articles.
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