Remember the 2000 election fiasco in Florida? The controversial recounts? The dimpled, pregnant, and hanging chads? The 5?4 Supreme Court decision that ended it by installing Bush in the White House?
The accusations by Republicans that Bush won fair and square and that Democrats were just sore losers who should ?get over it? might have stuck if it weren?t for the hard work of Greg Palast, an American investigative reporter working for the BBC.
The BBC? That?s right. Palast, one of the most dogged journalists working in America, doesn?t have much of an audience in his own land. He uncovers abuses in government and big business for the BBC?s Newsnight program and for Britain?s left-leaning Guardian and Observer newspapers. Many of these stories, he says, could not be done in the American media.
?If I want to write a report that?s investigative, and I want it to be in the mainstream press, it?s gotta be in the mainstream of another nation,? says the 50-year-old Palast, a one-time labor organizer who studied with the influential conservative economist Milton Friedman and went into journalism six years ago out of frustration with the major media?s inability to ?get the story right.?
Part of the problem with the mainstream media in the United States is self-censorship on the part of journalists that even CBS anchor Dan Rather, in a May 2002 BBC-TV interview, admitted ?keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions. . . . I do not except myself from this criticism.?
While Rather ascribes the timidity of the U.S. media to fear of a patriotic backlash from viewers, Palast sees the owners of the media as the real problem. ?A lot of self-censorship is commercially driven, and part of it is the fear of being outside what is an acceptable range of discussion,? he says of reporters? refusal to cover politically explosive issues in any depth. In other words, don?t touch anything that might make advertisers angry or reflect poorly on friends and associates of the owners of a paper or broadcast station.
Despite Britain?s draconian libel laws (truth is not considered a defense in a British libel suit), Palast has consistently been encouraged by his employers to ask the tough questions. That?s how he was able to scoop nearly every American reporter on the theft of the 2000 election. As he reports (and rigorously documents) in his best-selling book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Penguin, 2003), Florida Governor Jeb Bush ordered the purging of 91,000 registered voters from the state?s rolls for supposed felony convictions before the election. Palast discovered that the people purged were mostly black, mostly Democrats, and overwhelmingly innocent?more than 90 percent of them had never been convicted of a felony, or their voting rights had been restored by the courts. Palast?s reporting provided much of the material for Michael Moore?s chapter on the 2000 elections in his best-seller Stupid White Men, as well as for a U.S. Civil Rights Commission investigation and successful lawsuits by the NAACP against three Florida counties for voting rights violations?which, by the way, were also largely ignored by the U.S. media.
Though Palast did not take up journalism until 1997, he had worked as an investigator for years before that, uncovering corporate abuses for unions. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles? San Fernando Valley, where ?if Vietnam didn?t kill you, overtime at the Chevy plant would.? He escaped to Berkeley and eventually found himself in the graduate program in economics at the University of Chicago, studying multinational corporations under Nobel laureate and conservative sage Milton Friedman.
After grad school, he moved back to L.A., where he worked variously as a jazz drummer, ballroom dance instructor, and labor organizer. Working for the unions, Palast was able to put his studies of corporate giants to use investigating their abuses. He spent years digging through corporations? financial records, rooting out financial fraud and labor abuses. He was so good at it, the feds hired him as a racketeering investigator. In one case, he uncovered a utility fraud scheme by Long Island Lighting that resulted in a $4.8 billion jury verdict against the company. (New York Governor Mario Cuomo later convinced the state?s chief federal judge to overturn the verdict, Palast says.)
Palast?s decision to take up journalism came when he was working for the Chugach natives of Alaska investigating the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which devastated their fishing grounds in Prince William Sound. ?The press had fucked up the story something awful,? he says. ?I de-cided from then on I?d write these stories myself,? an idea encouraged by the Guardian, the Observer, and BBC?s Newsnight.
Palast and his family moved to London in 1997, and now he divides his time between New York and London, though he continues to report almost exclusively for his British employers. He lives in the East Village with his wife, Linda Levy, a ?radical banker? and community organizer, and their 6-year-old twins.
Though he finally took up journalism because ?no one in the media could get the story right,? he doesn?t consider himself an advocate. ?This might sound odd, but I don?t think my job is to bring justice to the world,? he says. ?I think my job is to bring information to the world and then hope that the truth will set us free.?
In addition to the lack of censorship he encounters in Britain, Palast says he enjoys the British style of journalism, which allows him to inject some opinion into his writing. ?Because I?m in Orwell?s old spot [at the Observer newspaper, which employed the author of 1984 and Animal Farm], I feel the ghost is requiring me to write something?as you do in Britain?with some style, meaning you say where you stand. Not like The New York Times, where you pretend you?re objective.?
Leif Utne is the managing editor of Utne Online.