Uncovering the Story

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.

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