An interview with investigative journalist Greg Palast
I was covering Enron when the papers here were still treating Ken Lay like a cross between Jesus and Mother Teresa and Elvis Presley,” says Greg Palast, an award-winning investigative journalist for The Guardian newspaper, BBC’s prestigious Newsnight television program, and self-described former Chicago Boy–he studied economics with Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. Palast, who regularly takes on the Bushes, the IMF, the World Bank, and mainstream media, spoke to the Observer during a recent trip to Austin to promote his new book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High-Finance Fraudsters (PLUME, a Penguin Group imprint, 2003). What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
NECKLACED AND EMBEDDED
In Britain I face official censorship under the Official Secrets Act and libel laws, which effectively privatize censorship. In the U.K. editors are afraid of the law. Here news editors are afraid of their shadows. We’ve got embedded reporters. No reporter should be in bed with anyone. And they are looking at Iraqis through the gun holes of a tank. The number of U.S. network reporters who are speaking Arabic, how many are there? I haven’t seen one interview with an Iraqi yet.
I had a Texas journalist on my show Newsnight on the BBC–Dan Rather. “I know I should be asking tough questions ’cause our kids are being sent to the Mid East to fight,” he said. “But I’m not going to because, if I did, I would be necklaced. I’d be lynched as unpatriotic.” When Dan Rather says that he’s scared to ask a question, just imagine the rest of the news cabal.
National Petroleum Radio won’t even put me on here in Austin. They are more interested in embedded journalism. There’s a section in my book on the World Bank, inside documents from the World Bank that show how these guys work; how they rip apart nations. I have the inside documents for Turkey, for Argentina, for Bolivia, and I just put some in Harper’s, but the whole story is in the book. Could I get that on PBS? Not a chance. Instead, you have a deep kiss, basically a blow job for globalization, called “From the Commanding Heights,” a PBS program based on the book From the Commanding Heights by Daniel Yergin. Six hours, which was paid for by Enron and British Petroleum. Can you imagine? It was all about the wonders of globalization, nothing about how British Petroleum runs a private military to get oil out of Colombia.
In my book, and on the BBC, I had an interview with Joseph Stiglitz, the former chief economist of the World Bank. I went over these documents with him, including a page out of the secret Ecuador program about specific plans for raising food prices, fuel prices. After they implemented the secret plan there were riots in the capital. It looks like they were predicting the riots. And Stiglitz said to me, “Yeah, we used to call it the IMF riot.” It’s in the plan. I could put that on British television. In fact, on Newsnight we brought in some of the World Bank toadies and questioned them, and said, “What exactly does this mean, boys?” Try to get that on PBS.
For BBC, I uncovered exactly how the election was stolen in Florida. I got the computer files from inside Katherine Harris’ office, showing that before the election she had knocked tens of thousands of black people off the voter rolls. Well, that was on the top of the nightly news in Britain; it was on the front page of The Guardian newspapers. The article that belatedly appeared in print in the United States (“Florida’s Disappeared Voters: Disenfranchised by the GOP,” by Greg Palast, The Nation, February 5, 2001) was nominated for a National Magazine Award. But I couldn’t get that on television. Everyone knows that the guy in the White House is there by coup d’etat by computer.
But getting back to so-called public radio and television, I confronted an election official in Florida, one of Harris’ henchmen who ran the Department of Elections. On BBC Television I was showing him a document marked secret and confidential, which showed exactly how they fixed the election. He pulls off the microphone, runs away, locks the door of his office, and has the state troopers throw me out of the building. Me and my BBC camera crew. Well, it so happens that PBS is filming me, filming him. Which meant that PBS had a difficult problem: What were they going to do with it? The great director Danny Schechter made a film for PBS on the election and he included the footage. PBS decided it was not a good idea to put that film on the system satellite.
I will say this, a lot of PBS stations ran it in defiance of the network. But it’s very, very difficult to get this stuff on TV or in the U.S. press. Where was this story in the U.S. press? The Washington Post let me report it with my byline seven months after I reported it for the British press. Even Salon, which allowed me first to post the story electronically, got cold feet and were afraid to run the second part.
Bernard Goldberg [author of Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distorts the News] is screaming that only liberals are on the air. Like a man who says I don’t get enough to eat. I have an advanced degree in economics, and I’m not on the air because they don’t want to hear real economic reports. Goldberg was the economic reporter for CBS. So, one of the great canards is to say, like the right-wing press, “Oh, it’s a liberal media.” What they mean is that most reporters are for abortion rights and against the death penalty, as social issues. At New York cocktail parties that’s sufficient. But when it comes to the real issues, of war and peace, of economic royalism in America, there is no dissent. [To Goldberg] the left wing in the American press, is Thomas Friedman. He’s considered the left-wing of the left-wing newspaper, The New York Times. And what’s Friedman’s statement about economics? He said that all our economic problems were solved by Margaret Thatcher and that her system was simply perfected by Ronald Reagan. This is what passes for the Left. Where is there a single reporter who has anything negative to say about how the World Bank operates? First of all, they are hardly saying anything about how it does operate, let alone providing any type of critical information. I’m not talking about viewpoints. I’m talking about an information blackout, a stone-cold information blackout.
WAR HERO OUT, WAR CRIMINAL IN
The Democrats are wearing this big sign that says “kick me.” The Republicans banged away at Bill Clinton for being a draft dodger. Which he never was. He didn’t dodge the draft. He didn’t volunteer for Vietnam because he didn’t believe in it. He stuck with his beliefs and he did his best to make sure that other kids didn’t have to go, either. Whereas you’ve got a president here who pretends to be a war hero. He went to Texas Air Guard while his daddy was a powerful congressman. W. gets a test score of 25 out of 100 to get into the Texas Air Guard–you’re meant to get 100. This put him below about 1,000 other applicants. And right now he’s doing his damned best to eliminate affirmative action: No one should get their position except through merit, and all that. This guy scores 25 out of 100 to get out of Vietnam. His daddy in Congress is sending other men’s kids to Vietnam and his son goes into the chickenhawk army, the Texas Air Guard. I’m not saying our president is a chickenshit coward, but he certainly doesn’t mind when other kids take the bullets for him. There are no presidential sons and daughters on the front lines. Napoleon always made it a point that he rode the first horse into battle. Whereas our president made sure that he’s riding the last ass out. I’m not happy about this because I’m one of the kids that have faced a death lottery, and I didn’t have a daddy in Congress.
The only argument for disarming Saddam Hussein, I guess, is if the Bushes hired him in the 1980s, they have the right to fire him. The Chevron corporation won Gulf War I. They didn’t pay Bush Senior but they did put over half a million dollars in the Republican party campaign chest for his son’s run for the president. That’s one thing the Bushes have perfected. You never know where foreign policy begins and the Bush bank account ends. Or any policy for that matter. The Bushes have figured out how to cash in. Marvin Bush and Neil Bush sold Enron’s pipeline systems in the Gulf after the last war. An objection was raised by that radical lefty, Norman Schwartzkopf, who said that we didn’t send a half million boys into the desert so that the Bush family can cash in big time. You don’t see much of old Norman these days. He was the big hero. You couldn’t get him off TV. Where is he? He’s actually been paid a fortune for an exclusive contract to comment on the war for one of our networks. But he’s not there. The exclusive contract is effectively acting like a gag. Think he might have a couple of unkind words to say about the Bush family and the profiteering on the blood of our kids? Who do you have instead? Henry Kissinger on the payroll of NBC. War hero out, war criminal in. Welcome to embedded coverage.
>Observer intern Patrick Timmons lives in Austin. He likes raking muck.