Greg Palast is a tireless muckraker who turned to journalism as an outlet for his professional investigative talents.
He is the author of the book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and is soon to publish his latest work, Armed Madhouse, which is described as "dispatches from the front lines of the class war." Palast spoke to PRWeek about the frustrating US press and President Bush's PR brilliance.
PRWeek: How did you get into journalism?
Greg Palast: Bad luck, I suppose. I was an investigator. I did racketeering investigations…and I could not stand reading the newspaper getting these stories wrong. I'd throw the Times against the damn wall and scream. So my wife said, 'Go write it yourself.' So in my mid-40s, I just sat down and started writing up the investigative reports as journalism, and within a week I was hired by the major paper of Britain, The Guardian, to do investigative reports for their front page, and then given a column, and then a couple months after that, asked to do the BBC nightly news. So it was a very short-term operation.
PRWeek: Have you ever considered writing for a US paper?
Palast: Considered? That's the whole idea. I don't like being in journalistic exile. I don't like my words trying to swim across the Atlantic. They could drown - and that usually happens. But it's nearly impossible for raw, original investigative journalism to really make it into US papers.
PRWeek: Why is that the case?
Palast: Hmmm, you tell me. It makes it there, but in slow-mo. My first story to probably make it across without drowning was when I discovered that Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris purged tens of thousands of black folks off the voter rolls of Florida before the 2000 election, thereby fixing the election. When I wrote it, Al Gore was still in the race.
[US papers] only published it when it was safe, only after the US Civil Rights Commission officially said I was right. Forget Watergate and Woodward and Bernstein; Woodward himself today would never, in a million years, as managing editor of The Washington Post, publish the Watergate story. It's official denial against an unnameable source. Forget it.
PRWeek: Do you think it's some sort of structural, ownership issue that keeps out things that are perceived as too political?
Palast: I'd like to give the sophisticated answer, like "Look at the evil schmucks that own the outlets like Viacom and GE." But I think that's too simple. I think there's an elite which determines what is acceptable discourse and what isn't. And in 2000, the idea that George Bush stole the election was deemed too outrageous to permit in the discussion. And a lot of my stories, when they are first broken, are too outrageous to be in the discussion. So I have to use BBC television, which is basically my platform to lob the information across.
PRWeek: Do you think that Bush is different from past presidents in the way that he communicates to the public?
Palast: I think, for the most part, his operation has been quite brilliant. He has sold himself in two elections. He's sold a war. Selective leaking-we now know that he is leaker-in-chief himself. And plus, he's been able to portray himself as this bumbling, aw-shucks guy, which I don't buy for a minute, any more than I bought it with Reagan. And so I believe that, for the moment, his poll ratings don't make him look very smart. But the truth is that they've had an extraordinarily brilliant PR operation, enough so that they can prevent a discussion of the issues by framing things. And they are very, very good at smearing sources of information that are exposing what they're up to, so that you don't even get a chance to open the discussion. They're very good at basically setting the stage, literally. We now laugh about Bush landing on the [aircraft carrier] Abraham Lincoln as "Mission Impossible." But the fact that US news outlets would even show up and dignify that dumbass stunt... BBC would not. We say, "You want to run around the deck of an aircraft carrier looking like the first chimp in space? Go right ahead. We're not obligated to put it on the air." And it was run in the most solemn manner by US [news] operations. So they literally do stage setting, just like in New Orleans when they brought in the lights and backlit the president in Jackson Square. I think that the staging of events, staging of discussion has been quite brilliant, and we shouldn't be fooled by the latest downtick.
PRWeek: For all of Bush's bad poll numbers, he's still in control…
Palast: At this point, Bush is reelected, last time. The Republican Party and the economic elite don't need George Bush any more. He is now expendable, like Don Rumsfeld. And their agenda is still marching forward, and that's the deadly business. I think that, from a PR angle, Bush is now the expendable goat. Look, the oil industry is basically draining America dry. The oil industry has become a poisonous disease in the economic body. And nothing's being done. Virtually every other nation on the planet has some kind of windfall profits tax, to recapture the gross profits which are created by the OPEC cartel and the war. We don't have that in America. And it doesn't matter that George Bush is unpopular. They're happy to make him the target, the fool, and the buffoon, as long as no one touches the oil company's profits. Before they needed him, now they don't. In fact, if you want to keep targeting him-I see the PR move. Which is, make Dr. Frist the kind, healing hand, while George Bush and Dick Cheney are Sundance and Butch.
PRWeek: The Republicans have had a huge message machine for the last five years. Do you feel like your side has an equal opportunity to get your message out?
Palast: Well, I want to be careful: I don't have a side here. And as the Clintons and Mario Cuomo and [New Mexico Governor] Bill Richardson will tell you, my new book rips Richardson out an extra exit hole. Hillary Clinton gets a severe shellacking. These people aren't on my side. But I tend to, when it comes to Democratic Party, fell like 'Let sleeping dogs lie, or lying dogs sleep.' And therefore I tend not to bug them as much. I go after the powers that be. If they do get elected… then I'm sure I'll be just as unwelcome with them.
PRWeek: Tell me about your new book.
Palast: I had a media chapter, which I removed from the book, because throughout the book, I do a running commentary not only of the stories I'm covering, but of the false coverage that is running parallel while I'm trying to uncover the real stories. For example, when I wrote an article [called] "Kerry Won" in November of 2004, which was done for Britain's Observer paper-where I had George Orwell's old column - the New York Times called me to ask me, first, "Are you a conspiracy nut?" And the second question, "Are you a sore loser?" And that was it. That was the extent of the interview. And I said, 'Don't you want to know what the evidence might be?'… They ran an article on the front page, 'Vote Fraud Theories Spread by Blogs are Quickly Buried.' So BBC Television and the Observer, the most prestigious paper in the English language, are now 'blogs,' and we are spreading vote fraud theories. The article has no discussion of evidence… The idea was to discredit anyone who might question the results…So all throughout the book, I have a discussion of manipulated news, while I'm actually trying to tell the story.
PRWeek: When is your book coming out?
Palast: June 6, with the audio book…Not a single newspaper in America ran a review of my [last] book, even though it was on the best-seller list. It was like Omerta. 'Maybe if we shut up, he will go away.' It'll be hard to do that this time. This time, I'm looking forward to getting creamed. When you pee on these outlets, they pee back. But that's the job.
Name: Greg Palast
Outlets: Harper's Magazine, The Observer (UK), BBC News, others
Title: Investigative journalist, author
Preferred contact method: firstname.lastname@example.org (assistant)
Web site: www.gregpalast.com