Muckraking Journalist Greg Palast on "Occupy," Big Oil and the U.S. Media
Greg Palast was floating in a kayak off the Alaska coast in 1997 when he had an epiphany. He was working at the time as an investigator for the Chugach native people, whose lands had been slimed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In the course of his study, Palast uncovered information about Exxon’s culpability for the disaster, but he had no way of publicizing it. So he decided to become a journalist.
It’s proven a successful second career for Palast, 59, who studied business at the University of Chicago under right-wing economist Milton Friedman. He’s won six Project Censored awards for reporting important stories ignored by the mainstream press. He’s also the author of two international best sellers, Armed Madhouse and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
A native Californian, Palast reports regularly for Britain’s Guardian newspaper and for the BBC. Nation magazine writer Jim Hightower calls Palast “a cross between Sam Spade and Sherlock Holmes.” Corporate executives he’s outed as wrongdoers call Palast other things.
Palast spoke with Seven Days in advance of his scheduled talk next week at Burlington’s Main Street Landing Film House.
Seven Days: You must be sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street. Do you think it will have a lasting impact on U.S. politics?
Greg Palast: It’s not a setback for Occupy to no longer be occupying. No one gives a shit about Wall Street. It’s just a piece of tarmac. It was never the point of the movement.
The point has been to expose the 1 percent, the movers and shakers who are moving and shaking us, all those rich motherfuckers. Now we know their names, where they live, how they made their billions.
So yeah, the impact has been huge. And it’s just starting. I’m deeply involved with Occupy.
SD: You’ve got a new book out: Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores. Can you summarize what it’s about?
GP: Vultures are financial speculators who seize the assets of the poorest nations by claiming these countries owe money that the speculators try to collect through intimidation, bribery and theft. One guy associated with this is Paul Singer; he’s Mitt Romney’s top economic adviser. I’ve been investigating how Romney’s “job creator” makes his money, and that’s a story Singer doesn’t want you to hear.
By the way, I’m totally nonpartisan. Even though Singer owns the Republican Party, I point out that he rents the Democratic Party.
Most of the book is a five-continent investigation of British Petroleum. I’m bringing you the stuff you don’t get from CNN or the Petroleum Broadcasting System.
BP’s blowout in the Gulf in 2010 was actually the second big disaster it had. There was also a blowout in the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan in 2008, but BP covered it up with a combination of bribery, beatings and blow jobs. [Azerbaijani officials] kept their lips closed and their zippers open.
SD: So your talk in Burlington is part of a book tour?
GP: I’m on a troublemaking tour. My talks are platforms for Occupy activists in their transition away from their fixation with real estate.
SD: You obviously come at stories from a left-wing perspective. Do you ever worry that your ideology might blind you to facts?
GP: I don’t have an ideology. There’s really only the truth and the not-truth. I’m just an old-fashioned gumshoe reporter.
The worst fucking thing about American journalism, by the way, is its “on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-that” approach. It really distorts or omits truth.
I exposed [Florida Secretary of State] Katherine Harris for purging thousands of black voters from the electoral rolls. That cost [Al] Gore the 2000 election. It was stolen from him. I documented it.
I could not get that story into the U.S. media. There was a total news blackout of what had happened. It finally got picked up by the L.A. Times, and they played the story as “Democrats accuse Republicans of removing black voters from the rolls; the Republicans deny that.”
Jesus Christ! We don’t have balanced news in the United States; it doesn’t fucking exist. News here isn’t reporting; it’s repeating.
SD: Hang on. You write mostly for British outlets. Are you saying the British press is less influenced by corporate interests than the American press? The same financial dynamics are at work, right?
GP: Wrong. The Guardian is owned by a not-for-profit charitable trust. That’s allowed it to become the most influential English-language paper in the world.
SD: More influential than the New York Times?
GP: The New York Times is influential in New York. People elsewhere see that it’s — what shall we say? — incomplete.
The BBC is the gold standard of journalism. It’s important to know it’s neither corporate owned nor government owned. It’s owned by subscribers, the people who pay £100 a year for a TV license.
SD: Yeah, but Britain doesn’t have a First Amendment or a Freedom of Information Act.
GP: That’s true, but the Brits could borrow our First Amendment, because we’re not using it. And have you tried using FOIA lately? Good luck.
It’s also true that I don’t have any legal protection for stories in the British press. The resulting degree of self-censorship by some reporters is just astonishing.
But it’s still not as bad as it is here. The entire front page of the Guardian last week had my coverage of Singer, Romney’s biggest funder. There wasn’t one mention of his role is the U.S. press.
SD: Staying with journalism for a minute, do you have a journalist hero? George Orwell, maybe?
GP: Only Christopher Hitchens is pompous enough to compare himself with Orwell. My model is Jack Anderson [a Pulitzer Prize-winning modern muckraker who broke scandals involving both Democrats and Republicans].
I also always admired Ron Ridenhour, the soldier who revealed the My Lai massacre [in which 500 Vietnamese villagers were killed by U.S. troops on March 16, 1968]. Ridenhour was the greatest investigative reporter of the last century. He died way too young [of a heart attack in 1998 at age 52].
The TV show “Columbo” had a big influence on me, too. I learned a lot from it about how to do investigations. Lt. Columbo was just totally dogged.
SD: How about Hunter Thompson? You’ve got an image like his.
GP: People make that connection all the time because we have Rolling Stone in common. Another link is Transmetropolitan [a cyberpunk comic book] that did a series that everyone thought was based on Hunter Thompson. It was actually based on Greg Palast, a reporter who goes out and punches bad guys in the face.
But Thompson was a brilliant social analyst, and I’m just a gumshoe guy.
SD: You do look like an old-school reporter with that Humphrey Bogart hat of yours.
GP: I wear the hat because I’m bald and I’ll get painfully sunburned otherwise.
SD: Matt Drudge wears the same kind of hat.
GP: Yeah, some people say I’m a left-wing Matt Drudge, but there’s a big difference: Drudge is full of shit, and I’m full of information.
SD: You must be embarrassed that one of the first things on Google for “Greg Palast” is a 2009 piece you wrote saying what a great job Obama is doing.
GP: It was right after he took office. And it was nice to see him acting for one week like a real president.
SD: So what happened?
GP: Obama was reminded of who elected him. He brought into power guys like Tim Geithner and Larry Summers — Wall Street operatives and protégés of Robert Rubin, who was Clinton’s Treasury secretary [and a Goldman Sachs and Citigroup executive]. Remember, it wasn’t Bush who destroyed the economy; it was a guy named Bill Clinton.
They put the arm on Obama. They reminded him he’s just a tenant.
SD: Do you worry about your safety?
GP: I very much fear for the safety of my sources. Some of them do end up in jail and/or beaten up. It’s insanely dangerous for some of them to talk to me. One of my great sources was just charged with sedition. These guys are insanely courageous. But please don’t give the impression that your life will be threatened if you become my source. That wouldn’t be helpful.
SD: You’re talking about incidents in other countries, right? You haven’t had sources jailed or beaten up in the U.S., have you?
GP: Look at Bradley Manning, America’s most heroic political prisoner [the U.S. Army soldier accused of supplying a cache of secret diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks]. Lots of Americans are facing the ruin of their careers for whistle-blowing.
SD: Have you spent any time in Vermont?
GP: Yeah, skiing at Killington. Also, Ben Cohen is a big supporter of mine. He fills me up with ice cream. And I get along very well with Sen. Sanders. He’s been very helpful to me. In D.C., you know, Bernie’s sort of an honorary member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Greg Palast will talk about “Why We Occupy: How Wall Street Picks the Bones of America,” on December 12 at 7 p.m. in Burlington’s Main Street Landing Film House. A screening of Sam Mayfield’s new film, Gentle Uprising, precedes Palast’s presentation. Donations. Info, 540-2516.