Muckraking Crusader Creeps Onto the Bestseller List

By Max Gross

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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When investigative journalist Greg Palast published his account of voting irregularities that occurred in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, the state’s secretary of state, Katherine Harris, denounced his findings as “twisted.”

Palast put that quote on his book jacket.

“The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” (Plume) details how — through hopeless incompetence at best, or criminal malfeasance at worst — thousands of Florida voters, mostly black, were turned away from the polls in 2000. The book is also filled with accusations about a slew of other politicians. Palast reports, for example, that the Barrick Corporation — which claims George Bush Sr. as an adviser — cleared out a goldfield in Tanzania using military police, and buried alive about 50 local miners in the process. He shows how Enron, a major contributor to the Republican Party, had its fingerprints all over energy deregulation practices in England and the United States that cost taxpayers millions.

Although Palast’s book has not been reviewed by any major American paper, it has crept onto The New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller list, and stayed there for months thanks to word of mouth.

Despite his success, few other reporters follow where Palast leads. When Palast first reported that the state’s list of people barred from voting in Florida was hopelessly inaccurate, CBS News called him and said that it would like to report out the story, too. CBS called Palast a few days later to tell him that his story didn’t hold up. Why? “One of their favorite lines is: They called Jeb Bush,” Palast said. Jeb Bush, the Florida governor, denied the charges.

“Official denial stops most stories,” Palast said.

Palast is not the type of journalist who takes public officials at their word. In his muckraking, pulpy, tabloid style, Palast goes undercover, raids archives and issues accusations and challenges.

In Great Britain, his stories appear on the front page of one of the country’s leading newspapers — The Guardian — and on the BBC television program “Newsnight,” where he is considered a great crusader against corruption in the Bush administration. But the American in Palast doesn’t feel comfortable in the English spotlight. His fans are too conspiracy-theory-minded. Too anti-American. Too antisemitic.

“A large part of my European readership I wouldn’t urinate on,” Palast told the Forward.

Some Europeans aren’t so wild about him, either.

Prime Minister Tony Blair personally denounced him on the floor of Parliament. One British tabloid, The Mirror, ran a photo of Palast on its front page with the simple, screaming headline “The Liar” over his head in bold capital letters.

But speaking to Palast, one is surprised at how reasonable he sounds. He is full of jokes and questions. He is eager to talk about a book of poetry he is working on, and his other current nonfiction book, “Democracy and Regulation,” which he proudly calls a “worst seller.”

Palast, 51, was born in California’s San Fernando Valley. His father was a furniture salesman and his mother worked in a school cafeteria. But Palast and his sister Geri — who was assistant deputy secretary of labor in the Clinton administration — worked their way out of the lower middle class. Palast was a scholarship student at the University of Chicago, where he studied under Milton Friedman — “that monstrous little dwarf,” Palast calls him — before taking a job in the Midwest as a labor union investigator, which he had for 25 years.

“I was trying to save poor people from getting their gas cut off,” he recalled. “That meant digging into… account books, and I fell in love with it. I always say it was my first love. My wife hates it.” The self-described “investigative accountant” was content to leave journalism alone until one day — out of the blue — he faxed a story about power companies’ crooked wheelings and dealings to The Guardian. “They said, ‘My God, this is going to blow up the government… Can we hire you to do investigative reports?’”

Palast moved to England to work for the tabloid in 1996; he kept a seven-foot-long American flag in his office. He came back to the United States last year when he noticed that his twin six-year old son and daughter were developing English accents — something he didn’t like. “I was attacked there as a super-patriot American,” he said. “Here, I’m attacked as a traitor.”

Unlike some of his fellow Jewish lefties, Palast is not ready to dismiss antisemitism when he sees it. “The members of the Jewish left — and I certainly am one of them — are very glib about antisemitism and the dangers out there,” he said. “The British left is infused with the worst elements of antisemitism.”

He even sees antisemitism in the pages of his own newspaper.

“When the Hebrew teachers in Tehran, in Iran, were put on trial as spies for Israel — which was beyond unlikely — my paper had an editorial by some fool saying, well, we shouldn’t attack Iran — there’s very good evidence, and we shouldn’t vilify everyone George Bush says is our enemy,” he said. “They want Israel to release people who are admitted child killers, but the Hebrew teachers should rightly be in jail.”

Never one to compromise his opinions, when the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera offered Palast a job, he turned it down cold; he refers to the station as TNN, Terrorist News Network.

Palast doesn’t seem to care if his opinions ruffle anyone’s feathers. He has ruffled before, he will ruffle again. The important thing, he stresses, is to motivate people to act once they’ve been shaken up.

When readers finish “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” for instance, Palast has succinct advice: “You can shut the book and use the binding to scratch your nether parts or you can do something. Read, learn, join, holler, act. Sue something.”

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