Where, Oh Where Has the Muckraker Gone?
Gregory Palast may be "the best investigative journalist you've never heard of," as his book jacket trumpets. He may also be someone who's getting good at tooting his own horn.
Either way, Palast is an American citizen who writes about corporate America -- from Britain. He says that he left the States because he couldn't get the American press to publish his exposes. In London, his stories about government and corporate abuse of power make front page headlines in the dailies, and he has a regular TV show on the BBC's Newsnight.
Now, Palast is finishing up the American leg of the tour for his book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. The book may prove to be Palast's entry into American consciousness. It's catching up with Michael Moore's bestseller, "Stupid White Men," on the Amazon sales ranks (Moore's book is heavily indebted to Palast's reporting; Palast has joked that they should tour together). With an appearance on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, an excerpt in Harper's magazine (and here on AlterNet), and countless radio spots, Palast's day in the sun Stateside may have arrived.
What, then, has been the problem on this side of the Atlantic?
"I tear my hair out about this stuff," Palast says, almost jovially over Indian food. "But I have three words for you: Time. Risk. Money." Investigative work is costly and expensive. In his book, Palast asks, "Do profit-conscious enterprises, whether media companies or widget firms, seek extra costs, extra risk, and the opportunity to be attacked? Not in any business text I've ever read."
Of course, Palast has been published, a little bit, Stateside. Here, he is best known for breaking a story that revealed how thousands of black voters were kept off the voting rolls in Florida in the last presidential election. He opens his book with this: "You could call this book: What You Didn't Read in the New York Times. For example, five months before the November 2000 election, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida moved to purge 57,700 people from the voter rolls, supposedly criminals not allowed to vote. Most were innocent of crimes, but the majority were guilty of being Black."
Salon.com followed up on this story, awarding Palast's work their "Political Story of the Year" award. The Nation and the Washington Post then also ran with it.
So why is Palast still complaining? Because the Washington Post, he says, published the story 8 months after he sent it to them.
That lag may have made a crucial difference. "For that particular story, there were underlying political reasons why major newspapers didn't want to upset the election of George Bush," says Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly and former dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley. "If they were going to make a big investigative noise about it, it had to be soon enough, i.e., before the Supreme Court really chose the next president." Those eight months, in other words, were the difference between a story with "legs" and a crippled story.
"In London," Bagdikian continues, "there are newspapers that cover the whole political spectrum from right to left ... Therefore, stories that have strong economic and political connotations are more apt to be revealed in one or more of the major papers, simply out of ideological interest." And as Palast notes, in contrast to most American media outlets, "my paper, the Guardian, and its Sunday sister the Observer are the world's only leading newspapers owned by a not-for-profit corporation, as is BBC television."
So the Post's crucial lag time is why Palast still has beef. "You know, I should be grateful to the Post," he says. "But I'm sorry, if it was news in June , how could it not have been news in November , when the ballots were still being counted?"
Palast doesn't really seem sorry. Instead, he seems amused by the anger he provokes both in other journalists and people in power. The following fan mail is included on the fly leaf in his book: "Your Bullshit axe to grind with Bush is just another example of how far a punk ass loser will go to slander our president." He also includes a front page photo of him in the London Mirror with the headline "THE LIAR." Palast seems to get a kick out of this stuff.
Not all journalists think it's an outrage that Palast's work doesn't get more play here. The Columbia Journalism Review found Palast's complaints "annoyingly self-righteous," in their review of the book Into the Buzzsaw, a collection of articles by journalists whose investigative stories were buried. Karen Rothmyer, a veteran journalist who also happens to be the managing editor of The Nation, doesn't think that Palast's inability to catch fire in the U.S. points to any systemic problems. "I just don't buy that thesis," Rothmyer says. While there's room for improvement overall, Rothmyer says that Palast is "one of a lot of people who do this kind of stuff. He does some good work, other people do good work."
When pressed for examples of an American version of Greg Palast, Rothmyer says, "I'm not thinking about any particular individual. The Wall Street Journal's stock in trade is exposing scandals in the business community. Anyone on the left should never let a morning go by without making sure to read it. The other business press, the Times did some great stuff on banking scandals in Russia. So each of them takes their turn at doing great stuff. It tends to be individual reporters who are on a beat, really digging and getting a good story .... There's a lot of good reporting on what American companies do."
That may be true, but of course, now is a strange time to be defending the American business press. In a decade of unprecedented growth in corporate coverage, the press by and large missed the cesspit that was Enron. The Wall Street Journal has done some great digging, but only late in the game. The Columbia Journalism Review just published a wrap-up of the media's failure on Enron, complete with mea culpas from the editor of Business Week saying this "was not the press's finest hour."
Meanwhile, Palast reported on Enron, political donations and the California energy crisis in May of 2001. Long before that, he reported on Enron as part of an undercover expose on American corporations buying direct access to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his policy makers in London. "Lobbygate," as it was called, made front page headlines for a week and a half in London.
The story was ignored in the U.S. press.
Why? Rothmyer says, "For the Times, the Journal and the Post, who's getting money from what corporation, that's like an old story here. It's a much bigger story in Britain. That didn't happen, not to the same degree, as much as in the last few years when Blair made politics more like the U.S. in the way parties operate. It may have been that simple."
Rothmyer also points to legitimate stylistic differences in Palast's work. Palast writes columns, not full-length features. His tone tends to be ironic and snarky. American investigative reporting tends much more towards "show, don't tell" in its writing.
Our papers of record, of course, do much excellent work. Their investigative reports tend to be exhaustive features, put forward only in the most balanced of tones. Palast writes snappy columns. And American papers on tight budgets with limited resources have their own reporters with their own leads.
Still, given our incessant coverage of the royal family, and our record of 4,000-word profiles of Tony Blair in the New York Times magazine, Palast's reporting on Enron in Britain should have been of interest. Hey, it might have given us some insight into problems of our own.
"I think it's a paradigm of 'go along, get along,'" says media critic and author Norman Solomon. "There are many permutations for this rationale for not being too feisty. It's a pattern that goes something like this: 'It's not news, everybody knows it happens. It's dog bites man, similar stories have already been reported, what's the big deal?' Or, 'it wasn't reported, so now it's old news.' ... There's an apparent temptation to which [the independent media] succumb sometimes, not to seem beyond the pale. We don't want to be marginalized, we're always fighting against being marginalized, we have to pick our shots ... The danger is that by trying to stay within proximity of mainstream media's center, we lose our own centers as independent journalists."
In what Solomon calls the "echo chamber" of the American press landscape, getting published once, and only once, doesn't really count. It's getting your story picked up, generating "buzz," making sure your story has "legs." And generating buzz is sometimes a matter of funding. Progressive and liberal independent media, which traditionally might be more interested in publishing articles that challenge corporate power, are vastly out-financed by the conservative right.
"There's much less diversity in our media than there used to be, and conservatives dominate it," says Robert Parry, one of the reporters who broke the Iran Contra scandal at the Associated Press and the author of "Fooling America: How Washington Insiders Twist the Truth and Manufacture Conventional Wisdom."
"It's a tremendously skewed system," Parry continues. "If you're a professional journalist, you're most concerned about getting into trouble with the conservative side. They target things they don't like, and you can be subjected to pretty ugly attacks, and your career can be damaged or ended. If you make a mistake, it's huge, and even if you don't make a mistake, your career can be over."
There's also a certain kind of hesitant resistance to the kind of inflammatory discoveries Palast makes. "Palast, especially with the Florida elections, obviously broke some very important stuff," continues Parry. "Any editor who publishes something like that is taking a chance. Very few want to do that. Work is hard enough."
In an ideal world, all reporters would work like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President's Men. Reality, of course, is more complicated. As Palast writes, "Remember, 'All the President's Men' was so unusual they had to make a movie about it." The truth can be slippery, and journalists often feel pressured not to risk their necks on stories that may be difficult or unpopular. "If you're 6 months ahead of the curve, you might as well be wrong," Parry says. "Even if later you're proved right, in the meantime, your editors all think you're out of step."
All is not lost. Courageous reporters do sometimes chase the tough stories. And some of the stories Palast works on do gain momentum here. For example, in his chapter, "Sell the Lexus, Burn the Olive Tree: Globalization and its Discontents," Palast writes about the privatization of water utilities in Bolivia. San Francisco-based Bechtel Inc. took over the utility in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and prices soared, especially for the poor. People were suddenly unable to get enough water to cook and wash. They took to the streets. Some protesters were killed, but ultimately the government could not suppress the uprising and Bechtel's contract was cancelled. While the story was largely ignored by the major papers, the local alternative weekly in San Francisco, the Bay Guardian, did a series of in-depth articles. So did the independent magazine In These Times. And then last week, The New Yorker published an in-depth, leading article by William Finnegan that detailed the entire saga and used it to call water privatization worldwide into question.
Of course, this is 2002, and Palast published this story in April of 2000. But still, now it's out in the New Yorker, complete with criticism of Bechtel's corporate spin (which tried to blame the protests on the drug traffic). One can only hope that this is the beginning of further buzz.
But overall, "people don't want to believe these things happen," Palast says. "It's 'I don't believe this, I can't believe our government would actually do this.' No reporter ever lost his job covering a press conference. But people do lose their jobs for checking facts. People don't like muckrakers anymore, 'muckraker' has become a bad word. You get a reputation as a muckraker and you're unemployable, you're 'out to get people.'"
All of these conflicting pressures converge in the newsroom, where the decisions get made about what is and isn't newsworthy. And Palast has little patience for what he sees in America's newsrooms. "Profit-lust" may be the ultimate problem, Palast writes, but "the more immediate cause of comatose coverage of the election and other issues is what is laughably called America's 'journalistic culture.' If the Rupert Murdochs of the globe are shepherds of the New World Order, they owe their success to breeding a flock of docile sheep -- the editors and reporters snoozy and content with munching on, digesting, then reprinting a diet of press releases and canned stories provided by officials and corporate public relations operations."
Of course, Palast's willingness to call American journalists "docile sheep" also doesn't win him many allies in American newsrooms. He knows that. "People don't like me because I name names," he says.
Ironically, "journalistic culture" in Britain is technically more hostile to reporters, since the U.K. has no constitutional guarantee of a free press. Libel laws there place the burden of proof on journalists, not plaintiffs -- the exact opposite of America. Lawyers vet Palast's articles for the Guardian; "I have to meet court standards," he says. And yet, the BBC and The Guardian have been willing to risk -- and lose -- time and money on Palast's work, all for stories that involve American corporations and interests.
Some of the hottest water, for Palast in London, boiled up around a story on George Bush Sr.'s close ties to a mammoth Canadian company called Barrick Gold Mining. Palast has linked a Barrick subsidiary to the death of 50 miners in Tanzania. He has pictures and videotape to prove it, which he's been displaying on his book tour. The mining company sued The Guardian for libel and even sued to get Palast to take the story off of his American Web site. New York Observer reporter Joe Conason wrote a story about the lawsuit on Salon. Otherwise, nothing. "No one wants to look at the money, and how it poisons the system," Palast says.
Of course, one person's poisoned system is another person's non-story. "American news execs perceive that Americans really don't give a shit about globalization," says Dan Kennedy, longtime media critic for the Boston Phoenix. "For the most part, they may be right, but part of the reason Americans don't give a shit about globalization is that the media have never bothered to explain to them why they should give a shit about globalization. It becomes a real vicious circle there."
"You're dealing not with a conspiracy theory by any means," says Kennedy, "but some cultural bias on the part of elite media. The perception in the elite media circles is that people who are anti-globalization, if they're not dreadlocked Mumia protesters, are probably white trash living in trailer parks somewhere. They're beneath contempt and don't need to be taken seriously. It fits into the same thing as the media bias against labor unions. Most elite media find labor unions beneath contempt. It's not really because of economics. It's more of a 'those people' type of thing."
While Palast is willing to delve into the perspective of "those people," he also has a heavy-hitting economics background -- two things that are rare in the same journalist. Palast posed as a credible American corporate bigwig for his undercover infiltration of British lobbyists, but at the same time writes, "The spiky-haired protesters in the streets of Seattle believe there's some kind of grand conspiracy between the corporate powers, the IMF, the World Bank and an alphabet soup of agencies which work to suck the blood of Bolivians and steal the gold from Tanzania. But the tree-huggers are wrong; the details are far more stomach-churning than they imagine." (That's from his introduction to a story about documents he procured from inside the World Bank -- documents which indicate that the World Bank may be fully aware of and willing to impose further suffering on the poor in the developing world, in the name of international investment.)
Palast says he'll share his documentation with any major American media organization that wants to see it. "I'm not trying to be selfish," Palast says, "There's an endless vein of this stuff. But if I can get these documents, are you telling me the New York Times can't get them?"
Perhaps the American press has drifted too far towards reporting from the perspective of the business class, so to speak. "Look at the business pages here, it's corporate puff pieces," Palast says. "I'm on the business page of the Guardian, reporting about what these guys are really up to."
The "elite" label is often used to accuse the media of being liberal, but "a lot of reporters buy into being rich," says Dale Maharidge, a journalism professor at Stanford and author of "Journey to Nowhere, the Saga of the New Underclass," (the book that inspired Bruce Springsteen's song Youngstown, Ohio).
"I was in the newspaper business for 15 years, and the general public thinks it's a lot of liberals," Maharidge continues, "but there are large numbers of Republicans. At major dailies, they're making 50 to 60 thousand a year, and they're identifying with the rich. They're interviewing Ken Lay and hoity-toity-ing with the rich guys rolling in the big dollars. When, really, they're ink-stained wretches. They just don't want to believe that."
A rich-man's perspective affects how and what journalists cover. "The labor beat is almost gone from business sections," says Maharidge. "I think that's a travesty. Enron and its ilk have tried to convince us that we're all wealthy, we're all players in the stock market. Well, it's not true. Most Americans are workers."
All of these rules have notable exceptions. From well-funded investigative researchers like Donald Barlett and James Steele at Time Magazine, to editors and columnists like David Corn at an indie outlet like The Nation, to freelancers like Ken Silverstein, to reporters like David Cay Johnston at the New York Times, hundreds of journalists are out there chasing the tough stories. Many journalists have won Pulitzers by sticking it to big money and power in the U.S. Greg Palast may not be among them simply because he up and moved to London instead of sticking it out.
The larger question, then, may not be, why don't Palast's stories get published here? It may be, why don't they explode? Palast's work on the election in Florida did get published by a major paper. But consider how many jokes you've heard about hanging chads versus how many jokes you've heard about Jeb Bush, and what amounts to a conscious GOP effort to keep black people from voting in Florida. It's a thousand to one, right?
Palast and his peers will all continue to do good work. But a television-radio-headline feedback loop needs to be triggered in order for any story to have an impact, and the echo chamber doesn't often pick up their stories. Some news people see the media landscape as a battleground, where vested interests and journalists battle it out to get their version of the story heard. It can take an army of resources marshaled behind a story to give it sticking power. Publishing a story isn't enough. It takes resources -- money for marketing and public relations -- to make a story echo. Corporate interests tend to have more resources than independent, muckraking publications.
So, while we have some excellent reporters in the U.S., we could always use a few more. The saying, "comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable," sometimes floats around newsrooms. For some, that's bias. For others, it's media's ultimate purpose: to hold power accountable in our society. In a time when Americans have been reminded of the importance of news, the hard questions that Greg Palast raises are worth asking.
You can find Greg Palast's work online at www.gregpalast.com. Michelle Chihara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is resident muckraker at AlterNet.org.