416 pages, 2011
Investigative reporter Greg Palast is back ― and this time, it’s personal.
The former United States corporate crime investigator, who exposed the 2000 and 2004 elections of George W Bush as frauds, has gone for a more intimate feel in his latest book, Vultures’ Picnic.
In it, he picks the meat off his investigations to expose the brittle bones and rotten carcass underneath. He reveals his battles with drink, hang-ups about his furniture-dealer father, troubled love life and nagging insecurities.
“All my stories are, at root, personal,” he tells Green Left Weekly. “But this time, I didn't censor it out.”
Early on in the book, he recounts a typically tickling episode in which he tries to down a bottle of brandy before appearing on the US current affairs TV show Democracy Now!
Palast’s brilliant new multilingual researcher, who wishes to be known only as “Ms Badpenny”, screams at him: “OH NO YOU DON’T! YOU WILL NOT SABOTAGE YOUR ENTIRE DAY!”
She ends up punching him so hard that the show’s make-up assistant has to tape his face back together.
If you detect love in Ms Badpenny’s words, you are not mistaken. The book is, on one level, a romcom with attitude. Yet when Palast is asked whether the boy-meets girl narrative was pushed by his publisher, his reply is a little cryptic.
“There's a plot line: corporation meets money. Corporation falls in love. Corporation and money marry and have children: members of parliament,” he says.
“As several critics have noted, I created a new genre ― pulp non-fiction ― the only way to tell the story. Big publishing houses are allergic to ‘new’. But they'd already paid me, so they had no choice. My giant US publisher hates my books, but loves the money.”
But Palast has also broken new ground with the format of the book ― it comes in an “interactive edition” that augments the text with videos and links to further, deeper reading.
“Penguin said my integrating film and text was, ‘against our corporate policy’, so I felt compelled to do it,” he says.
A lot of work goes into Palast’s films. It is notoriously difficult to get people to talk in investigative journalism, but even harder to get them to talk on camera.
“About 640% harder,” he says. “But here's the weird one: it's three times easier to get people to talk on the phone than in person, though both are quotable.
“The interactive version of the book is nearly a secret, few know it exists. Those who've seen it are wowed by it.
“I still get a kick out of seeing the 15 videos. Also, readers will shortly be able to access my file cabinets electronically to do their own investigating and follow-up. How cool is that?”
Palast attracts a cool crowd ― the 59-year-old former jazz drummer wears a fedora, has been likened to 1930s gumshoe Sam Spade and has worked with former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and Occupy activist-rapper Boots Riley. His work has been made into investigative comic books.
Palast insists he is un-cool.
“Just because I wear a fedora ― always have, well before I heard of Sam Spade ― and do detective work, it's whack to say I'm ‘Sam Spade’,” he says.
“Spade was cool. I'm un-cool ― totally, utterly, hopelessly. The new writer of the Batman comic books and Transmetropolitan series, Darick Robertson, is making a comic book series of Vultures' Picnic. But I insist it be 100% non-fiction: so he's stuck with a very un-super hero.”
Yet Palast has hero-worship in high places, from JFK’s lawyer nephew Robert Kennedy to civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Tennis legend John McEnroe even makes an unlikely appearance in Vultures' Picnic, helping out in one of Palast’s investigations into a Third World extortionist.
The book also details Palast’s valiant work with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Palast has reached such a wide audience because he makes investigative reporting accessible and amusing. In Vultures’ Picnic, he even manages to make the death of his beloved father laugh-out-loud funny.
Complex corporate fraud can make readers’ eyes glaze over. Is this why Palast laces his work with such salty language and outrageous humour?
“No, my work is about 600 times more interesting than the 'snews' shows on US TV,” he says. “Complexity makes it a real detective story.
“I have some of the most complex stories ever presented on TV and in print, but no one has ever said they're not exciting. The simplistic BS that passes as news is soporific.
“There's humour in my stories not because I add it but because I don't take it out. US newsmen don't understand the difference between ‘serious’ and ‘solemn’.
"Solemn is when the US reporter says, ‘President Bush has just emerged from the fighter to the carrier deck in full flight uniform, the Commander in Chief striding under the banner, “Mission Accomplished”.’
"Serious is when I reported, ‘Bush, who's forgotten to remove the parachute clips from the crotch of his flight suit, is waddling around the deck looking extraordinarily like Ham, the first chimp in space.’”
Palast shows his hatred of career journalists when he recounts how former punk singer Ms Badpenny offered to work for him. “I had a rule,” he writes, “no rich kids and no one with a degree in journalism.”
When asked about his experience with journalism graduates, he replies: “They're careerists and resume-builders trained in the lazy-fuckism of US journalism. Get your news from press conferences, press releases, lunch with officials planting ‘off the record’ horseshit and Google.
"They want pay, sleep, recognition and promotions. Well, fuck that.”
In Vultures’ Picnic, Palast shows time and again how the mainstream media miss the real story when covering disasters right around the world, from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Hurricane Katrina and the poisoning of the Amazon to the BP blowout and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
He has been hailed as a genius, yet when asked to name the traits that have made him such a good investigator, he replies simply: “As stated in the book: I'm fuelled by resentment of rich pricks. I can't kill them, so I expose them.”
However, Palast has been defensive about the mainstream media outlets that run his reports. He recently told an interviewer that the BBC, which broadcasts his films, is “the gold standard of journalism” and The Guardian, which publishes his reports, is not beholden to the same financial interests as US corporate media.
Yet even The Guardian has reported on BBC bias and The Guardian’s environment writer and nuclear power advocate George Monbiot has admitted the paper has to please advertisers.
As Palast always looks beneath the official story, will he concede that perhaps the official images of the BBC and The Guardian aren't quite true here?
“I never claimed the Grauniad [the irreverent nickname The Guardian earned for its typing errors] nor Aunty Beeb are impartial nor are they fonts of truth untouched by concerns for filthy lucre,” he says.
“I'm comparing them to US news outlets like National Public Radio which I call, ‘National Petroleum Radio’.”
As for Monbiot’s nuclear stance, he says: “I love Monbiot and give him props for not accepting the Leftist catechism against nuclear power. However, he's wrong on the facts.
"But then, I worked for years intensely on nuclear racketeering investigations, going through several hundred thousand pages of documentation. I can't expect him to know what I know.
"Monbiot is speaking in good faith, concerned first and foremost with ending global warming. He's not yet fully informed on nuclear, but he's not evil nor a whore ... unlike the Environmental Defense Fund and other rent-a-green strumpets.”
The Guardian would probably not tolerate much dissent from Palast. He almost lost his job there when George Bush Sr’s business partners sued the paper over one of the reporter’s investigations.
Palast says his job was saved by someone he calls “a tall Aussie of dramatic demeanor” ― John Pilger. The multi-award-winning journalist strode uninvited into The Guardian’s offices and told Palast’s bosses: "Yes, Palast is trouble. But he's good trouble."
And in Vultures' Picnic, Palast has taken his troubles and turned them into his best book yet.
[You can read the first chapter of Vultures’ Picnic for free here.]