Greg Palast awarded PEN Oakland Censorship Award
Greg Palast awarded PEN Oakland Censorship Award
On Saturday, December 8, 2007, investigative journalist Greg Palast was given the PEN Oakland Censorship Award at an event held at the Rockridge Public Library. The MC for the awards was Janice Edwards, who hosts a local NBC weekend show about the arts and other events in the Bay Area. Greg Palast was unable to attend, so his friend, mass marketer Mark Swedlund—who posed as a sleazy American businessman visiting Britain for one of Palast’s investigations—accepted the award on his behalf.
I’m Mark Swedlund and I’ve been a friend and a cohort of Greg Palast since 1978, which sort of dates he and I, as well. We’ve attended each other’s weddings, been to each other’s kids’ birthday parties, we grew our gray hair together and lost much of our hair together. I’ve had the honor of participating in a few of Greg’s stories with great fun. Most recently, Greg commandeered my hot tub in Sonoma County for the last few days of editing Armed Madhouse. So when you run into him, if he slips in any references to pinot noir or crystal therapy, that’s because of me.
Greg wanted to be here very much with you today. He’s a great supporter of PEN and organizations like that, and he wanted you to know that. When we talked yesterday, he said, while he’s completely gratified to be recognized for this annual censorship award. He really hopes that one day he’ll be competing with Robert Perry and Seymour Hersch on national TV for an award like the Grammy or Oscar for the Best Investigative Journalism in America. But in the meantime, he’ll settle for this. He does think it would be really great if one or two investigative reporters got similar billing and credibility to the leaders of journalistic ethics today, Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly.
Greg’s not here because he’s leaving for Ecuador this week and he decided in the interests of preserving his marriage he would spend Hanukkah with his 8-year-olds last night in New York. He’s off to Ecuador to film Part 2—not Part 1, but Part 2—of the BBC’s coverage of Chevron’s environmental debacle in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Now, for some reason, the British Broadcasting Corporation believes that the British public is smart enough to sit through an expose on corporate greed in the Third World. And not only will they sit through it once, they will spend enough money to send Greg back there twice to do a follow-up story.
But why can’t our country? We don’t know what the answer is. Greg says his work usually gets these awards and they say, “Oh, he’s been brave and courageous”, and he wanted me just to remind you that he’s really not particularly brave or courageous, but what he’s typically doing is reporting the work of other people who are brave. Like the FBI agents who accidentally do things like leave documents on his doorstep in the night and tell him, “Please don’t read this, we have to come back and pick it up.” Or the State Department employees who gave him access to Rube Goldberg-like economic plans that you can see printed in The Armed Madhouse and on his website.
And, more important, like the indigenous leaders in Ecuador who are literally risking their lives to face up to an organization like Chevron. So, Greg’s got one little tip for Barbara Walters: Since our Secretary of the Oil State, Condoleezza Rice used to be an officer of Chevron, he hopes that the next time she’s on TV with Barbara, she could slip in one or two questions about the favors this Administration has done for Big Oil instead of just talking about how well Condi plays the piano.
If you’ve seen Greg speak, he always has some props, so I brought a couple of props for you today. We’ve set this up. What we’re going to show you is what you CAN do with investigative journalism, at least if you’re in the right country. So this is a really boring story about arcane public policy. It’s about the role of lobbyists in the Blair administration in providing access to top British government officials. Now, this sounds like a total yawner and it would be played as a total yawner here. Here’s how it went in the UK.
(While speaking, Swedlund holds up the papers he is referring to, so the audience can see the headlines.)
The Observer is a national Sunday newspaper kind of halfway between USA Today and the New York Times. We went undercover, did a little story, did some investigation on this boring topic of lobbying. On Sunday, they broke the story—this is the cover page, by the by—that says, “Cash for access: two thousand pounds buys access to a Minister.” It was a nice subdued story, but in the great British way this incredibly boring story about lobbying was picked up the next day: “Blair sleaze row deepens”.
The Independent was not to be outdone: “Stop protecting all your money-grubbing cronies”. The tabloid press had their day as well. You may have heard of a new fellow called Gordon Brown over there. Gordon Brown has a friend. It says: “Brown linked to shamed Mr Fix-it”. The following week, Greg actually got himself in The Observer. They even did a story about the investigative reporter himself, with a little by-line that says: “Palast conducted some of America’s most important fraud investigations”.
But the reason—and unfortunately I do not have the original of this because Greg did not keep it—is because Rupert Murdoch’s paper, The Mirror, had run before on the front page a full-page photo of Greg with only two words: “The Liar”. So Greg wanted you to know when he thinks of investigative journalism, he thinks the way we should think of it here as with our first speaker, you should think of it as hand-to-hand combat and not think about the quality of the dinners in Georgetown.
So this brings me to the final message Greg wanted me to leave you with. Investigative reporting is not an archaeological dig into the garbage pits of the past. Good investigations are for the future. And he wanted me to remind you that he, John Conyers, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson have been working on voting, and documenting the theft of votes in 2000 and 2004. But the purpose of this is not to point fingers at the villains of the past; it’s about the theft of the 2008 elections. That’s the title of one of Greg’s newest pieces. Go to the website and check it out: “How the 2008 Election was Stolen”.
In this country, folks like Greg need to have direct support from people like you in this room. So we encourage you to visit their websites, to donate, and equally important, pick up their stories and forward them—as most of them would like you to do—to other people. Badger your local media to cover these stories if there is not news coverage. So please visit Greg’s website at www.gregpalast.com. You can even donate. He even has some signed gifts he can send out to your for Christmas if you’re behind. And he left a little gift here. I believe we still have some CDs left for sale in the back that he’s donated to PEN. I hope they’re totally sold out today, because I don’t want to take them back to Sebastopol.
On behalf of Greg, his underpaid staff, and his long-suffering wife and children, I want to thank you and I want to thank you for all your support.
Edwards: Mark, thank you very much. Duly noted, I’ll be following up about that 2008 election. It’s something that I think we should definitely continue to pay attention to in so many ways, and that sometimes the story bears the myth that it’s too complicated, but we know it’s not. It’s just the investigation and the attention that is required for people to understand.