Armed with sarcasm and independence, journalist Greg Palast pounds the pavements of America—however ugly they are—like the hard-boiled PIs of pulp novels, searching for truth and justice. His practices are unconventional in today’s journalism, not to mention the subset of investigative reporting. Maybe that’s why his books are bestsellers. Maybe that’s why he received the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism. And maybe that’s why he has lucrative support from the nonprofit Palast Investigative Fund.
“I do old-fashioned investigative reporting. I go undercover. I do stakeouts. I get secret, confidential documents. I confront the bad guys if I have to chase them down the damn street,” he says. “I’ve been arrested. Whatever it takes.”
Palast has a lot to say, especially as the presidential elections loom. His newest book is Billionaires & Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 9 Easy Steps (Seven Stories Press). With a foreword by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., it largely focuses on shadowy practices—as well as the practitioners—that have surrounded recent elections in the United States.
“It will put the protection of your vote front and center,” Palast says. He points out such practices as voter purging and voter “caging,” or “mailing to registered voters—soldiers, students, the homeless, and others—and using returned letters to challenge their registrations and absentee ballots.
The book is nonpartisan, Palast says, as both the Obama and Romney camps, as well as their top supporters, are suspects. His biggest? Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, and “the richest guys you’ve never heard of.”
As he writes in the book, “Let me be clear: whether Obama is reelected, that’s none of my business. As a journalist, I stay clear of cuddling up to candidates of either party. Who gets elected, well, that’s your problem, gringo. I’m a reporter, and it’s not my job to preserve Democrats. But preserving democracy, with that fragile little d, that means something to me.”
Palast spent four months writing Billionaires & Ballot Bandits. It’s a collection of fresh commentary and investigative reports that he and his team produced for BBC, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian’s Sunday paper, The Observer, among other publications. This is his fifth book. The others, equally provocative, are Vultures’ Picnic, Armed Madhouse, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and Democracy and Regulation. They show that Palast will face anyone. Oil execs. Public services. Billionaires. CIA operatives. The White House. For Palast, threats and arrests are nothing to fear.
“I am filled with resentment at these billionaire bastards who send us to wars,” Palast scowls, “and steal our jobs, and are now stealing our elections. The book doesn’t have a high political tone; it’s a person thing. When they steal votes, they’re stealing votes from people who I grew up with. They can’t speak, so I will.”
Palast’s zeal for exposing the backdoor dealings of “rich” America stretches back to his youth, spent in the “ass-end” of a Chicano neighborhood in Los Angeles. He was a fraud investigator for two decades, and in 1998, at the age of 45, he ditched that career for journalism, namely of the British variety. Some of his most recognized reports concern ballot rigging in Florida during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
“I’m not influenced by the writing of American journalists at all,” he admits, “which I find dull, awful, and unengaging. You can pack a lot of information in when things aren’t stupid.”
Many newspapers rely too much on press releases and the Internet, he says, citing his new book’s chapter “I’m De-Pressed.” “Where are the investigators? Where are people going inside [public and corporate offices] and getting the information? I know there are people inside these offices who want to rat out their ugly, cheating bosses.”
Adding to the fire of Palast’s new book is a 48-page section of comics from syndicated cartoonist and political commentator Ted Rall. Dubbed “Tales from the Crypt of Democracy,” they’re based on Palast’s writings, highlighting the most potent points of the book. It’s like an executive summary.
“Comics can give you a picture that you won’t forget,” says Palast. “It requires an author to stop thinking in a fat, lazy verbose manner. I write a lot of words, and sometimes I can tell great stories with a lot of words, but if you can’t take your basic point and cut it down to a frame, it’s probably not worth a sh— anyway.”
Palast and Ted have been co-conspirators since 2008, when they released Steal Back Your Vote, a sort of precursor to the new book. In its first three weeks, a quarter-million copies were sold, Palast says. “Writing is generally a lonely business,” he says, “so it’s kind of fun to do a collaboration when we both have an idea of where we’re heading.”
Rall is the author of several graphic novels and nonfiction books with liberal leanings, the most recent being The Book of Obama: How We Got from Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt (Seven Stories Press, June). Also armed with sarcasm and bite, Rall was challenged with matching wits with Palast. Sometimes, Rall says, cartoonists have an easier time adapting material when it’s drier. Palast’s work is far from that. “I had to bring something new to it,” Rall says. “I had to be funny and sarcastic in a way that he was not.”
Rall gained new insights into voting when he read Palast’s first draft. “I always assumed the money in politics is being spent on TV advertising, but it’s really being spent on voter suppression. Most of the focus is on stopping people voting, not getting them out to vote.”
Rall wants readers to understand voter suppression. He also wants them to recognize the value of cartooning. “I hope that editors start paying more attention to editorial and political cartoonists,” he says. “It’s really a dying profession, and it’s because editors just don’t get it. We’re like the dodo birds.”
Billionaires & Ballot Bandits will get plenty of attention this fall. With a first printing of 200,000 copies, it’s being distributed to the “major accounts” of the book market, says Seven Stories Press publisher Dan Simon. The e-book edition of Rall’s comics will be in full color, unlike the print edition, and available through all digital markets.
“The only place we aren’t at this point is the airport stores,” says Simon. “They said they don’t want anything political.”
On top of the advertising and release push, Palast has amassed a network of media outlets and nonprofit organizations ready to spread the book’s fire—on the Web, on the airwaves, in radioland, and beyond. He also has short films planned, a six-part video documentary that will be released through Democracy Now, CurrentTV, and other channels. On the music front, he has support and licenses from notables like Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne. What’s more, Penguin is releasing the paperback edition of Vultures’ Picnic on September 25.
“I have seven weeks to get this book and the materials of this book in the hands of millions of people,” Palast says. “We’re doing everything but skywriting, and I’m working on that.”
Rich Shivener has interviewed authors for Publishers Weekly and PW Comics World.