Not the Best DVD Money Can Buy:
A Review of Greg Palast's "Bush Family Fortunes"
-- October 10, 2004
At the beginning of the month, Greg Palast's publicist sent us a copy of his new DVD, Bush Family Fortunes: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and asked us to publish a review. I'm happy to write a review, but I'm afraid that the content of the review itself may not be what Palast had hoped for.
Don't get me wrong -- I happen to agree with at least two-thirds of what Palast has to say on "Bush Family Fortunes," and I think it's very important for people to become educated on the subject of George W. Bush as we head into the election season.
However, in order for me to recommend that you buy a DVD and devote time (in this case, an hour) to viewing it, that money and time have to be worth something. I cannot conclude that Palast's DVD will contribute anything worth $15 and an hour of your time to your understanding of the what he calls the "Bush Dynasty" and its effect on American politics.
What are the contributions a DVD like this could have made, and how does Palast's attempt at a DVD shape up?
- Convincing Undecided Voters. A DVD like "Bush Family Fortunes" could have had the purpose of convincing undecided voters to vote for John Kerry or, at least, to vote against George W. Bush. But Palast undermines that purpose in his approach. Video of George W. Bush is accompanied by over-the-top minor chords (The packaging shouts "Music by Moby," as if that should impress. Fine, it's music by Moby. It's counter-productive music by Moby). Palast sneers when he says "George W. Bush." Palast adds judgmental adjectives to the name Bush before talking about an issue, shoving his opinion about the facts onto the viewer rather than trusting the viewer to be able to come up with an opinion given the presentation of facts.
You know where we stand at Irregular Times. I find George W. Bush's presidency to be despicable. But even I was put off by Palast's decision not simply to give me what he considers to be the facts of the matter, but to tell me what I should think about it. If I have a problem with Palast's pushiness, then I suspect undecided voters may be rather put off by it. Pushiness is fine if you're speaking to the converted, so I imagine Palast is not really trying to win over new voters here.
- Important New Information. Palast's DVD could have provided new documented information that could inform a case against Bush, either for undecided voters to deliberate upon or for committed anti-Bush people to strengthen their arguments. On his website, Palast is fond of explaining how he has to work so hard to get around Big Media, which isn't reporting the necessary information.
Unfortunately, "Bush Family Fortunes" doesn't fill this role, either. It's odd how strongly Palast seems to be dedicated to creating the impression that he's doing the investigative reporting work behind the material of the DVD. He wears a floppy journalist's hat. He is featured in many minutes of footage walking this way and that, trotting up stairs and down stairs, opening doors and closing doors, nodding and scowling. There's lots of footage of Greg Palast. Why, you might even think Palast was the subject of the DVD (hmmmmm...)!
But behind all the presentation, there's just not much that hasn't already been published by the mainstream media that Palast so denigrates. The information about Bush's National Guard record that's in the DVD has already been reported in the papers. Information in the DVD about Bush's history in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s is nothing that hasn't already been reported on in the papers (look here for an evenhanded and more complete presentation of Bush's history in a two-hour Frontline Special.)
Instead of new information, the version of "reporting" we get most often is Greg Palast "obtaining information" from people who are made to look like news sources but who are really just repackaging and restating information that the evil "mainstream media" has already dug up and presented to the world. Palast's favorite "news source" is Jim Hightower, who is introduced after Palast shows George W. Bush strutting on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Palast intones, "Fabulous to the Yale Man, but not to some Texans...". Palast cuts to Jim Hightower, the "some Texans" in question. Now, Jim Hightower's been a consistent progressive voice out there, but representative of Texans he certainly is not. Hightower goes on for a couple of minutes about the details of that aircraft carrier landing, with Palast nodding and listening as if he were learning those details for the first time. Well, posh. We knew, thanks to the evil "mainstream media," about the staging of the event well over a year before Greg Palast met Jim Hightower in a scenic location to pose as if he were pretending to be learning about this information for the first time.
For Jim Hightower and other advocates like him to essentially read others' journalistic findings to the nodding and jotting on-camera presence of Greg Palast is an exercise in self-serving pretense. It makes Hightower and the other "sources" look like they're insiders, and it makes Palast look like he did the work of uncovering the information. He didn't. Does Palast think we're so stupid as not to notice? Apparently.
Occasionally, Palast comes up with nuggets of information that are new. But he consistently makes more of those nuggets than a reasonable person ought to. For instance, he discovers a memo stating that a firm named DBT was hired to fact-check the Florida felons list used to keep felons from voting. The Florida felons list continued to contain inaccuracies, as we know. These items are meant to demonstrate a conspiracy by the Florida government and DBT to bias the felons list, but what they actually demonstrate is that a company was hired to ensure the accuracy of the Florida but did not, in fact, remove all factual errors. That's evidence of inexcusible and consequential negligence, but not a criminal conspiracy. Here, Greg Palast is pushing his preconceptions beyond what the data actually show, which means that he'll convince people who already agree with him and fail to impress those who don't. That's useless.
In another example, Palast notes of Florida's 2000 felons list that "although black people make up only 13% of Florida's population, more than half the scrub list -- 54% -- were African-American." Wow! Black people in Florida are overrepresented on the 2000 Florida felons list by a factor of 4! It must be the evil Bushies, we are meant to conclude, who are stuffing black people disproportionately onto the Florida felons list. But Palast either knows or could have easily discovered that the percentage of the prison population in Florida that was black in 2000 was also 54%. Although it is an important and legitimate question to ask why so many black people are ending up in prison in Florida, and it is an important and legitimate question to ask why former felons are not given back their voting rights after they have served their time in prison, it is intellectually dishonest of Greg Palast to fail to mention that the representation of blacks on the Florida felon list is equal to the representation of blacks in the Florida prison system. (My source for this information, by the way, is the great Mother Jones Special Report on the American Prison System).
In yet another example, Greg Palast uncovers a letter -- a letter! -- from Ken Lay to George W. Bush, suggesting he read an article in the New York Times Magazine written by Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Palast helpfully refers to Friedman's piece as the "Mien Kempf" (I imagine he meant "Mein Kampf") of globalization. What does this demonstrate? Only that Ken Lay acted like many of our grandmothers by sending on unsolicited news clippings, and that Greg Palast is not above tarring a writer casually with the Hitler brush without further reference or justification.
With not much of a new case to present, Greg Palast is left to stylistic expression as his mode of operation. There's just a lot of fluff and "music by Moby" to fill the time. The first four minutes of the 62-minute DVD, for example, consist of:
- footage of Greg Palast not being responded to by a public official,
- "music by Moby" with images of a car driving somewhere or other, an oil well, George W. Bush looking menacing, and Kathleen Harris looking menacing,
- the voice of Jim Hightower saying George W. Bush is a stupid man with an unstated purpose in life, and of a couple saying they like George W. Bush, and
- images of Greg Palast tromping around Washington, D.C., looking vaguely beleaguered and muck-rakesome in his frumpled hat.
If the information in Palast's DVD is nothing usefully new, if it's deceptively presented so as to puff up Palast's self-importance, and if its stylistic aggressiveness makes it off-putting to undecided voters, what is its value? What does it contribute? I assert that it contributes less than nothing to the current political scene. It's made effectively useless by Palast's bluster to anybody who doesn't already agree with him. And those of us who agree with Palast already should be careful. Greg Palast is a man who tells us exactly what we want to hear, which means we should be especially wary and demand that he provide the evidence to prove his case. He doesn't do so systematically, which deflates my confidence in his work.
My recommendation? Ignore the hype. If you've been even moderately attentive to the newspapers in the past three years, you'll know the details Palast presents already. There's nothing new to see here, folks. Move along. Move along.
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