Anthony Castillo

Russ Baker: from Venice High School to Award-Winning Investigative Journalist

By Anthony Castillo

I’ve followed the important work of award-winning investigative journalist Russ Baker since the release of his seminal book “Family of Secrets, the Bush dynasty, America’s invisible government, and the hidden history of the last fifty years.” Mr Baker’s work has been published in every prestigious news outlet from the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Esquire, The Nation to name a few. He’s served as contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. He founded the nonpartisan, nonprofit news Web site which stands in stark contrast to the infotainment doled out by mainstream corporate media, as well as to the pseudo alternative media.
While I was familiar with Mr Baker’s work, I wasn’t familiar with Russ Baker the person. Through a close friend of mine who volunteers with WhoWhaWhy I found out that Russ Baker was a graduate of Venice High School in the 70’s. Now a resident of New York City, he was in town for one of his biannual visits to his old stomping grounds. I wasted no time in setting up an interview to ask Mr Baker some questions about the importance of independent media, his work, as well as what it was like to grow up in the Venice area at the same time when the Z-Boys were inventing skateboarding. The Free Venice Beachhead prides itself on being an independent news source for the Venice community. Russ Baker brings his independent reporting to an international level and now to the pages of the Beachhead.

Beachhead: How and when did you become politicized? Did you have any mentors who helped set you on your path to journalism?

Russ Baker: My father was a good guy, really cared deeply about injustice. I suppose he politicized me – got me helping him on grassroots political and issue campaigns, took me to demonstrations, and also helped a lot of people.

BH: How, if at all, did growing up in Venice shape your world view, and what was it like living here as a kid?

RB: In those days, the area was a mix of working class conservatives and of more progressive types. I was exposed to an amazing mix: elite families and gangs. I learned to protect myself at a rough junior high. Venice itself was not the trendy place it is today – it was definitely rough and tumble, but also had this bohemian poetic beatnik set.

BH: Can you summarize the main topics you cover in Family of Secrets, and how did the research you did for writing the book affect you?

RB: I was interested in understanding how and why America got to where it would put someone like George W. Bush in the White House. It seemed to me that there must be some deeper truths we could learn rather than just rushing away in horror as he left office. My digging proved that I was right – I attained a whole new understanding of the networks of power that shape our country. In Family of Secrets, I trace the rise of the Bush clan, and find especially interesting how little we really knew about the father (George H.W. Bush) and his father, Senator Prescott Bush and how deeply entwined they were with a whole subterranean network of bankers, oilmen, intelligence people, military. You might call it the invisible fascist substructure. It explains a great deal about what happened – and explains a great deal about why we continue to be disappointed in our quest for real democracy and a decent society.

BH: Why should regular folks care about “deep politics” and what is it, for those readers not familiar with the term?

RB: Deep politics, or parapolitics, refers to the goings-on that are not made public – and the people and institutions that guide our country in ways often unseen. The concept is common in many other countries, but utterly alien to us. We believe that most everything is right on the surface, and we are wrong at our peril.

BH: At WhoWhatWhy you’ve done some of the best in depth reporting on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Could you tell our readers some of the parts of this ongoing story that the corporate, mainstream media is ignoring, distorting or covering up that we should be paying attention to?

RB: At WhoWhatWhy we are agnostic about stories. We go in with an open mind – but also with our eyes open and our noses twitching. We consider patterns of behavior, and that the past is prologue. In the case of the Boston bombing, we were struck by the “rush to judgment” that was similar to that with Lee Harvey Oswald half a century earlier. The authorities rushed to assure us they had identified the culprits, that no one else was involved, and that we all needed to move on. Typically, when security agencies claim to have solved something that fast, they’re in the midst of a coverup. Our extensive research, focusing on the FBI and its pattern of recruiting informants who then participate in luring others into criminal acts, found once again a lot of problems with the FBI’s behavior in the matter. Many things do not add up, and one comes away with the sense that whatever really happened that led to the Boston bombings, a premium is being placed on making sure we never find out the truth. I urge everyone to read as many of the several dozen pieces we’ve done on this subject as possible – because the bombing led to the unprecedented lock down of a major American city, and if this is in any way tied to that kind of erosion of our basic freedoms, we need to care.

BH: You’ve worked for most of the big name media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post etc.) but you chose to start an alternative on-line news site. What motivated you to do so and why do you think credible alternative news outlets such as yours are so important?

RB: Frankly, I found that when you work in media (and I’d include both the corporate media and most ‘alternative media’) there’s an agenda and a failure to follow the facts wherever they lead. Everyone is afraid of getting too far away from consensus, from being attacked, ridiculed, marginalized. So there is very, very little bold work being done, especially on the biggest and most traumatic issues we face. That’s why there is a growing credibility gap where the public doesn’t think it is getting the real story. And because the media, almost all of the media, including even many new ‘cool’ online sites, won’t tackle “Deep Politics”, it fosters a kind of mentality that everything is a conspiracy or a coverup. That’s not healthy. What we desperately need is a media outlet that will soberly look at things, find out what it can, and without fear or hesitancy, but with due diligence and responsibility, tell us the truth. That is why I started WhoWhatWhy.

BH: At WhoWhatWhy you go to great lengths to vet the content of the reporting that you post. Can you tell us about the team you have to help with this process and why you’re so passionate about making sure you have your facts correct?

RB: I think your credibility (and success) ought to be based on how right you are. Unfortunately, in this country there are almost no consequences for being wrong. The most celebrated media outlets in the US make tons of huge mistakes, get us into wars, misrepresent presidential candidates, etc, and just go right on at the top. At WhoWhatWhy, we have a small but smart and thoughtful team that reads a lot, thinks a lot, and is involved in reviewing our stories. We do try as hard as we can to be accurate and proportional. We hope that people care about that commitment to quality – we are, deliberately, a nonprofit that does not take corporate money or ads, and we depend entirely on public donations. So people can show us if they share our values.

BH: What else can people find at WhoWhatWhy and what is its mission?

RB: I encourage everyone to visit the site and click around a lot. Although we are still small and limited in our output, we’ve covered a pretty substantial range of subjects, and even stories from a couple of years ago still seem relevant and surprising. For example, we were practically alone in questioning the real motives for the interventions in Libya, Syria, Iran, Ukraine, and so forth. Also, besides being almost the only news organization to investigate the Boston Bombing story in-depth, we were nearly alone in probing at least somewhat into the strange one-car crash that killed investigative journalist Michael Hastings in LA.

BH: Have you done any reporting on Google? If so, what have you found?

RB: We’ve reported some on general issues of privacy, and on the growing power of companies like Google – and also about the danger of social media companies cooperating with censorship imposed by governments. Our stories about the hacktivist journalist Barrett Brown and the government’s effort to silence him and imprison him for a long time should be of interest.

BH: What can every day, rank and file folks do to change the direction of our country?

RB: As long as we have an open internet, the power we all wield is dramatically increased. Use of social media to share articles and viewpoints is important. By doing so, you really do spread knowledge. If and when enough people have the real facts, we will see changes. If and when the problems we face rise to the level of urgency that we discuss them on a sustained basis, the system inevitably must and will respond.

BH: Any last thoughts that you would like to share?

RB: As I said, we’re a small outfit. But we aim to grow big. As a kind of collaborative, we depend a lot on pro bono help with legal, publicity, art, etc. If anyone would like to be part of this grand experiment at delivering truth to the public, we’d love to hear from them. They can contact us via the site. You can support our work by making a tax-deductible donation via the site. And we’re also interested in hearing from experienced journalists and researchers who would like to be part of our team.

BH: Russ Baker, thank you for your time and for all the work you do.
Russ Baker