The Tragedy of Gary Webb

Hounded out of Journalism and pushed to suicide, the Gary Webb story is a cautionary tale about the dangers in speaking truth to power

Doug Ireland

With Kill the Mes­sen­ger (Nation Books/​Avalon), Nick Schou, an edi­tor at Orange Coun­ty Week­ly, pro­vides a metic­u­lous, bal­anced account of the life of Gary Webb, the for­mer San Jose Mer­cury News reporter who, despite minor errors, basi­cal­ly got it right when he wrote the biggest sto­ry of his career. That sto­ry lift­ed the rug on a his­tor­i­cal episode the main­stream media didn’t want to touch: how the Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency turned a blind eye to drug deal­ing in fur­ther­ance of its covert sup­port for the Nicaraguan con­tras. For his efforts, Webb was hound­ed out of jour­nal­ism after a fero­cious assault from America’s most pres­ti­gious news­pa­pers, which Schou doc­u­ments in painstak­ing and shame­ful detail. When Webb – who had once shared a Pulitzer Prize for his report­ing – com­mit­ted sui­cide in Decem­ber 2004, it was the last chap­ter in a real-life Amer­i­can tragedy.

Webb was not the first one on to the sto­ry. AP reporter Robert Par­ry had been forced out of his job at the wire ser­vice for pur­su­ing it. The U.S. Sen­ate Sub­com­mit­tee on Nar­cotics and Ter­ror­ism, chaired by Sen. John Ker­ry, con­duct­ed an inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­tras’ drug traf­fick­ing in 1987 – 88 that had doc­u­ment­ed (among oth­er things) how CIA car­go planes fer­ried arms to the con­tras and then car­ried cocaine back to mil­i­tary bases and remote air­fields on the return flights. But, as Schou notes, Because of its sen­si­tive nature, the com­mit­tee … sealed most of the tes­ti­mo­ny, and Kerry’s inves­ti­ga­tion got scant play in the nation­al news media.”

The Ker­ry inves­ti­ga­tion was main­ly con­cerned with cocaine com­ing into the U.S. East Coast. Webb’s 1996 series for the Mer­cury News, based on a year-long inves­ti­ga­tion, looked at the cocaine traf­fic in Los Ange­les, which was then known as the crack cap­i­tal of the world.” Webb detailed how Free­way” Ricky Ross, the first 80s crack mil­lion­aire and a crack king­pin in L.A.’s South Cen­tral neigh­bor­hood, had been sup­plied with crack cocaine by Nicaraguan exiles and con­tra sup­port­ers with CIA con­nec­tions. Webb dis­cov­ered an affi­davit from the L.A. Coun­ty Sheriff’s Depart­ment that said that the coke prof­its of Ross’s sup­pli­ers are trans­port­ed to Flori­da and laun­dered through … a chain of banks in Flori­da. … From this bank the monies are fil­tered to the Con­tra rebels to buy arms in the war in Nicaragua.”

Webb’s arti­cles, how­ev­er, were unjus­ti­fi­ably hyped by the Mer­cury News’ edi­tors, who, accord­ing to Schou, were hun­gry to com­pete with the media Big Boys. The series ran with war-sized head­lines and a sil­hou­ette of a man smok­ing a crack pipe super­im­posed on the offi­cial seal of the CIA. Dark Alliance: The Sto­ry Behind the Crack Explo­sion,” screamed the paper, with a sub­head claim­ing that Crack Plague’s Roots Are in Nicaraguan War.”

The sto­ry got away from Webb and took on a life of its own, fueled by anger and despair in black com­mu­ni­ties being destroyed by the crack epi­dem­ic and the lethal gang wars sur­round­ing it. As Schou puts it, Dark Alliance” cre­at­ed an alliance of con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists, from some on the left who believed the CIA had delib­er­ate­ly start­ed the crack epi­dem­ic to com­mit geno­cide against black peo­ple” to right-wing fol­low­ers of Lyn­don LaRouche, who saw the sto­ry as fur­ther proof that George Bush Sr. and the Queen of Eng­land belong to a secret cabal that con­trols the plan­et.” Oppor­tunis­tic politi­cians like Rep. Cyn­thia McK­in­ney (D‑Ga.) – who exclaimed on the floor of Con­gress that CIA” stood for Cen­tral Intox­i­ca­tion Agency” – seized on Webb’s sto­ry to grab head­lines for them­selves. The Dark Alliance” series quick­ly became a nation­al cause célebre.

The Los Ange­les Times–embar­rass­ing­ly scooped on its own turf by Webb – react­ed by assign­ing no less than two dozen reporters to what one of them described as the Get Gary Webb Team,” run­ning a take­down series on the Dark Alliance” sto­ries that dwarfed them in size. The Wash­ing­ton Post and the New York Times piled on with mul­ti­ple sto­ries dis­cred­it­ing not just what Webb had writ­ten, but Webb him­self, delv­ing into his past to come up with mud to throw. Most of these papers’ decon­struc­tions” of Webb’s report­ing were based on unnamed gov­ern­ment sources. But the dam­age was done. In the end, the very Mer­cury News edi­tors who’d made exag­ger­at­ed claims for Webb’s series pub­licly dis­owned him in an edi­to­r­i­al while refus­ing to print sto­ries Webb wrote fur­ther doc­u­ment­ing his series. Demot­ed to a remote police beat, Webb left the paper.

Unable to get anoth­er report­ing job on any U.S. dai­ly, his mar­riage destroyed by the inten­si­ty of his Dark Alliance” expe­ri­ence, a depressed Webb killed him­self. In Schou’s telling, he was the vic­tim of incom­pe­tent edi­tors and of a media feed­ing fren­zy that the Wash­ing­ton Posts own ombuds­man lat­er described as misplaced.

Through­out Kill the Mes­sen­ger, Schou does fresh report­ing that bol­sters some of Webb’s find­ings. He also inter­views some of those who helped incin­er­ate Webb and who now admit they went over­board. The book is an impor­tant cau­tion­ary tale for any­one con­sid­er­ing a career in inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism. And the moral is: It’s often dan­ger­ous to speak truth to power.

Doug Ire­land has been writ­ing about pow­er, pol­i­tics and the media since 1977. A for­mer colum­nist for the Vil­lage Voice, the New York Observ­er and the Paris dai­ly Libéra­tion, among oth­ers, his arti­cles have appeared every­where from The Nation to Van­i­ty Fair to POZ. Hes a con­tribut­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRE­LAND.
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