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 Post’s 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.