And I wonder how Webb deals with it, with all the hard work done, with all the facts and documents devoured, and with all this diligent toil resulting in his personal ruin, depriving him of the only kind of work he has ever wanted in his life.” —Charles Bowden
Webb dealt with it by putting his dad’s gun to his head and pulling the trigger.
A few months ago I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I saw an article that Robin Williams had committed suicide. It was the afternoon that the news broke. I remember a feeling of surprise then I mentioned it to my wife, shared the story and moved on.
The next morning my newsfeed was wall-to-wall Robin Williams. Given Williams’ decades long influence on comedy the responses of people like Norm McDonald, Jimmy Fallon, and David Letterman were not surprising. It was the visceral, deeply emotional responses of the everyday person, my co-workers, family, and friends, that caught me off guard. I did not expect such a breadth of connection; perhaps because I did not feel it.
About two months prior to Williams’ death I had a visceral response when I reacquainted myself with the story of the late Gary Webb. Webb was a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who, following personal criticism from an explosive newspaper series, job loss, career ruin, and loss of marriage, committed suicide. Today, December 10, 2014, marks ten years since his death.
Webb’s 1996 series, “Dark Alliance,” was a 3-part expose published in the San Jose Mercury News. It was the first major Internet news story garnering 1.3 million hits. In 1996. When most of America was not yet online, and those who were had squeaking, squawking dial-up: all 24 kbps of it. The year before less than 600,000 American homes had accessed the World Wide Web. Google was still a 1 followed by 100 0s.
Gary Webb was a journalist’s journalist. He was the reason the First Amendment was written. He exposed government lies and corruption. He wrote about civil asset forfeiture in California before most anyone knew what it was, beating the Washington Post by over a decade.
Gary Webb was driven to suicide because he told the truth about a particular activity of the U.S. government only to be betrayed by his newspaper, attacked by his peers, and blackballed from his profession. The galling mistreatment of Gary Webb by the Washington Post, LA Times, and New York Times is a blight on mass media that is perhaps unsurpassed, even if nearly forgotten.
In a perfect world people would not be shamed to death for telling the truth. In a perfect world major media tools would not defend a lying government. But we do not live in a perfect world, we live in a fallen one. And because we do, some people are glorified for silly reasons while other people, important people, are forgotten.
What was Webb’s focus? That elements of the CIA had willfully looked the other way (the nice version), or were complicit in (the very likely version) the sale of cocaine in the United States to provide financial and material support to the Nicaraguan Contra army to help overthrow the Sandinista government. Overwhelmingly this particular cocaine arrived in South Central Los Angeles where it was turned into crack cocaine and sold across the United States.
While Nancy Reagan was telling kids to “Just Say No,” Ronald Reagan’s administration via the CIA and then-NSC was overseeing, and in many cases protecting, the very ones producing, transporting, and selling the product.
Webb was immediate attacked, not only by elements of the government, but by elements of the media.
It also meant that the traditional “gatekeeper” role of the major newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times — was under assault. If a regional paper like the Mercury News could finance a major journalistic investigation like this one, and circumvent the judgments of the editorial boards at the Big Three, then there might be a tectonic shift in the power relations of the U.S. news media. There could be a breakdown of the established order.
This combination of factors led to the next phase of the Contra-cocaine battle: the “get-Gary-Webb” counterattack. The first major shot against Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series did not come from the Big Three but from the rapidly expanding right-wing news media, which was in no mood to accept the notion that some of President Reagan’s beloved Contras were drug traffickers. That would have cast a shadow over the Reagan Legacy, which the Right was elevating to mythic status.
Bill Conroy noted of Webb, “[He] fell victim to the media-jackal feeding frenzy that enveloped him in the wake of his investigative series.”
A few of Webb’s contemporaries defended him, among whom was Steve Weinberg of the Baltimore Sun:
I think the critics have been far too harsh. Despite some hyped phrasing, “Dark Alliance” appears to be praiseworthy investigative reporting.
Webb’s critics seem to assume that he began his research with the intention of “getting” the CIA. Not so. The genesis of Webb’s revelations, like the genesis of many journalistic blockbusters, is grounded in an experienced investigative reporter with a prepared mind. The way Webb came to his topic demonstrates, once again that there might be lucky reporters, but there are no lazy, lucky reporters.
So vehement were the denials Webb’s own editor disavowed the story, leaving Webb twisting in the wind. After being reassigned to a smaller bureau where he wrote the newspaper equivalent of the Homeowner’s Association Newsletter, and deemed not worth hiring by every other newspaper in America, Webb left the industry altogether.
It is not without reason or merit that Charles Bowden entitled his Esquire article about Webb, “Pariah.”
But what of Webb’s assertions? Largely as a result of his article and his dogged continuous research, Webb published a 500-page, ruthlessly documented book bearing the name of the original series, “Dark Alliance.” Under pressure, the CIA finally underwent investigation by an inspector general, Gary Webb was vindicated and them some:
On March 16, 1998, the CIA inspector general, Frederick P. Hitz, testified before the House Intelligence Committee. “Let me be frank,” he said. “There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug-trafficking activity, or take action to resolve the allegations.”
Representative Norman Dicks of Washington then asked, “Did any of these allegations involve trafficking in the United States?”
“Yes,” Hitz answered.
The question is why a mountain of evidence about the CIA and drugs is ignored and why the legitimate field of inquiry opened by Webb remains unpursued and has become journalistic taboo.
From Webb’s friend and reporter, Nick Schou, who was also Webb’s biographer:
Webb was vindicated by a 1998 CIA Inspector General report, which revealed that for more than a decade the agency had covered up a business relationship it had with Nicaraguan drug dealers like Blandón.
The L.A. Times, New York Times and Washington Post buried the IG’s report; under L.A. Times editor Michael Parks, the paper didn’t acknowledge its release for months.
In the end, Webb’s despondency and depression led him to suicide. A man who should have been lauded at the time, and even more so today, was crushed under the machinery of a Fourth Estate turned propaganda prostitutes.
The world mourned Robin Williams, perhaps rightfully so. Few remember Gary Webb.
Today, I remember Gary Webb. And, I mourn.
Related in HuffPo: Gary Webb was right
In Consortium News: WPost’s Slimy Assault on Gary Webb