On December 12th I opened my Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times and saw in the obituaries that Gary Webb was dead. More specifically, I saw that Gary Webb had killed himself. He had, it seems, shot himself in the head. When movers arrived at his house on Saturday they found a note on the door that said "Please do not enter. Call 911 and ask for an ambulance."
Webb's death is a tragedy, and not just because suicide is always tragic. There is no point in being subtle about this. Gary Webb was a reporter who expected more from his profession than his profession was capable of delivering; he embodied a particular ideal of journalism and journalism let him down.
In 1996 Webb, then an investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote a series of articles called "Dark Alliance", which detailed the connections between the Nicaraguan contras--the CIA-backed army of insurgents attempting to overthrow the Soviet-backed government of Nicaragua--and the explosion of crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s. The series was the product of a year of investigation, and while the story was convoluted, the basic premise was not: the contras had participated in the cocaine trade to help finance their war, and much of the cocaine had found its way to Los Angeles (and, from there, to the rest of the country). The CIA, Webb asserted, had at the very least known about the drug trafficking and done nothing to stop it, and at worst had actively abetted it.
Webb's series was published in August and at first received little attention. Then it exploded. The black community in Los Angeles, ravaged as it was by cocaine and the violence that accompanied its commerce, demanded accountability. The director of the CIA traveled to Watts, where he promised a full investigation. The nascent Internet, where the Mercury News had posted not just the series but also numerous supporting documents, lent the story greater momentum, as did black radio. Webb became a minor celebrity. The CIA was put on its heels. And then something strange happened.
The obituary in my Sunday Los Angeles Times puts it like this:
Major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, wrote reports discrediting elements of Webb's reporting. The Los Angeles Times report looked into Webb's charges "that a CIA-related drug ring sent 'millions' of dollars to the Contras; that it launched an epidemic of cocaine use in South-Central Los Angeles and America's other inner cities; and that the agency either approved the scheme or deliberately turned a blind eye."
"But the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of those allegations," The Times reported.
Months later, the Mercury News also backed away from the series, publishing an open letter to its readers, admitting to flaws.
"We oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew," wrote the paper's executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, adding, "I believe that we fell short at every step of our process -- in the writing, editing and production of our work."
I like the Times. I think it is a good newspaper and a genuinely liberal one. But it is being far too modest when it says it "wrote a report" on Webb's allegations. What it did was conduct a scorched-earth hatchet job. The paper was under different ownership in 1997, and Webb's series was not just a bombshell but an embarrassment: the LA paper had been scooped in its own backyard. Its response was a three-part series, based on the work of seven reporters, which tore away at the Mercury News stories. The Times' editors said, of course, that they were just pursuing leads; they had no interest in knocking down the News series. But the introduction to the series said explicitly that it would examine and disprove the "Dark Alliance" claims. One of the Times reporters told the Columbia Journalism Review that he had "been assigned to the 'get Gary Webb' team," and another said "We're going to take away that guy's Pulitzer."
"Dark Alliance" was not a perfect piece of reporting. It was overwritten in parts, it had it share of mathematical flaws, it was prone to hyperbole and overreach. It tantalizingly suggested much stronger links between the CIA and the drug dealers than it had evidence to support. Webb was sometimes fuzzy with numbers; he extrapolated a figure for contra drug profits that was probably a good ways off base (Peter Kornbluh's levelheaded assessment of the evidence in the CJRremains the best analysis of the "Dark Alliance" debate.) Problems like these are not unusual in investigate reports: a journalist gets convinced he's on to something, and he comes out swinging. With hindsight, better editing could have let the Mercury News keep its bombshell scoop, and avoid the pasting it took from the rest of the press.
But about that pasting: for all the problems in Webb's series--and there were not, in the end, that many--there was something about the reactions of the Times, the Post and the New York Times that strained credulity. The Mercury News may have stepped wrong in a few places, but there was, in the end, a story here. Rather than pursue it, though, the major papers all had a collective Claude Rains moment: they were shocked, shocked that someone would say the CIA had been mixed up with drug runners. But why? One needn't be haunted by the ghost of Oswald to find the contra/drug connection a plausible scenario. Trafficking in narcotics is a common way for insurgents to finance wars. By 1996 we had seen that in Southeast Asia, in Colombia, and in Afghanistan, and we have seen more examples since. Nor should anyone have been surprised to think that the CIA might align itself with less-than-savory characters. The Agency's clumsy alliances with the mafia in its war against Fidel Castro were well-known, as was its star-crossed relationship with Panamian dictator/drug-runner Manuel Noriega. This is to say nothing of lesser-known but nevertheless confirmed adventures, such as those in Bolivia, that the general public may not know about but that members of the national press should have been familiar with.
So why should it be so hard to believe that a guerilla army in Nicaragua, cut off from CIA aid by the Boland Amendment, might turn to drugs to gain revenue? And why should it be equally hard to believe that some of those drugs might end up in the United States (which is, after all, the world's biggest market for narcotics); or that the CIA officers assigned to help the guerillas might, in the fervency of the Cold War, turn a blind eye to this development?
The answer is that it should not have been hard to believe at all. In 1985 the AP had reported contra/drug connections. In 1987 the Senate subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations had found that CIA knew about and tolerated drug trafficking among its assets. CBS reporter Leslie Cockburn had made similar allegations in her book Out of Control. The contras were tied in to coke. This story had been kicking around for a decade; Webb just decided to follow it. Maybe he got carried away in parts--we can always parse meaning: what exactly constitutes "abetting" a drug operation? If the CIA asked the DEA not to prosecute a few people, would it qualify as "abetting"? Or just letting sleeping dogs lie?
Webb never alleged that the CIA targeted the black community, nor that the drug running was the Agency's idea. These ideas began to fester on the paranoid fringe, but they were not a part of "Dark Alliance." The major papers demolished these straw men, which was useful (but not very hard to do) and then wrote credulous reports when the CIA, in its heavily redacted internal inquiry, cleared itself of all wrongdoing. (Actually, the CIA only cleared itself in the executive summary of its report. In the body of the report the Agency acknowledged that Webb had been mostly right. But the big papers didn't report that.)
The Mercury-News, amid this drubbing, backed down. It was a small-circulation paper getting kicked in the teeth by the standard bearers of its field. Webb was reassigned to a rural beat and later resigned. His marriage ended. People said he had cracked, that he had lost perspective. I didn't know the man; maybe he had. But I will say this: Webb believed in the same sort of journalism that IF Stone and George Orwell had, a journalism that involved hard questions, big issues, and a willingness to do something other than just roll over. It is also a journalism that is rapidly becoming extinct.
If I look around the media landscape today--if I look at the rest of the obituaries in my Sunday LA Times and see the lists of war dead in Iraq--it's hard not to think that the media that let Gary Webb down went on to let us all down. Webb's tenacity and skepticism is nowhere to be found on CNN, where childish talking heads shill for one party or another and bicker about issues they know little about. In the run-up to war there were no Gary Webbs at the New York Times, where Judith Miller abdicated her journalistic responsibilities and chose instead to be Ahmad Chalabi's stenographer. Both the Times and the Post have had to run prominent mea culpas about their shoddy pre-war coverage, about how they took the government at its word even when evidence of its duplicity could easily be found. The same media that exiled Gary Webb continues to reward hacks like Robert Novak, who cravenly leaked information designed to character assassinate a critic of President Bush.
And now Webb is gone. The major papers, of course, are still with us, and will be long after Webb is forgotten, and Webb will probably be forgotten all too soon. I'm not saying he was 100 percent correct, and I'm not romanticizing him. I'm sure that his noble impulses were mixed with the same combination of arrogance and stubbornness that drives most writers to do what they do. All I'm saying is that the major papers, when "Dark Alliance" broke, had a choice. They could find the holes in the story and blast them wide open, or they could find the threads of truth and start pulling. In the best of worlds they would have done both, and somewhere in the middle the truth would have tumbled out. But they didn't do both. They attacked the reporter and ignored the story; punished the small excesses of a journalist and protected the large excesses of the government. They discredited Gary Webb but brought greater discredit on themselves, and in their failures and complaisance then we can find the seeds of our media problem now.