1, Truth 0
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."
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.
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.
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
obituary in my Sunday Los Angeles Times puts it like this:
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."
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
later, the Mercury News also backed away from the series, publishing
an open letter to its readers, admitting to flaws.
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."
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.)
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.
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.
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.