On Native Ground
THE LONESOME DEATH OF GARY WEBB
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's the loneliest feeling in journalism.
You're a reporter who writes a hot story that no one else has - a story that upsets some very powerful people.
No one else is on the case. The competition is picking apart what you've written rather than following it up.
Soon, you find yourself so far out in front of everyone that your editors are getting nervous and are wondering whether what you've written is true.
Gary Webb found himself in that position in August 1996.
He wrote a 20,000-word, multi-part report that year for the San Jose Mercury News. It detailed how crack cocaine was introduced into the ghettos of Los Angeles by drug dealers who helped fund the Contras, the army formed and backed by the Central Intelligence Agency in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
At first, the nation's elite press ignored the story. Thanks to the then-new Internet, Webb's articles found a wide audience. The furor caused by the story led to investigations by the CIA, the Justice Department and Congress.
But Webb committed one of the mortal sins of corporate journalism. He challenged a powerful institution, an institution with many friends and apologists in the news media.
When the story grew too big for papers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to ignore completely, they did what big papers usually do in cases like this - they ripped Webb's work to shreds.
All three papers printed story after story that attacked Webb's reporting and attacked his professional reputation. In almost every case, the stories were based upon the obligatory official denials from the CIA.
Instead of backing up his reporter, Jerry Ceppos, the Mercury News' executive editor at the time, backed down.
In a column he wrote on May 11, 1997, Ceppos wrote that Webb's allegations were "oversimplified," that the series omitted important conflicting evidence and that Webb's work "fell short of my standards for the Mercury News."
The CIA was overjoyed at Ceppos' apology. An agency spokesman, Mark Mansfield, called it "gratifying." Webb called Ceppos' column "very bizarre" and "nauseating."
Webb had every right to be upset at his bosses. After Ceppos' column came out, Webb told The Washington Post that the Mercury News was sitting on another four-part series that he wrote that further substantiated his original findings. Ceppos' response was that the material was just "notes" and that they would be "looked at."
That follow up story never appeared. Webb was exiled to one of the Mercury News' most remote bureaus. He eventually resigned and never worked at a major metropolitan newspaper again. His journalism career was all but over.
Seven years later, so was his life.
Webb committed suicide on Dec. 10 at the age of 49, his professional and personal life in tatters.
He didn't deserve this fate.
While some accused Webb of overstating the extent that the drug money was fueling the Contra cause, the essential facts of Webb's stories were true. However, his bosses abandoned him when things got too hot. The message this sent to other reporters was clear - stick to safe, innocuous stories and stay away from anything that might cause trouble. If you try to do tough, probing reporting on controversial matters, you will not be protected by your superiors, or your peers.
How true was the central charge of Webb's series - that the Contras needed money to finance their illegal war and worked out a deal to ship cocaine at cut-rate prices to L.A. gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods?
In 1998, Frederick Hitz, the CIA's inspector general, admitted to Congress that scores of Contra-connected individuals were part of the drug trade. Unfortunately, few Americans noticed. These revelations came during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the press' attention was focused elsewhere.
Webb wasn't the first to report on the Contra-drug connection. That honor goes to Brian Barger and Robert Parry of the Associated Press. Back in December 1985, they reported that all the major Contra factions had joined the drug trade. It was a story sharply criticized by the Reagan-Bush administration and the conservative media. President Reagan had called the Contras "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers," and the AP story contradicted this bogus view. No wonder there were denials and attacks on the credibility of the AP reporters.
Parry, who eventually left the AP and now runs the excellent investigative Web site, Consortium News.com, has been following the story ever since. He has long maintained that the U.S. government has covered up its role in the CIA-Contra drug connection and the news media has failed to do any digging to find out the real story.
Not that the press had to dig. During the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, the congressional panels had access to 543 pages of handwritten notes by Reagan administration official Oliver North that contained references to the drug trade. In one of the notations about Contra arms supplies, North wrote "$14 million came from drugs."
In 1988, the Senate subcommittee on terrorism and narcotics, chaired by Massachusetts senator John Kerry, released an extensive report that conclusively linked the CIA with the Contra cocaine traffickers. George H.W. Bush, who had been chief of Reagan's drug task force, was running for president that year. He claimed that he was "out of the loop" on Iran-Contra and knew nothing about the Contras' drug dealing.
The corporate media completely fell for that story.
"Official Washington effectively committed the contra-drug story to the loony bin of conspiracy theories," wrote Parry in the late 1990s. "Even when Panama's Manuel Noriega was tried on drug charges in 1991 and witnesses implicated the contras, too, that evidence drew almost no public attention. To recognize the contra drug trafficking would mean, of course, re-examining the role of then-President Bush as well as exposing the incompetence of the elite Washington news media."
The evidence of CIA criminality in Central American in the 1980s is abundant, but when George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, the crimes of the Reagan-Bush era were promptly forgotten.
"So it was not entirely surprising that Gary Webb's remarkable story about contras and crack caused not a ripple of official reaction," wrote Parry in 1996. "The disclosures were not even mentioned in the nation's two leading papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. After all, since both prestige papers had blown the story in the 1980s, they weren't eager to admit their screw-up now."
Parry pointed out recently, with more than a little irony, that "no editor or reporter who missed the contra-drug story has ever been punished for his or her negligence. Indeed, many of them are now top executives at their news organizations. On the other hand, Gary Webb's career never recovered."
After Webb left the Mercury News, he wrote up his findings into a book, "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion" in 1998. The book was ignored by the corporate press, which still sided with the CIA and protected the agency whenever the subject came up.
Despite the destruction of his professional career, Webb was sustained by the knowledge that he what he had done was true and right.
"You get one chance in a lifetime to do the right thing," Webb once said. "If you don't do it, you surrender, and then they win. ... The choice is to do the work - or surrender."
But ultimately, not even that was enough. I've written about Webb and his plight several times over the years, but I wasn't there at the end. Neither were the rest of us who care about truth and recognize its importance. We couldn't save him, and now he's gone.
The profession of journalism, and the people who need to hear the truth about the people and institutions that affect their lives, are ill-served by the kind of gutlessness by its leaders that ultimately led to Gary Webb taking his life.
I've said this often, and it's worth repeating. Journalism that doesn't afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted and affect social change in the process isn't worth a damn. And neither are editors who won't back up their reporters when others attack the validity of their work.
Gary Webb's death haunts me. It should haunt every American. He told the truth and paid a price no one should ever have to pay for doing work that ought to be honored if this were truly a functioning democracy.
The powerful doesn't like truthtellers. Never have. Never will. That shouldn't stop us from telling the truth, no matter what the cost.
Remember his words. The choice is to do the work - or surrender.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.