by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
October 18, 2014
WITH NEW FILM, A MODICUM OF JUSTICE FOR GARY WEBB
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Justice delayed is often justice denied, but with the release of the film, "Kill the Messenger," investigative reporter Gary Webb can perhaps receive a decade after his death the redemption that was denied him while he was alive.
On Dec. 9, 2004, Webb committed suicide. His journalism career was gone, his marriage fell apart, and his life had hit bottom.
He came to that sad end for committing one of the mortal sins of journalism: He challenged a powerful institution, an institution with many friends and apologists in the news media.
Webb's crime was reporting in 1996 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 the 1980s in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
And, instead of pursuing that story, the corporate press sided with the CIA instead of with Webb. The press destroyed his reputation, rendered him unemployable, and ultimately drove him to suicide.
The death of Gary Webb was a sordid tale, but one that needs to be retold in hope of preventing it from happening again.
And the irony was that the story that Webb paid such a high price to tell wasn't even all that new.
Back in December 1985, Brian Barger and Robert Parry of the Associated Press reported that all of the major Contra factions had joined the drug trade. It was a story sharply criticized by the Reagan Administration and the conservative media.
After all, President Reagan had called the Contras "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers," and the AP story contradicted this bogus view. Attacks on the credibility of the AP reporters soon followed.
During the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, congressional panels had access to 543 pages of handwritten notes by Reagan Administration official Col. Oliver North (USMC, Ret.) that contained references to the drug trade. In one of the notations about Contra arms supplies, Col. North wrote "$14 million came from drugs."
In 1988, the U.S. Senate subcommittee on terrorism and narcotics, chaired by then-Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., released an extensive report that conclusively linked the CIA with the Contra cocaine traffickers.
President George H.W. Bush, who had been chief of President 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.
So the ground was well-plowed and ready for planting when Webb, who was working for the San Jose Mercury News in the 1990s, made the connection between the drug trafficking that was supporting corrupt U.S.-backed thugs in Central America and the crack epidemic in the African-American communities of California.
Webb's "Dark Alliance" series was initially ignored by the corporate press and would have been forgotten, except it came out at the dawn of the World Wide Web.
Thanks to this new medium, Webb's articles found a wide audience. It especially struck a chord among African-Americans, who thought the idea that the CIA sent crack into the ghettos to fund a covert war was highly plausible. The furor caused by the story led to investigations by the CIA, the Justice Department and Congress.
Today, we would say Webb's story "went viral." Back then, no one quite knew how to explain the phenomenon. But it was clear that one reporter from a non-elite newspaper had beaten the big boys on an important story, and the story received lots of attention despite the freeze-out by the big papers.
The evidence of CIA criminality in Central American in the 1980s was abundant, but when President George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election, the crimes of the Reagan-Bush era were promptly forgotten. Webb's series helped keep the story alive, and exposed the complicity of the corporate media in trying to distort, obscure and bury the truth.
But instead of going after the U.S. officials that turned a blind eye toward the Contras' drug trafficking, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times did what big papers usually do when they get smoked on a story - they all ripped Webb's honest work to shreds.
All three papers printed story after story that attacked Webb's reporting. In almost every case, the stories were based upon the obligatory official denials from the CIA.
That the careerists at the big papers would attack Webb was not surprising. But he was also abandoned by his own editors.
Instead of backing up his reporter, then-Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos backed down. Ceppos wrote in 1997 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."
At that moment, Webb ceased to exist as a reporter. He was driven out of the Mercury News and was abandoned by his peers.
But nearly two decades later, no one has disproved 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. The Contras got their cash, and the L.A. ghettos got death and devastation.
And the corporate press, which had a chance to uncover all this while it was still going on, failed to do so.
Gary Webb never had a chance to get his reputation back. His death was met with silence at best, and brutal scorn at worst from the forces that helped drive him to suicide. Posthumously, with "Kill the Messenger," he may be able to regain his good name and some recognition for his work.
He deserves this much, and much more.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.