Gary Webb: A flawed prophet who deserved better

Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.

Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.

It’s been a long time since I gave much thought to Gary Webb, the investigative reporter who wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 alleging that the CIA looked the other way (or worse) when the Nicaraguan contra rebels sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s — thus leading to the crack epidemic.

Major news organizations engaged in a furious effort to discredit Webb, and he was eventually pushed into resigning from the Mercury News. He made several attempts to revive his career (including a stint with friend of Media Nation Al Giordano’s NarcoNews.com), but committed suicide in 2004.

Now a movie about Webb has come out called “Kill the Messenger.” I would like to see it. Here’s what I wrote about Webb in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 — part of a longer article on the crisis of credibility afflicting investigative reporting:

A good example of how important work can be quashed is the case of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In August 1996, the Mercury published a three-part series by Webb alleging that Nicaraguan contra rebels, backed by the CIA, had sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s in order to finance their guerrilla war against the leftist Sandinista government. These operations, Webb asserted, touched off the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods across the country.

The series gained a national audience, especially among African-Americans, after the Mercury republished the series on its Web site. But when the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times published their own lengthy reports rebutting many of Webb’s conclusions, the Mercury backed off. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos apologized for the reports’ flaws in 1997, and Webb was exiled to the Cupertino bureau. He ultimately resigned.

Now Webb is back, with a new book that incorporates and expands on his original series. Unfortunately, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories Press) is no guide to what went wrong unless you’re a blind Webb partisan. According to Webb, the big guns who came after him were motivated by malice and envy, and by a knee-jerk institutional need to suck up to the national security establishment. What few mistakes made it into in his stories, he asserts, were put there by boneheaded editors at the Mercury.

In fact, the anti-Webb exposés did establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Webb overreached in several key areas. Yet they never seriously challenged Webb’s central, well-documented premise: that the contras were selling cocaine in the US in order to fund their war in Nicaragua, and that their CIA sponsors looked the other way.

In October 1996, Geneva Overholser, then-ombudsman of the Washington Post, took her paper to task for putting more effort into exposing the flaws in Webb’s reporting than into following up the leads he had unearthed, and she challenged her colleagues to investigate further. No one took her up on it. Yet on Friday, the New York Times reported the existence of a classified CIA study that showed the agency “continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations that they were trafficking in drugs.” At long last. Webb, of course, remains in the journalistic wilderness.

Everything is awesome at Kushner’s Orange County Register

The downward spiral of Aaron Kushner and the Orange County Register continues, reports Christine Haughney of The New York Times. The latest — a round-up of what has appeared elsewhere — includes unpaid bills, lawsuits, Kushner’s stepping aside as publisher (“I was not removed,” he insists) and, of course, Kushner’s soothing reassurances that everything is on track.

A cool, late-autumn afternoon on the North Shore

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Russell Orchards, Ipswich, earlier today. The place to go for hot cider and hot cider donuts. But it seemed weird to be there without the kids. Click here for larger sizes of this photo.

Race, diversity and watermelon toothpaste

In my latest for WGBHNews.org, I write about the heartfelt apology that appears in today’s Boston Herald from editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen over the infamous watermelon toothpaste cartoon — and explain why the real issue is a lack of diversity in the Herald newsroom.

CommonWealth criticizes Henry over Telegram sale

CommonWealth magazine editor Bruce Mohl has a very tough piece about Boston Globe owner John Henry in the new issue titled “The man who lied to Worcester.” Mohl, a former Globe staff member, criticizes Henry for going back on his promise either to sell the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester to local buyers or to keep the paper himself.

Mohl quotes the T&G’s coverage of a meeting that Henry held with the staff last fall at which Henry said, “This is not a forced sale. If we don’t find the right owner, you’re stuck with me.”

I’ve written about Henry’s broken promise on several occasions, including last April for WGBHNews.org. But Henry has never explained what happened, and he did not respond to Mohl’s request for comment. Now the T&G is owned by Halifax Media Group, a Florida-based chain.

Tom Menino’s entertaining but light autobiography

Someday a book will be written that is worthy of Tom Menino’s long and consequential tenure as mayor of Boston. And Jack Beatty may well be the person who writes it.

“Mayor for a New America” is not that book. The autobiography, which Menino wrote in collaboration with Beatty, offers a short, punchy look at the former mayor’s life and career, focusing on his 20 years as Boston’s top elected official. Together they offer an entertaining overview of the Menino era but not a comprehensive examination.

Read the rest in The Boston Globe.

The Providence Phoenix, 1978-2014*

Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 7.20.05 AMAs you may have already heard, The Providence Phoenix is shutting down, about a year and a half after The Boston Phoenix closed its doors. Ted Nesi of WPRI covers it here. Awful news, but not entirely unexpected. As recently as a few months ago, I was hearing that The Portland Phoenix of Maine was doing well but that Providence was lagging financially.

What happened? It’s hard to say. But Portland is a smallish city, insular and self-contained — the sort of place where alt-weeklies seem to be surviving. An example: Seven Days of Burlington, Vermont, which appears to be thriving. Providence, by contrast, is a fairly large city within the orbit of Greater Boston.

The demise of The Providence Phoenix would be bad enough on its own. What makes it even worse is that the Providence Journal is in the midst of downsizing following its sale to a company affiliated with the GateHouse Media chain. There is a real gap in Providence, and it’s not immediately clear what will fill it. Perhaps Rhode Island Public Radio can beef up its online local coverage. Maybe the online-only news site GoLocalProv will rise to the challenge. Or something new might come along.

The Providence Phoenix has produced some fine journalists over the years, including Ian Donnis of RIPR and David Scharfenberg of The Boston Globe. And best wishes to editor Lou Papineau, a veteran who started at the paper back when it was known as the NewPaper, and news editor Phil Eil, a more recent hire.

Best wishes, too, to publisher Stephen Mindich, who kept the Boston and Providence papers alive for as long as he could. I hope the future is brighter for The Portland Phoenix — now the only remaining alt-weekly in what was once a vibrant regional chain.

And yes, I plan to rant about this later today on WGBH’s “Beat the Press.”

(Note: I was a staff writer and editor for The Boston Phoenix from 1991 to 2005, and last wrote for the Providence and Portland papers this past July.)

*Correction: The headline originally gave the incorrect year for the founding of The Providence Phoenix, which began life as The NewPaper. As founder Ty Davis writes in the farewell issue, he began the paper during the Blizzard of 1978.