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.