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.

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A pair of heartfelt tributes to the Boston Phoenix

I want to share with you two extraordinary reflections on the Boston Phoenix and what its loss means to the city and the region. There have been a lot of such reminiscences, and many of them have been terrific. But I look at these as putting a cap on it, unless I decide to expand on my own recent effort, which came off as more sterile than I would have liked.

Harvey Silverglate
Harvey Silverglate

The first, by Harvey Silverglate, appeared late last month in the final, online-only edition of the Phoenix. Harvey is a friend and an occasional collaborator. (We are currently brainstorming ways to keep the Phoenix Muzzle Awards alive, and we hope to have an announcement within a month or so.)

Harvey began writing his civil-liberties column for The Real Paper in the early 1970s. When Stephen Mindich, the Phoenix owner, absorbed The Real Paper into the Phoenix later in the decade, Harvey’s column was renamed “Freedom Watch,” the name it carried up until the end. I had the privilege of editing Harvey in the early 1990s. He writes in his final column:

It’s no surprise to me that assaults on freedom — the mainstay of my long-running column — have outlasted the newspaper I could always count on to publish even my harshest critiques of the criminal justice system. Unlike, it seems, the institutions that work hard to subjugate others, newspapers, which are essential to free the subjugated, are not immortal.

Make sure you read the whole thing — and check out the photos, taken by his wife, Elsa Dorfman, a wonderful portrait photographer.

Al Giordano
Al Giordano

The second piece, which I’ve been anticipating since the end of the Phoenix was announced, finally popped into view on Tuesday — a 4,000-word-plus reflection by Al Giordano, who covered politics (among other things) for the paper in the mid-1990s. I was the news editor for the early part of Al’s time at the Phoenix. We struggled over Al’s radical, activist inclinations and the more mainstream direction the Phoenix was then taking, and he describes those struggles accurately and fairly.

I always respected Al, and my admiration for him only grew after he left the paper, moved to Mexico and launched NarcoNews.com, which covers the so-called war on drugs from a Latin American perspective. When Al writes about the Phoenix crusading in his defense after he got sued by “narco-bankers,” he is referring in part to this article I wrote in 2001.

Al’s essay on the demise of the Phoenix is impassioned and, in parts, poetic. It was not meant to be excerpted, but I’ll take a shot at it anyway:

My success at manipulating daily newspapers had stripped from me any sense of myth or magic that dailies had so carefully cultivated among the reading public. I liked reporters but felt badly for them: Their mothers thought they were powerful, but they were really slaves to the daily deadline, which more often than not denied them the time to ponder or think about a story before having to put their name on it. Spared from the popular illusion that anyone could be Woodward and Bernstein if he could just get to a big-enough daily, I pointed my ambition elsewhere: The Phoenix job, for me, was the pinnacle, top of the heap. It was all I had aspired to be.

Al is a force of nature, and had a hugely positive influence on the newsroom and what readers saw every week. By the time he left, I had moved into the media columnist’s slot. I was sorry to see him go. But, as he writes, he “never stopped being part of the Phoenix family.”

Will HuffPo prove to be AOL’s MySpace?

Click for full cartoon at Politico

Does AOL have a MySpace problem?

You may recall that MySpace was a social-media phenomenon when Rupert Murdoch bought it back in 2005 for $580 million. It wasn’t long, though, before Facebook zoomed past it, rendering Murdoch’s new toy all but worthless. The site is now for sale. A large part of it may have been that Facebook was simply better technologically. But surely some of MySpace’s lost cachét was due to a perception among users that anything owned by Murdoch wasn’t cool anymore.

Which brings us to AOL and the Huffington Post. When AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong forked over $315 million for HuffPo, he no doubt thought he was acquiring, among other things, an army of unpaid bloggers. But not so fast.

AdBusters reports that there’s a boycott under way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp.

Follow it on Twitter at #huffpuff.

Two old Boston Phoenix friends have weighed in as well.

Al Giordano writes that he cross-posted 26 of his stories on HuffPo between 2007 and 2009. He stopped, he says, because he “grew uncomfortable with how that website was transparently becoming more and more sensationalist, cult-of-personality generated.” Now he’s removed his posts, replacing them with this:

(As author and sole owner of the words in this story, I did not write them for AOL, and do not wish to have any association with it imposed upon me. The original text may still be found at http://narconews.com/thefield – Al Giordano, February 7, 2011)

On Facebook, Barry Crimmins adds:

What Ariana Huffington sold for $315 mil was a lot of bloggers who work for free and all the eyeballs they attract to HuffPo. Feeling exploited? Stop working for free for HuffPo and stop providing HuffPo with the value of your visits. Believe me, there will be alternatives. True alternatives.

Dan Gillmor says that, at the very least, Huffington ought to start paying people.

It’s hard to know to what extent HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers fit into Armstrong’s plans. At the very least, though, it’s beginning to look like he did not get what he paid for. He could ask old Rupe about that.

Baked Alaskan

Friend of Media Nation Al Giordano has broken the news that Sarah Palin had a tanning bed installed in the Alaska governor’s mansion shortly after she was sworn in. Giordano and Bill Conroy, writing for NarcoNews.com, report that Palin paid for the bed with her own money.

I don’t care, and Giordano doesn’t seem to care all that much either. I mention this only in the context of the mockery directed at John Edwards’ $400 haircut (and, for that matter, Bill Clinton’s tarmac haircut), John Kerry’s disturbing preference for Swiss cheese, Barack Obama’s failure to scream for ice cream and similar campaign-trail stupidity.

In other words, Sarah Palin must be … an elitist!

Checking in with Al Giordano

I just added Al Giordano to the Media Nation links. My former Boston Phoenix colleague is always well worth reading, and I expect that will especially be the case for the rest of the campaign.

Giordano’s campaign blog, The Field, is an interesting story in and of itself.

Al Giordano fights for DNC credentials

Narco News founder and former Boston Phoenix political reporter Al Giordano is involved in a nasty dispute with a Web site called RuralVotes.com.

Earlier this year, Giordano was blogging the primaries on a RuralVotes page called The Field (see this and this). But recently, claiming censorship, he took it down and moved it to his own site. Now he wants the credentials to the Democratic National Convention that had been awarded to The Field when it was based at RuralVotes, claiming — with quite a bit of statistical evidence — that his readers have followed him to his new location.

There doesn’t seem to be anything on the old site giving the RuralVotes side of this dispute. As best as I can tell, The Field has been renamed The Back Forty. If anyone would like to respond to Giordano’s charges, I would be glad to post it.

Giordano is an astute political observer and a dedicated rabble-rouser. I wish him well.

The Clintons and Colombia

Hillary Clinton got rid of demoted her chief strategist, Mark Penn, after it was revealed that Penn was working for a free-trade agreement with Colombia that Clinton opposed. But the larger issue, I argue in my latest for the Guardian, is the Clintons’ longstanding ties to Colombian president Álvaro Uribe and their indifference toward his miserable human-rights record.

The Colombian primary

My old Boston Phoenix colleague Al Giordano reports in the Narco News Bulletin that Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, a right-wing despot with a deplorable human-rights record, is deeply worried about the possibility that Barack Obama will become president. Giordano writes:

[T]he Clinton organization has a long history of backing — politically and economically — the Colombian far right, its narco-politicians and paramilitary death squads, of whom Uribe is supreme leader. In 2000, then-US president Bill Clinton went on Colombian national TV to announce “Plan Colombia,” the multi-billion dollar US military intervention that keeps Uribe and his repressive regime in power to this day.

According to Giordano’s report, Uribe’s human-rights record is so bad that it recently attracted the attention of Human Rights Watch and a number of other religious and humanitarian organizations. Last year, Giordano notes, Al Gore decided not to attend an environmental meeting in Miami because he didn’t want to share the stage with Uribe, who has been linked to right-wing death squads.

The Clintons, on the other hand, have continued to be ardent supporters of Uribe, with the former president accepting an award from the Colombian government last year.

The Uribe matter has made it into the mainstream media, with the Associated Press running a story on Thursday. But the AP emphasizes Uribe’s displeasure over Obama’s opposition to a U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement — never mentioning, as Giordano observes, that Hillary Clinton has said she opposes the agreement as well.

This is an important story that almost certainly won’t get the attention it deserves.

More: Ben Smith of the Politico reports that the Colombian government no longer requires the services of Clinton strategist Mark Penn.

An ugly Democratic split

My former Boston Phoenix colleague Al Giordano, on leave from the Narco News Bulletin, has been blogging the presidential campaign this winter. He’s got a particularly detailed and perceptive post on the Nevada Democratic caucuses, in which he offers some thoughts — backed up by first-hand reporting — on the increasingly ugly split between pro-Obama African-Americans and pro-Clinton Latinos. Giordano writes:

Now, I’m a connoisseur of ugliness in all its forms, I find it mostly entertaining, but the part of yesterday’s caucus that was so ugly as to be distressing was to see the Hispanic and black communities so polarized: The Clinton caucusers were predominantly Hispanic-American and the Obama caucusers were predominantly African-American — most on both sides were women — and they shouted and taunted each other with boos, cat-calls, hisses, thumbs down, and at one point one man on the Obama side began chanting, “I did not have sex with that woman!”

He concludes: “Frankly, unless events conspire during this 2008 Democratic primary process to reverse those truly ugly developments, any Democrat that thinks that November is already won is a fool that is not to be taken seriously from here on out.” (Thanks to Media Nation reader C.M.)