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.

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.”