But beyond the glamour of the Woodward and Bernstein portrayed by Redford and Hoffman in All the President's Men is a dark side: Investigative reporters and their editors can be an intensely jealous lot, and except for the biggest stories (like the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the My Lai Massacre) rival papers are more apt to ignore an investigative story than mention it in their own pages, and sometimes even dump on it.
This brings me to one of the greatest investigative coups and most shameful episodes in modern American journalism -- the August 1996 publication of a three-part series titled "Dark Alliance" by reporter Gary Webb in the pages of the San Jose Mercury News and what then transpired. I do so in memory of Webb, who took his own life three years ago this week.
I didn't know Webb professionally, although I did spend an evening with him drinking beer and listening to a zydeco band at a music club while attending a conference for investigative reporters and editors. But I knew him by reputation to be an ace reporter, so it was no surprise when the Mercury News rolled out his extraordinary series linking the CIA and Nicaragua's Contras to the crack cocaine epidemic in South Los Angeles in the 1980s.
As Nick Shou wrote last year in a long overdue Los Angeles Times piece (link not available):
"Most of the nation's elite newspapers at first ignored the story. A public uproar, especially among urban African Americans, forced them to respond. What followed was one of the most bizarre, unseemly and ultimately tragic scandals in the annals of American journalism, one in which top news organizations closed ranks to debunk claims Webb never made, ridicule assertions that turned out to be true and ignore corroborating evidence when it came to light."
Many reporters had tried to unravel the connection between the CIA's anti-communism efforts in Central America and drug trafficking, but Webb was the first to provide a solid link between the agency and the U.S. crack cocaine market by detailing the relationship between two Nicaraguan Contra sympathizers and narcotics suppliers, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, and L.A.'s biggest crack dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross.
"Two years before Webb's series, The Los Angeles Times estimated that at its peak, Ross' 'coast-to-coast conglomerate' was selling half a million crack rocks per day. '[I]f there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine,' the article stated, 'his name was Freeway Rick.'
"But after Webb's reporting tied Ross to the Nicaraguans and showed that they had CIA connections, The Times downgraded Ross' role to that of one 'dominant figure' among many. It dedicated 17 reporters and 20,000 words to a three-day rebuttal to 'Dark Alliance' that also included a lengthy musing on whether African Americans disproportionately believe in conspiracy theories."
The New York Times and Washington Post joined the L.A. Times in attacking Webb for a claim that he never made — that the CIA deliberately unleashed the crack epidemic on black America. This controversy overshadowed the central focus of the series, which was the CIA was knowingly dealing with people who were feeding the U.S. crack epidemic. The papers also found a number of errors in the series while unsuccessfully trying to undercut that central focus.
At first, the Mercury News defended the series, but after nine months, its executive editor wrote a letter to readers that tepidly defended "Dark Alliance" while acknowledging the errors. As Webb had feared, the letter was widely misperceived as a retraction, and he publicly accused the paper of cowardice. In return, he was exiled to a remote news bureau, resigned a few months later and left journalism.
Depressed and broke, Webb killed himself eight years later. The final indignity was the brief obituaries that the L.A. Times and New York Times published which dismissed him as the "discredited" author of the series.
Setting the record straight on "Dark Alliance" is important for another reason.
Investigative reporting is a dying field. It is dying because too many newspapers have become controversy averse, while others cannot justify assigning a reporter to chase potentially litigious stories for months on end when there is no guarantee that they'll ever see the light of day and every guarantee that they'll piss people off.