A Dark Alliance & A Lasting Shame: Remembering Reporter Gary Webb
Kill the Messenger is currently playing at mostly empty theaters, which is a pity, because it's an important movie about a real-life story: A reporter who becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives
him to suicide after he exposes the CIA's role in arming
Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into Southern California. That reporter is Gary Webb, played on the big screen by Jeremy Renner of The Bourne Legacy fame. This is what I wrote in December 2007 about Webb's expose and investigative journalism in general, with a few embellishments and a new footnote added:
with a goodly number of great investigative journalists over the years,
men and women who risk career, life and limb to get the story, and I can
say with some satisfaction that this bunch usually did.
But beyond the glamor 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.
brings me to one of the greatest investigative coups and most shameful
episodes in modern American journalism -- the August 1996 publication of "Dark Alliance," a three-part series by reporter Gary Webb (above) in the pages of the San Jose Mercury News and what then transpired.
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 in 2006 in a long overdue Los Angeles Times piece (link not available):
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."
reporters had tried to unravel the connection between the CIA's
anti-communism efforts in Central America and drug trafficking, a lynchpin of the Iran-Contra Scandal during the Reagan administration, and I led a team of reporters in the late 1980s trying to do just that. (The CIA also had been deeply involved in heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.) But Webb
was the first to provide a solid link between the spy agency and the U.S.
crack cocaine market in the 1980s by detailing the relationship between two Contra sympathizers and narcotics suppliers, Danilo Blandon
and Norwin Meneses, and L.A.'s biggest crack dealer, "Freeway" Ricky
"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 that the
CIA was knowingly dealing with people who were feeding the U.S. crack
epidemic. The papers also found a number of non-fatal 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.
Let me be clear: As terrific as the "Dark Alliance" series was, I do not believe Webb found the smoking gun, just a lot of smoke, although very important smoke it was. But setting the record straight on "Dark Alliance" is important for another reason.
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.
In chasing down reports that the CIA was using out-of-the-way airstrips in Northeastern Pennsylvania to fly in shipments of cocaine to raise money for the Contras, I was driven to Birchwood-Pocono Air Park by a government insider turned informant on a cold winter day in 1988. This, it turns out, is where state trooper killer Eric Frein was apprehended late last month after a 48-day manhunt.
Despite over a year of digging, my colleagues and I never amassed enough evidence regarding the Poconos angle -- some smoke but no smoking gun -- to justify writing a story.
The original "Dark Alliance" series can be found here. Meanwhile, journalist Eric Umanski aggressively covered the CIA-Contra-crack connection for Mother Jones and asserted here
in a 1998 story that the connection was well established long before "Dark Alliance."
When the daggers came out for Webb, I think I really didn't know where the truth lay anymore, the situation became so muddy. Another sad saga of this business.
The sad truth is no one is going to find the smoking gun that would give credence to the charges that the CIA can be linked to importing drugs(crack cocaine) to our nations ghettos. The witnesses will not come forward because they believe that what they are doing serves some ultimate good or the money is just too good and not worth losing their security clearance or they fear "interdiction with extreme malice." These same conditions apply to the UFO genre as well. What is worse is that you have a public that has been educated to not to care. The truth for many people is too painful to watch.
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