Gary Webb, RIP
No thanks to the L.A. Times
by Marc Cooper
First the L.A. Times helped kill off Gary Webb's career. Then, eight
years later, after Webb committed suicide this past weekend, the Times
decided to give his corpse another kick or two, in a scandalous, self-serving
and ultimately shameful obituary. It was the culmination of the long,
inglorious saga of a major newspaper dropping the ball journalistically, and
then extracting relentless revenge on an out-of-town reporter who embarrassed
Webb was the 49-year-old former
Pulitzer-winning reporter who in 1996, while working for the San Jose
Mercury News, touched off a national debate with a three-part series that
linked the CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan Contras to a crack-dealing epidemic in Los
Angeles and other American cities.
A cold panic set in at the L.A. Times
when Webb's so-called Dark Alliance story first appeared. Just two years
before, the Times had published a long takeout on local crack dealer
Rickey Ross and no mention was made of his possible link to and financing by
CIA-backed Contras. Now the Times feared it was being scooped in its own
backyard by a second-tier Bay Area paper.
The Times mustered an army of 25
reporters, led by Doyle McManus, to take down Webb's reporting. It was,
apparently, more important to the Times to defend its own inadequate
reporting on the CIA-drug connection than it was to advance Webb's important
work (a charge consistently denied by the Times). The New York Times
and the Washington Post also joined in on the public lynching of Webb.
Webb's own editor, Jerry Ceppos, also helped do him in, with a public mea culpa
backing away from his own paper's stories.
Webb was further undermined by some of his
own most fervent supporters. With the help of demagogues like Congresswoman
Maxine Waters, a conspiracy-theory hysteria was whipped up that used Webb's
series as "proof" that the CIA was more or less single-handedly
responsible for South-Central's crack plague - a gross distortion of Webb's
But that conspiracy theory played perfectly
into the hands of the L.A. Times. When its own three-day series appeared
a few months later - attempting to demolish Webb - the Times disproved a
number of points that were never made by Webb, primarily that the CIA
consciously engaged in a program to spread the use of crack.
The Times' Washington-based reporter
McManus, who spent most of the late '80s and early '90s as one of the
less-curious fourth-estate stenographers to the Reagan/Bush administrations,
relied principally on CIA sources to vindicate the CIA in the anti-Webb series.
Citing a "former CIA official" named Vince Cannistraro, McManus wrote
that "CIA officials insist they knew nothing" about the Contra-drug
dealers named by Webb. Cannistraro, however, was more fit to be a subject of
the Times' investigation than a source. Over the length of the Times'
series it was never mentioned that Cannistraro had actually been in charge of
the CIA-Contra operation in the early 1980s, that is, before moving on to help
supervise the covert program of CIA-backed Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan
(who themselves were, and continue to be, knee-deep in the heroin trade).
Which brings us back to this week's obit
written by Nita Lelyveld and Steve Hymon. The lead and body of the obit focus
on the discrediting of Webb by the L.A. Times and fail to mention his
Pulitzer until a dozen paragraphs down in the story.
Long before we learn of Webb's Pulitzer, won
in 1990 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake, Lelyveld and Hymon obediently
recite their own paper's indictment of Webb's exposé on the CIA-drug
connection. They quote the 1996 McManus slam on Webb, saying, ". . . the
available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more
than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua,
fails to support any of [Webb's] allegations."
It's an astounding and nasty little piece of
postmortem butchery on Webb (which never mentions that after his series
appeared, Webb was voted the 1996 Journalist of the Year by the Northern
California Society of Professional Journalists). Absolutely missing from Webb's
obit is that it was his series that directly forced both the CIA and the
Justice Department to conduct internal investigations into the scope of any
links between the Agency and drug dealers.
Worse, the results of those investigations
proved that the core of what Webb alleged was, indeed, true and accurate. When
CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz presented the findings of his internal
investigation to Congress in 1998 (two years after Webb's piece and the ensuing
Times vindication of the CIA), he revealed for the first time an
eye-popping agreement that the CIA had cemented with the Justice Department:
Between 1982 and 1995, the CIA was exempted from informing the DOJ if its
non-employee agents, paid or unpaid, were dealing drugs. In short, it was the
policy of the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to such connections.
The same report by the CIA inspector
general, by the way, admitted what we all knew in any case - that those
connections did, in fact, exist.
And here's the low point in this tale: After
the CIA inspector general made public the second part of his investigation -
the one sparked by Webb - which admitted to some links between the agency and
Central American drug dealers, the L.A. Times chose not to publish a
single story about the report. (No surprise here. Back in 1989, when a panel
led by Senator John Kerry found similar CIA-drug-running links, the Times
showed equal disinterest.)
In short, when it came to the Gary Webb
series and its allegations, the L.A. Times wound up being more
protective of the CIA than the CIA itself.
None of this explains why, in Webb's obit,
Lelyveld and Hymon omit the on-the-record admissions by the CIA of its
involvement with drug-connected Contras, an admission owed directly to Webb's
work. Maybe, you say, the Times reporters are lazy and just didn't look
beyond their own paper's archives. And because the Times didn't cover
those admissions, Lelyveld and Hymon remain (eight years after the fact) in the
No. I fear the answer is worse than that.
One of the Times reporters who wrote the obit, we now learn, called
veteran reporter Bob Parry the other day for comment on Webb's death. Back in
1985, Parry and his partner Bob Barger - working for the AP - were the first to
break the story of CIA involvement with drug-linked Contras. Says Parry:
"The Times reporter who called to interview me ignored my comments
about the debt the nation owed Webb and the importance of the CIA's
inspector-general findings. Instead of using Webb's death as an opportunity to
finally get the story straight, the Times acted as if there never had
been an official investigation confirming many of Webb's allegations."
Gary Webb's work deserved to be taken seriously and to be closely scrutinized
precisely because of the scope of his allegations. As more-objective critics
than the Times have pointed out, Webb overstated some of his
conclusions, he too loosely framed some of his theses, and perhaps (perhaps)
overestimated the actual amount of drug funding that fueled the Contra war. And
for that he deserved to be criticized.
The core of his work, however, still stands.
When much of the rest of the media went to sleep, Gary Webb dug and scratched
and courageously took on the most powerful and arrogant and unaccountable
agencies of the U.S. government. His tenacious reporting forced those same
agencies to investigate themselves and to admit publicly - albeit in
watered-down terms - what he had alleged.
Webb's reward was to be drummed out of the
profession. After his editors cowardly recanted his stories (which they had
vetted), he was demoted to a suburban bureau. After a year, Webb quit and wrote
up his findings into a book. The book was mostly ignored by the press. Webb
took up a job as an investigator for the California Legislature and helped
spit-roast one Gray Davis. Last year, Webb lost that job and yearned,
unsuccessfully for the most part, to get back into journalism. From a
conservative Southern California military family, Webb was driven not by an
ideological agenda but rather by a sense of fairness and justice. He was found
last Friday in his Northern California home after he shot himself to death.
Recently, Webb was interviewed for a book
profiling 18 journalists who found themselves discredited or censored. Let his
own words be a more fitting epitaph than the hack-job L.A. Times
"If we had met five years ago, you
wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me .
. . I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing
on TV shows, and judging journalism contests . . .
"And then I wrote some stories that
made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed
such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was
careful and diligent and good at my job . . . The truth was that, in all those
years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."
Gary Webb, R.I.P.