ago, a tragedy occurred in American journalism: Investigative reporter
Gary Webb – who had been ostracized by his own colleagues for
forcing a spotlight back onto an ugly government scandal they wanted
to ignore – was driven to commit suicide. But the tragedy had
a deeper meaning.
death on the night of Dec. 9, 2004, came as the U.S. press corps
was at a nadir, having recently aided and abetted President George
W. Bush in taking the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses.
The press corps also had performed abysmally in Bush’s two
presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, hesitant to take on the
powerful Bush Family.
Webb’s suicide could be viewed as an exclamation point on that
sorry era, which had begun a quarter century earlier with the rise
of Ronald Reagan and the gradual retreat – under right-wing
fire – of what had once been Washington’s Watergate/Pentagon
Papers watchdog press corps.
Yet, five years
after Webb’s death, the U.S. news media continues to scrape
along the bottom, still easily intimidated by the bluster of right-wing
media attack groups and fast-talking neoconservatives – and
still gullible in the face of lies
and myths used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the sad
tale of Gary Webb remains instructive for anyone wanting to understand
what went wrong with the U.S. news media and why much more work
is needed to rebuild an independent press corps as a safeguard for
the American Republic.
important historical role began in 1996 when his "Dark Alliance"
investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News revived
public interest in the CIA’s tolerance of cocaine trafficking
by President Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan contra rebels in the
1980s, at a time when Reagan was promoting a “just say no/zero
tolerance/war on drugs.”
of contra cocaine trafficking and the CIA’s protection of these
crimes had surfaced in the 1980s, but the Big Three newspapers –
New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles
Times – paid the scandal little heed, mostly accepting
the denials of Reagan administration insiders.
So, when Webb
shed new light on the scandal in 1996, the same newspapers subjected
Webb to a merciless assault and rejoiced when Webb’s editors
caved in to the pressure and forced Webb to quit in disgrace.
Webb’s series prompted an internal CIA investigation by Inspector
General Frederick Hitz who issued two reports in 1998 containing
devastating admissions about the CIA’s knowledge and protection
of contras known to be active in the cocaine trade.
The Big Three
newspapers’ response was mostly to downplay or ignore Hitz’s
findings, rather than to correct the record.
this misused power of the Big Three – in this case, to protect
the reputation of the Reagan administration and their own failings
– Webb’s reputation was never rehabilitated. He was unable
to find decent-paying work in his profession; his marriage fell
apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a move out
of a modest rental house near Sacramento.
So, on Dec.
9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife
and his three children; he laid out a certificate for his cremation;
he taped a note on the door telling movers – who were coming
the next morning – to instead call 911.
Webb then took
out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first
shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.
Even with Webb’s
death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction
couldn’t bring themselves to show Webb any mercy.
body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los
Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic
colleagues who had defended him and his work. Back in 1985 for the
Associated Press, I also had co-written with Brian Barger the first
story exposing the contra-cocaine scandal.
I told the
L.A. Times reporter that American history owed a great debt
to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era
crimes. But I added that the L.A. Times would be hard-pressed
to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published
a single word on the contents of the CIA inspector general’s
final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.
To my disappointment
but not my surprise, I was correct. The L.A. Times ran a
mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense
of Webb, nor the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The Times
obituary was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington
Webb’s suicide had enabled senior editors at the Big Three
newspapers to breathe a little easier, since one of the few people
who understood the true and ugly story of not only the Reagan administration’s
protection of the contra-cocaine trafficking but the U.S. media’s
complicity in the cover-up was now silenced.
To this day,
none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the
destruction of Gary Webb has been punished for their actions. None
has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. Instead,
the death of Gary Webb and the circumstances surrounding it have
remained one of the U.S. news media’s dirty little secrets.
of that continuing injustice, I believe it’s fitting on the
fifth anniversary of Webb’s death to remind the American people
of what Webb’s work helped expose.
suicide in 2004 had its roots in his fateful decision eight years
earlier to write a three-part series for the San Jose Mercury
News that challenged a potent conventional wisdom shared by
the elite U.S. news organizations – that one of the most shocking
scandals of the 1980s just couldn’t possibly be true.
“Dark Alliance” series, published in August 1996, revived
the decade-old allegations that the Reagan administration in the
1980s had tolerated and protected cocaine smuggling by its client
army of Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.
evidence of the contra crimes had surfaced in the mid-1980s (initially
in an article that Brian Barger and I wrote for the Associated Press
in December 1985 and later at hearings conducted by Sen. John Kerry),
the major news outlets had refused to take the disclosures seriously.
reflecting the dominant attitude toward Kerry and his work on the
contra-cocaine scandal, Newsweek dubbed the Massachusetts
senator a “randy conspiracy buff.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s
Contra-Cocaine Chapter” or Robert Parry’s Lost
History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & Project Truth.]
Thus, the truth
of the contra-cocaine scandal was left in that netherworld of uncertainty,
largely proven with documents and testimony but never accepted by
series thrust the scandal back into prominence by connecting the
contra-cocaine trafficking to the spread of crack that ravaged Los
Angeles and other American urban centers in the 1980s. For that
reason, African-American communities were up in arms as were their
elected representatives in the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Dark Alliance” series offered a unique opportunity for
the major news outlets to finally give the contra-cocaine scandal
the attention it deserved.
But that would
have required some painful self-criticism among Washington journalists
whose careers had advanced in part because they had not offended
Reagan supporters who had made an art out of punishing out-of-step
reporters for pursuing controversies like the contra-cocaine scandal.
Also, by the
mid-1990s, a powerful right-wing news media had taken shape and
was in no mood to accept the notion that many of President Reagan’s
beloved contras were drug traffickers. That recognition would have
cast a shadow over the Reagan Legacy, which the Right was busy elevating
into mythic status.
There was the
turf issue, too. Since Webb’s stories coincided with the emergence
of the Internet as an alternate source for news and the San Jose
Mercury News was at the center of Silicon Valley, the big newspapers
saw a threat to their historic dominance as the nation’s gatekeepers
for what information should be taken seriously.
Plus, the major
media’s focus in the mid-1990s was on scandals swirling around
Bill Clinton, such as some firings at the White House Travel Office
and convoluted questions about his old Whitewater real-estate deal.
In other words,
there was little appetite to revisit scandals from the Reagan years
and there were strong motives to disparage what Webb had written.
It fell to
Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s right-wing Washington Times to
begin the counterattack. The Washington Times turned to some
ex-CIA officials, who had participated in the contra war, to refute
the drug charges.
in a pattern that would repeat itself over the next decade –
the Washington Post and other mainstream newspapers quickly
lined up behind the right-wing press. On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington
Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb’s
story, although acknowledging that some contra operatives did help
the cocaine cartels.
approach was twofold: first, it presented the contra-cocaine allegations
as old news – “even CIA personnel testified to Congress
they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers,”
the Post sniffed – and second, the Post minimized the importance
of the one contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted –
that it had not “played a major role in the emergence of crack.”
A Post side-bar
story dismissed African-Americans as prone to “conspiracy fears.”
Soon, the New
York Times and the Los Angeles Times joined in the piling
on against Gary Webb. The big newspapers made much of the CIA’s
internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 – almost a decade earlier
– that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of a role in contra-cocaine
But the CIA’s
decade-old cover-up began to weaken on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector
General Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that
the first CIA probe had lasted only 12 days, the second only three
days. He promised a more thorough review.
Webb was becoming the target of media ridicule. Influential Post
media critic Howard Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal
that he would explore the possibility that the contra war was primarily
a business to its participants.
Stone, check your voice mail,” Kurtz smirked. [Washington
Post, Oct. 28, 1996]
suspicion was not unfounded, however. Indeed, White House aide Oliver
North’s chief contra emissary Rob Owen had made the same point
in a March 17, 1986, message about the contra leadership.
the so-called leaders of the movement … really care about the
boys in the field,” Owen wrote. “THIS WAR HAS BECOME A
BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM.” [Capitalization in the original.]
In other words,
Webb had been right and Kurtz had been wrong.
Kurtz and other big-name journalists may have been ignorant of key
facts about the contra war, they still pilloried Gary Webb.
also had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury
News. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos was in retreat.
Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the
Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck
Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written
with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. His two previous books are Secrecy
& Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq
History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’.