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The Tragedy of Gary Webb*

June 23, 2014

The late, great Gary Webb may be on his way to becoming one of the very few household names among American investigative journalists.  The heavy lifting will likely be done by Kill the Messenger, a major motion picture bound for theaters this October, in which Webb is played with characteristic gravitas and handsomeness by Jeremy Renner.  The movie, based largely on Webb’s Dark Alliance — which Seven Stories will be releasing in an expanded new edition this fall – looks appropriately thrilling:

 

As interest Gary’s work experiences a much-deserved resurgence, though, it may be worth remembering that accolades and encomia were hardly what greeted the book on its initial release.  Quite the contrary, actually — the stories that would become Dark Alliance made Gary the target of serious animus from the America’s political right and security apparatus.  (One figure of crossover relevance to the two, Lt. Col. Oliver North, memorably derided the reportage as “absolute garbage” — a beautiful feather in Webb’s rabble-rouser cap.)  The pressures that mounted as Gary came under increasingly fierce attack culminated, agonizingly, in his suicide, of which 2014 marks the tenth anniversary.

Shortly thereafter, Dan Simon — Gary’s editor for Dark Alliance, and Seven Stories’ founder — wrote the following moving consideration of Gary’s brilliant journalism, and the deep tragedy it worked in his personal life.  Originally published in The Progressive, what follows is both a moving tribute to a departed friend and a resounding call for the courageous seeking of truth.

The Tragedy of Gary Webb

by Dan Simon

I began working as Gary Webb’s editor on “Dark Alliance”, the book, in July 1997, almost a year after his newspaper series of the same name broke so controversially in the San Jose Mercury News. As recently as one year earlier Gary Webb had been one of the nation’s top investigative reporters. His awards included a Pulitzer in 1990 as part of a team, and at least four other major prizes for his solo work. But by the time I met him, he’d already begun the spectacular fall that ended with his suicide several weeks ago, barely seven years later, at the age of forty-nine.

What would turn out to be the biggest story of his life ran as a three-day series beginning on August 18, 1996. Here’s how it started: “For the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found.”

The “Dark Alliance” story documented a network of collusion in the 1980s that joined together the crack cocaine explosion, the Contras, and the CIA. But it might have vanished without a trace had the paper not chosen this story to create a splash for its website, complete with graphics and links to original source documents. It became, arguably, the first big Internet news story, with as many as 1.3 million hits on a single day. Talk radio picked it up off the Internet, and citizens’ groups and media watchdogs soon followed. The CIA launched its own internal investigation. Gary’s star had never shone more brightly.

The mainstream print media was ominously silent until October and November 1996, when The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times all finally picked up the story. But instead of launching their own investigations into whether the CIA had shielded drug traffickers, these papers went after Gary’s reporting, although they “could not find a single significant factual error,” as Gary’s then-editor at The Mercury News, Jerry Ceppos, would write in an internal memo. But after that, the series was described frequently as “discredited.” Soon the story and Gary himself were spoiled goods. Gary’s editor switched sides and penned an apologia distancing the paper from the series. Gary was forced out of his job, even though the body of evidence supporting Gary’s account was actually growing.

Two years later, the CIA’s internal investigation would prove to be a vindication of Gary’s work. So would another internal investigation conducted by the Justice Department. Gary took solace in the historical significance of these findings, but shamelessly the mainstream press barely covered them, whereas the attacks on Gary had been page-one news.

With characteristic irony and faith in the facts, Gary faulted himself only for not being able to fathom initially the depths of the CIA’s complicity. Writing in 2002 for a book called Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, Gary said: “When the CIA and Justice Department finished their internal investigations two years later, the classified documents that were released showed . . . the CIA’s knowledge and involvement had been far greater than I’d ever imagined. The drug ring was even bigger than I had portrayed. . . . And agents and officials of the DEA had protected the traffickers from arrest, something I’d not been allowed to print.”

Gary had loved writing the “Dark Alliance” book, and together we relished presenting finished copies to the very same newspapers of record that had allowed themselves to be used as tools against Gary. The book was reviewed with high praise in two out of the three, and it was a strong seller.

The alternative media, to its credit, honored Gary. But the community of his peers in corporate journalism never again embraced him. He could never quite get over their betrayal. When you are an investigative reporter armed with the truth, the gun often fires backwards.

Gary once wrote about the “Dark Alliance” series, “It wasn’t so much a conspiracy that I had outlined as it was a chain reaction.” The same can be said of what happened to Gary.

Now when I reread the opening sentence of the “Dark Alliance” series, I realize Gary had found the big story, the one about the betrayal of a people by its own government. A monumental sadness remains.

 

 

*Now a major motion picture

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