Gary Webb: a Great Reporter
News came over the weekend that Gary Webb had died Friday from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self inflicted. The news saddens us, and rekindles our anger at the fouls libels he endured at the hands of his colleagues.
Webb was a great reporter whose best-known work exposed the CIA’S complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the US onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the Agency.
The attacks were without merit, but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its publisher. It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism. We described the entire saga in detail in our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press which sets the story in the larger context of the Agency’s complicity in drug smuggling since its founding.
Webb left the Mercury News, and expanded his series into his excellent book Dark Alliance. He also did other fine journalism, notably in Esquire the definitive expose of what came to be known as "driving while black", about the system program of racial profiling by cops across the country. For now, here is Webb’s own, briskly robust account, which he sent us and which we ran on this site in March, 2001, of the storm over his series, along with his generous appeal to help a crusading journalistic enterprise, Narco News.
Later this week we will run a longer reprise on Webb and his famous series.
March 21, 2001 Silencing the Messenger Censoring NarcoNews by Gary Webb CounterPunch
Not long after I wrote a series for the San Jose Mercury News about a drug ring that had flooded South Central Los Angeles with cheap cocaine at the beginning of the crack explosion there, a strange thing happened to me. I was silenced.
This, believe it or not, came as something of a surprise to me. For 17 years I had been writing newspaper stories about grafters, crooked bankers, corrupt politicians and killers — and winning armloads of journalism awards for it. Some of my stories had convened grand juries and sent important people to well-deserved jail cells. Others ended up on 20/20, and later became a best-selling book (not written by me, unfortunately.) I started doing television news shows, speaking to college journalism classes and professional seminars. I had major papers bidding against each other to hire me.
So when I happened across information implicating an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in the cocaine trade, I had no qualms about jumping onto it with both feet. What did I have to worry about? I was a newspaperman for a big city, take-no-prisoners newspaper. I had the First Amendment, a law firm, and a multi-million dollar corporation watching my back.
Besides, this story was a fucking outrage. Right-wing Latin American drug dealers were helping finance a CIA-run covert war in Nicaragua by selling tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods in LA, who were turning it into crack and spreading it through black neighborhoods nationwide. And all the available evidence pointed to the sickening conclusion that elements of the US government had known of it and had either tacitly encouraged it or, at a minimum, done absolutely nothing to stop it.
And that’s when this strange thing happened. The national news media, instead of using its brute strength to force the truth from our government, decided that its time would be better spent investigating me and my reporting. They kicked me around pretty good, I have to admit. (At one point, I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about. The DEA raided my film agent’s office looking for any scrap of paper to back up this lie and appeared disappointed when they came up emptyhanded.)
To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I’ve written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess. Indeed, most of what has come out since shows that my newspaper stories grossly underestimated the extent of our government’s knowledge, an error to which I readily confess. But, in the end, the facts didn’t really matter. What mattered was making the damned thing go away, shutting people up, and making anyone who demanded the truth appear to be a wacky conspiracy theorist. And it worked.
As a result, the CIA was allowed to investigate itself, release a heavily censored report admitting that it had worked with cocaine traffickers, and simultaneously declare itself innocent of any wrongdoing. And that’s where our firebrand national news media has let the matter lie to this day.
Now it’s NarcoNews’ turn for the silence treatment. And, if I had to guess, I’d venture to say that it’s probably more important to the folks selling us the Drug War to shut up Al Giordano than it is to silence mainstream reporters who, in my father’s eloquent words, wouldn’t say shit if they had a mouth full of it.
No one can lean on NarcoNews’s editors, or their bosses, or its board of directors to reign Al in or, failing that, reassign him to the night copy desk. The only person they can lean on is Al, who doesn’t take to being leaned on. And they can’t shut down the Internet either. So two choices remain.
They can grit their teeth and suffer Al’s reporting, day after aggravating day, as he exposes the ugly underside of this endless war on drugs – and actually makes things happen, like real journalists are supposed to do. Or they can try to make it impossible for him to do his job by harassing him with specious lawsuits, bedevil him with lawyers and depositions and interrogatories and subpoenas, and reduce him to penury. Why? To silence him. To make him go away. To keep him from looking under rocks that reporters aren’t supposed to look under.
Make no mistake. This court fight isn’t about any particular story NarcoNews has done. It’s about ALL of them, and all of the ones yet to come. And it’s a battle over the continued independence of Internet journalism as well. The silencing of Al Giordano and NarcoNews isn’t a theoretical possibility that might happen a couple years from now. It’s already happening. Al and his volunteer lawyers are hip-deep in it right now. And they need our help.
Narco News and Al Giordano face an April 9th deadline to respond to the Banamex censorship lawsuit or they will be declared in default – guilty without a single fact being heard in a case where the facts prove them right.
A civil lawsuit is different than a criminal case: complex legal issues require trained lawyers to dig through the law books on procedural issues so far from the basic truths about photographs of cocaine trafficking on the coast of Mexico. The bank’s lawyers at Akin Gump are paid astronomic fees to raise every small point of process and delay the day when the facts come to light in New York City court.
If this case goes to trial, that’s when Narco News will triumph. And all of us will win with it as the real facts of the corruption of the international drug war come to light in the media center of New York.
The hard part comes right now, in navigating the maze of irrelevantprocess issues, as any reporter who has covered the courts has seen. Narco News will either be able to have skilled attorneys get them through this complicated phase or – I can see it coming – Al will have to take a long trip to the law library himself, abandon reporting for the coming weeks or months in order to wage his own defense. Then you and I will not be able to read new reports on Narco News at this key moment when Plan Colombia explodes regionally and more Latin American voices are raised against the drug war, like the Mexican police chief yesterday, who, if not for Narco News, would never be heard by those of us who speak and read in English.
That is what is at stake: Whether a skilled reporter has to retire for months to become a pro se lawyer, or whether he can continue reporting the facts to us.
I was silenced but am not silenced any more. When, the other day, the film rights to my book Dark Alliance about US complicity in the cocaine trade were purchased for a television movie, I wrote Al to pledge part of those proceeds to his defense. In the years to come, there is no question that Narco News will be proven right and will be helping the next generation of reporters fight efforts to censor them.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if this time the censors failed entirely to take Al and Narco News out of circulation, for a year, for months, even for a week? Wouldn’t that be the best deterrent against bankers and lobbyists from waging these frivolous lawsuits against Free Speech on the Internet? I understand that Narco News needs only about $13,000 more to be able to have the most difficult stage of the lawsuit process – that which it faces immediately – handled with professional legal assistance, thus allowing Al to continue expending his energy and time in reporting to us the facts. One person of means could solve this problem with a check. Two dozen people giving $500 could do it. 130 people giving a hundred dollars… you can do the math: If half of Narco News’ readers give one dollar each, Narco News will keep publishing.