My Last Talk with Gary Webb

by RICHARD THIEME

The San Jose Mercury News reports that "Gary Webb, a former Mercury News investigative reporter, author and legislative staffer who ignited a firestorm with his controversial stories, died Friday in an apparent suicide in his suburban Sacramento home. He was 49."

I was heartsick. Just knowing that Webb was alive was enough to keep me going through difficult nights.

The Mercury News says that "Webb, an award-winning journalist, was … perhaps best known for sparking a national controversy with a 1996 story that contended supporters of a CIA-backed guerrilla army in Nicaragua helped trigger America’s crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. The ‘Dark Alliance’ series in the Mercury News came under fire by other news organizations, and the paper’s own investigation concluded the series did not meet its standards. Mr. Webb resigned a year and a half after the series appeared in the paper. He then published his book, `Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion.’

Of course the newspaper did not report that he resigned only after months of commuting to a dead-end assignment 150 miles from his family and home to which he had been exiled. Forced to work so far from his family, Webb grew depressed and made a sane choice.

So he was not a stranger to depression. Conspiracy stories are already suggesting that his suicide was something else, but I know he would want more than anything for solid investigative work to stitch together all of the pieces, that we not impose a pattern prematurely. That’s what he did for his stories and it’s the least we can do for him.

Besides, why kill him now? As I said in my blog-piece three days ago:

Voices of clarity and conscience are effectively controlled and spun into irrelevance rather than silenced. Marginalization is more effective than assassination it leaves no dead heroes as leaders, after all – and there’s no blood.

Webb understood that.

His Dark Alliance series was attacked not for what it said (the CIA initially denied then later admitted there were connections between operatives and drug cartels) but for what attackers claimed it said. Webb expected that kind of distortion and created a web site loaded with primary documents, transcripts and audio tapes of interviews so interested parties could read and hear for themselves what sources had said. It was one of the first times the Web was used to support a mainstream story that way and the site had over a million hits.

But a person can only say "I didn’t say that … I didn’t say that …so many times. The mass mind soon accepts the oft-repeated distortion as reality.

Or as a friend, a political consultant, recently said, "You can’t always change reality but you can always change the facts."

Or as Joseph E. Levine said, "You can fool all of the people all of the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough."

Or as I said three days ago:

the manipulation of the herd by the substitution of symbols and images largely irrelevant to matters at hand, used so efficiently in the recent election, makes persons of clarity and conscience feel impotent and ineffective.

In May 2000, I was exploring a story with some dark edges to it. I was anxious and needed encouragement to persist. I asked Gary about the consequences of his investigation and its impact on his life. Above all, was it worth it?

"Yes," he said. "The CIA admitted it. I know it was the truth, and that’s what kept me going. I knew I was right.

He added, "My eyes were wide open. I knew what I was getting into. My kids suffered but I had the paper behind me – I thought." After his paper withdrew its support, he drew on the energy of people who knew the truth of the streets. "Support came from all sorts of places," he said. "Especially African Americans."

And his wife? "She was OK with it," he laughed. "She was used to me getting death threats."

Webb joked that colleagues often said he was naive rather than cynical. We agreed that a cynic might be nothing but a disappointed idealist. If we accept reality as it is without expectations to the contrary, we’re never disappointed.

Gary spoke of his work in terms that I used for ministry. He had been mentored by a journalist who taught him that his work was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Thats what the best bishops taught me too.

I was once asked by Jean Feraca on Wisconsin Public Radio, why are so many of your heroes assassinated?

She rattled off Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Jesus.

Maybe, I said, assassination is the ultimate form of censorship for those who cant help but tell the truth.

Dark Alliance was Gary Webb’s best shot at doing that.

"You get one chance in a lifetime to do the right thing," he said. "If you don’t do it, you surrender, and then they win."

The passion for truth and justice is not a sprint. It’s a long-distance run that requires a different kind of training, a different degree of commitment. Our eye must be on a goal that we know we will never reach in our lifetimes. Faith is the name of believing in the transcendent, often despite all evidence to the contrary.

But what are the options?

Webb knew what he was up against. He said of the CIA, "Richard, these are the worst people on earth that you’re dealing with – they lie, plant stories, discredit and worse for a living and have the resources and the experience.

But somebody’s got to do it [tell the truth]. Otherwise they win.

The choice is to do the work – or surrender."

And I am grieving for someone who did the work. And never surrendered.

Rest in peace.

RICHARD THIEME is an author and public speaker focused on change, the human side of technology, and the issues that matter to us most. A collection of his work, "Islands in the Clickstream," was published this year by Syngress Publishing.


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