It’s been almost a decade since once-luminous investigative journalist Gary Webb extinguished his own life.
It’s been 18 years since Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News exploded across a new medium – the Internet – and definitively linked crack cocaine in Los Angeles and elsewhere to drug traffickers allied with the CIA’s rightwing Contra army in Nicaragua. Webb’s revelations sparked anger across the country, especially in black communities.
But the 1996 series (which was accompanied by unprecedented online documentation) also sparked one of the most ferocious media assaults ever on an individual reporter – a less-than-honest backlash against Webb by elite newspapers that had long ignored or suppressed evidence of CIA/Contra/cocaine connections.
The assault by the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times drove Webb out of the newspaper business, and ultimately to his death.
Beginning this Friday, the ghost of Gary Webb will haunt his tormenters from movie screens across the country, with the opening of the dramatic film “Kill the Messenger” – based partly on Webb’s 1998 “Dark Alliance” book.
The movie dramatizes Webb’s investigation of Contra-allied Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon (whose drug activities were apparently protected for reasons of U.S. “national security”) and their connection to L.A.’s biggest crack dealer, “Freeway” Ricky Ross.
The original “Dark Alliance” series was powerful in naming names, backed by court documents. Webb added specifics and personalities to the story of Contra drug trafficking first broken by Associated Press in 1985 (ignored by major newspapers) and then expanded in 1989 by John Kerry’s Senate subcommittee report which found that Contra drug dealing was tolerated in the U.S. frenzy to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftwing Sandinista government. Kerry’s work was ignored or attacked in big media — Newsweek labeled him a “randy conspiracy buff.”
There were some flaws and overstatements in the Webb series, mostly in editing and presentation; a controversial graphic had a crack smoker embedded in the CIA seal. But in light of history – and much smoke has cleared since 1996 – Webb’s series stands up far better as journalism than the hatchet jobs from the three establishment newspapers.
Don’t take my word for it. A player in the backlash against Webb was Jesse Katz, one of 17 reporters assigned by L.A. Times editors to produce a three-day, 20,000 word takedown of “Dark Alliance.” Last year, Katz referred to what his paper did as “kind of a tawdry exercise” which “ruined that reporter’s career” – explaining during a radio interview: “Most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled onto one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”
Katz deserves credit for expressing regrets about the “overkill.”
His role in the backlash was to minimize the importance of Ricky Ross, who received large shipments of cocaine from Contra-funder Blandon. In the wake of Webb’s series, Katz described Ross as just one of many “interchangeable characters” in the crack deluge, “dwarfed” by other dealers.
But 20 months before Webb’s series – before the public knew of any Contra (or CIA) link to Ross’ cocaine supply – Katz had written quite the opposite in an L.A. Times profile of Ross: “If there was a criminal mastermind behind crack’s decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick.” Katz’s piece referred to Ross as “South-Central’s first millionaire crack lord” and was headlined: “Deposed King of Crack.”
One of the more absurd aspects of the backlash against Webb – prominent in the Washington Post and elsewhere — was criticism over his labeling of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), a Contra army supported by Blandon and Meneses, as “the CIA’s army.” As I wrote in an obituary when Webb died: “By all accounts, including those of Contra leaders, the CIA set up the group, selected its leaders and paid their salaries, and directed its day-to-day battlefield strategies.” The CIA also supervised the FDN’s day-to-day propaganda in U.S. media.
It was as much “the CIA’s army” as the force that invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
Just weeks ago, new light was shed on this old puzzle with the release of a remarkable CIA internal report – which shows that “the CIA’s army” phrase was one of the Agency’s main complaints about Webb’s series. As silly as the CIA’s complaint was, it received serious echo in friendly newspapers. In fact, the CIA author of the report seemed to marvel at how compliant major newspapers were in attacking the “Dark Alliance” series, which he attributed to “a ground base of already productive relations with journalists.”
The CIA’s internal report mentioned that soon after the “Dark Alliance” series was published, “one major news affiliate, after speaking with a CIA media spokesperson, decided not to run the story.” When the Washington Post attack on Webb appeared, the CIA aggressively circulated it to other journalists and to “former Agency officials, who were themselves representing the Agency in interviews with the media.”
A disturbing feature of the triple-barreled (Washington Post/NY Times/LA Times) backlash against Webb was how readily elite journalists accepted the denials from the CIA – and from unnamed “former senior CIA officials” – of any knowledge of Contra cocaine trafficking. Media critic Norman Solomon noted that the first New York Times piece on Webb’s series lacked “any suggestion that the CIA might be a dubious touchstone for veracity.”
It’s worth remembering that the New York Times and Washington Post editorially endorsed military aid to the human rights-abusing Contras – a position almost as embarrassing now as their faulty coverage in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
The unfolding of history can be helpful in settling disputes – and it has proved kinder to Webb than eagerly gullible establishment newspapers. “Dark Alliance” and the public uproar over the series in black communities and elsewhere pressured the CIA to order a review of Contra cocaine links by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz. Although barely covered by the big three dailies, Hitz’s final volume (published in October 1998) provided significant vindication of Webb.
Journalist Robert Parry, a Webb supporter who broke the Contra cocaine story in 1985 while at A.P., concluded that Hitz “not only confirmed many of the longstanding allegations about Contra-cocaine trafficking but revealed that the CIA and the Reagan administration knew much more about the criminal activity.” In the 1998 volume, “Hitz identified more than 50 Contras and Contra-related entities implicated in the drug trade. He also detailed how the Reagan administration had protected these drug operations and frustrated federal investigations throughout the 1980s.”
Thanks to the magic of the silver screen, the specter of Gary Webb (brought to life by actor Jeremy Renner) will now be vexing the media heavyweights who savaged him. The script for “Kill the Messenger” – based on Webb’s book and Nick Schou’s “Kill the Messenger” – was written by Peter Landesman, a former investigative writer himself.
In comments last week to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Landesman offered explanations of the triple attack on Webb’s series: “Each one of the papers did it for a different reason. The L.A. Times had an envious, jealous reaction of being scooped in their own territory . . . The Washington Post had a very strong quid pro quo relationship with the CIA . . . The New York Times approach was more professional arrogance.”
And there’s a unifying factor: All three newspapers had avoided the CIA/Contra/cocaine story in the 1980s – they seemed to be punishing Webb for reviving it in 1996. (See Cockburn and St. Clair’s Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press.)
With “Kill the Messenger” opening in hundreds of theaters, is it possible Gary Webb will get the last word after all?
Jeff Cohen is an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College, cofounder of the online activism group RootsAction.org, and founder of the media watch group FAIR, which defended Gary Webb against the backlash.