Kicking a Dead Man
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First the L.A. Times helped kill off Gary Webb's career. Then, eight years later, after Webb committed suicide this past weekend, the Times decided to give his corpse another kick or two, in a scandalous, self-serving and ultimately shameful obituary. It was the culmination of the long, inglorious saga of a major newspaper dropping the ball journalistically, and then extracting relentless revenge on an out-of-town reporter who embarrassed it.
Webb was the 49-year-old former Pulitzer-winning reporter who in 1996, while working for the San Jose Mercury News, touched off a national debate with a three-part series that linked the CIA-sponsored Nicaraguan Contras to a crack-dealing epidemic in Los Angeles and other American cities.
A cold panic set in at the L.A. Times when Webb's so-called Dark Alliance story first appeared. Just two years before, the Times had published a long takeout on local crack dealer Rickey Ross and no mention was made of his possible link to and financing by CIA-backed Contras. Now the Times feared it was being scooped in its own backyard by a second-tier Bay Area paper.
The Times mustered an army of 25 reporters, led by Doyle McManus, to take down Webb's reporting. It was, apparently, more important to the Times to defend its own inadequate reporting on the CIA-drug connection than it was to advance Webb's important work (a charge consistently denied by the Times). The New York Times and the Washington Post also joined in on the public lynching of Webb. Webb's own editor, Jerry Ceppos, also helped do him in, with a public mea culpa backing away from his own papers stories.
Webb was further undermined by some of his own most fervent supporters. With the help of demagogues like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a conspiracy-theory hysteria was whipped up that used Webb's series as "proof" that the CIA was more or less single-handedly responsible for South-Centrals crack plague – a gross distortion of Webb's work.
But that conspiracy theory played perfectly into the hands of the L.A. Times. When its own three-day series appeared a few months later – attempting to demolish Webb – the Times disproved a number of points that were never made by Webb, primarily that the CIA consciously engaged in a program to spread the use of crack.
The Times' Washington-based reporter McManus, who spent most of the late '80s and early '90s as one of the less-curious fourth-estate stenographers to the Reagan/Bush administrations, relied principally on CIA sources to vindicate the CIA in the anti-Webb series. Citing a "former CIA official" named Vince Cannistraro, McManus wrote that "CIA officials insist they knew nothing" about the Contra-drug dealers named by Webb. Cannistraro, however, was more fit to be a subject of the Times investigation than a source. Over the length of the Times series it was never mentioned that Cannistraro had actually been in charge of the CIA-Contra operation in the early '80s, that is, before moving on to help supervise the covert program of CIA-backed Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan (who themselves were, and continue to be, knee-deep in the heroin trade).
Which brings us back to this week's obit written by Nita Lelyveld and Steve Hymon. The lead and body of the obit focus on the discrediting of Webb by the L.A. Times and fail to mention his Pulitzer until a dozen paragraphs down in the story.
Long before we learn of Webb's Pulitzer, won in 1990 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake, Lelyveld and Hymon obediently recite their own papers indictment of Webbs expos on the CIA-drug connection. They quote the 1996 McManus slam on Webb, saying, "...the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of [Webb's] allegations."
It's an astounding and nasty little piece of postmortem butchery on Webb (which never mentions that after his series appeared, Webb was voted the 1996 Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists). Absolutely missing from Webb's obit is that it was his series that directly forced both the CIA and the Justice Department to conduct internal investigations into the scope of any links between the Agency and drug dealers.
Worse, the results of those investigations proved that the core of what Webb alleged was, indeed, true and accurate. When CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz presented the findings of his internal investigation to Congress in 1998 (two years after Webb's piece and the ensuing Times vindication of the CIA), he revealed for the first time an eye-popping agreement that the CIA had cemented with the Justice Department: Between 1982 and 1995, the CIA was exempted from informing the DOJ if its non-employee agents, paid or unpaid, were dealing drugs. In short, it was the policy of the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to such connections.
The same report by the CIA inspector general, by the way, admitted what we all knew in any case – that those connections did, in fact, exist.
And here's the low point in this tale: After the CIA inspector general made public the second part of his investigation – the one sparked by Webb – which admitted to some links between the agency and Central American drug dealers, the L.A. Times chose not to publish a single story about the report. (No surprise here. Back in 1989, when a panel led by Senator John Kerry found similar CIA-drug-running links, the Times showed equal disinterest.)
In short, when it came to the Gary Webb series and its allegations, the L.A. Times wound up being more protective of the CIA than the CIA itself.
None of this explains why, in Webb's obit, Lelyveld and Hymon omit the on-the-record admissions by the CIA of its involvement with drug-connected Contras, an admission owed directly to Webb's work. Maybe, you say, the Times reporters are lazy and just didn't look beyond their own paper's archives. And because the Times didn't cover those admissions, Lelyveld and Hymon remain (eight years after the fact) in the dark.
No. I fear the answer is worse than that. One of the Times reporters who wrote the obit, we now learn, called veteran reporter Bob Parry the other day for comment on Webb's death. Back in 1985, Parry and his partner Bob Barger – working for the AP – were the first to break the story of CIA involvement with drug-linked Contras. Says Parry: "The Times reporter who called to interview me ignored my comments about the debt the nation owed Webb and the importance of the CIA's inspector-general findings. Instead of using Webb's death as an opportunity to finally get the story straight, the Times acted as if there never had been an official investigation confirming many of Webb's allegations."
Gary Webb's work deserved to be taken seriously and to be closely scrutinized precisely because of the scope of his allegations. As more-objective critics than the Times have pointed out, Webb overstated some of his conclusions, he too loosely framed some of his theses, and perhaps (perhaps) overestimated the actual amount of drug funding that fueled the Contra war. And for that he deserved to be criticized.
The core of his work, however, still stands. When much of the rest of the media went to sleep, Gary Webb dug and scratched and courageously took on the most powerful and arrogant and unaccountable agencies of the U.S. government. His tenacious reporting forced those same agencies to investigate themselves and to admit publicly – albeit in watered-down terms – what he had alleged.
Webb's reward was to be drummed out of the profession. After his editors cowardly recanted his stories (which they had vetted), he was demoted to a suburban bureau. After a year, Webb quit and wrote up his findings into a book. The book was mostly ignored by the press. Webb took up a job as an investigator for the California Legislature and helped spit-roast one Gray Davis. Last year, Webb lost that job and yearned, unsuccessfully for the most part, to get back into journalism. From a conservative Southern California military family, Webb was driven not by an ideological agenda but rather by a sense of fairness and justice. He was found last Friday in his Northern California home after he shot himself to death.
Recently, Webb was interviewed for a book profiling 18 journalists who found themselves discredited or censored. Let his own words be a more fitting epitaph than the hack-job L.A. Times obituary:
"If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me... I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests....
"And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job.... The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."
Gary Webb, R.I.P.