By then, however, Webb had already crossed over from being a serious journalist to an object of ridicule. Washington Post media critic Kurtz effectively sealed Webb's fate with a series of articles confirming Webb's new status as a laughable pariah.
For instance, Kurtz mocked Webb for saying in a book proposal that he would explore the possibility that the Contra war was primarily a business to its participants. "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail," Kurtz chortled.
However, Webb's suspicion was no conspiracy theory. Indeed, White House aide Oliver North's chief Contra emissary, Robert Owen, had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message about the Contra's leadership. "Few of the so-called leaders of the movement ... really care about the boys in the field," Owen wrote. "THIS WAR HAS BECOME A BUSINESS TO MANY OF THEM." [Emphasis in original.]
In other words, Webb was right and Kurtz was wrong. Even Oliver North's emissary had reported that many Contra leaders treated the conflict as "a business." But accuracy had ceased to be relevant in the media's bashing of Gary Webb.
While Webb was held to the strictest standards of journalism, it was entirely all right for Kurtz -- the supposed arbiter of journalistic standards -- to make judgments based on ignorance. Kurtz faced no repercussions for disparaging an embattled journalist who was factually correct. (Kurtz's sloppiness regarding Webb was similar to Kurtz's cavalier approach to Collins's brave announcement as the first player in a major U.S. team sport to declare that he is gay.)
Yet, with Kurtz's imprimatur, the Big Three's assault on Webb -- combined with their derogatory tone -- had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury-News. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had his own corporate career to worry about, was in retreat.
Webb was forced out of his job to the satisfaction of Kurtz and many in the mainstream media. Webb's humiliation served as a vindication to their longstanding dismissive treatment of the Contra-cocaine story.
Even when CIA Inspector General Hitz determined that, indeed, the Contra movement had been permeated with cocaine traffickers and that the CIA had shielded them from law enforcement, the mainstream media's focus remained the alleged shortcomings in Webb's journalism. [For details, see Robert Parry's Lost History.]
So, while Kurtz and other Contra-cocaine "debunkers" saw their careers soar, Webb couldn't find decent-paying work in his profession. Finally, in December 2004, despondent and in debt, Webb took his own life. Even after his death, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other major news outlets continued disparaging him. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Warning in Gary Webb's Death."]
Hooting at Democracy
As the 1990s ground to a close with the Washington news media obsessing over "important" issues like President Bill Clinton's failed Whitewater real-estate deal and his sex life, Kurtz and his fellow-travelers were setting the sorry standards for modern U.S. journalism. Many were swooning over the manly man George W. Bush and happily hazing the wonky Al Gore.
Though Gore won the national popular vote in Election 2000 and would have prevailed in the swing state of Florida if all the legal ballots had been counted, five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped that counting and installed George W. Bush in the White House -- with little protest from the national news media.
That pro-Bush/anti-Gore attitude grew stronger after the 9/11 attacks when a group of news organizations completed an unofficial tally of the ignored Florida ballots, which showed that Gore would have carried that key state. Yet, instead of simply telling the American people that the wrong guy was in the White House, the major U.S. news outlets twisted their own findings to protect Bush's fragile "legitimacy."
Out front defending that journalistic malfeasance was Howard Kurtz. He rallied behind the decision of the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and other heavy-hitters to focus on hypothetical partial recounts rather than what the Florida voters actually voted for, i.e., a Gore victory.
On Nov. 12, 2001, the Post's headline was "Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush" and Kurtz backed that judgment up by dismissing anyone who actually looked at the statistical findings of the recount as a kook. Kurtz's sidebar -- headlined, "George W. Bush, Now More Than Ever" -- ridiculed as "conspiracy theorists" those who thought Gore had won.
"The conspiracy theorists have been out in force, convinced that the media were covering up the Florida election results to protect President Bush," Kurtz wrote. "That gets put to rest today, with the finding by eight news organizations that Bush would have beaten Gore under both of the recount plans being considered at the time."