Five years ago, a tragedy occurred in American journalism: Investigative reporter Gary Webb -- who had been ostracized by his own colleagues for forcing a spotlight back onto an ugly government scandal they wanted to ignore -- was driven to commit suicide. But the tragedy had a deeper meaning.
Webb's death on the night of Dec. 9, 2004, came as the U.S. press corps was at a nadir, having recently aided and abetted President George W. Bush in taking the country to war in Iraq under false pretenses. The press corps also had performed abysmally in Bush's two presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, hesitant to take on the powerful Bush Family.
In retrospect, Webb's suicide could be viewed as an exclamation point on that sorry era, which had begun a quarter century earlier with the rise of Ronald Reagan and the gradual retreat -- under right-wing fire -- of what had once been Washington's Watergate/Pentagon Papers watchdog press corps.
Yet, five years after Webb's death, the U.S. news media continues to scrape along the bottom, still easily intimidated by the bluster of right-wing media attack groups and fast-talking neoconservatives -- and still gullible in the face of lies and myths used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the sad tale of Gary Webb remains instructive for anyone wanting to understand what went wrong with the U.S. news media and why much more work is needed to rebuild an independent press corps as a safeguard for the American Republic.
Webb's important historical role began in 1996 when his "Dark Alliance" investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News revived public interest in the CIA's tolerance of cocaine trafficking by President Reagan's beloved Nicaraguan contra rebels in the 1980s, at a time when Reagan was promoting a "just say no/zero tolerance/war on drugs."
The scandal of contra cocaine trafficking and the CIA's protection of these crimes had surfaced in the 1980s, but the Big Three newspapers -- New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times -- paid the scandal little heed, mostly accepting the denials of Reagan administration insiders.
So, when Webb shed new light on the scandal in 1996, the same newspapers subjected Webb to a merciless assault and rejoiced when Webb's editors caved in to the pressure and forced Webb to quit in disgrace.
Nevertheless, Webb's series prompted an internal CIA investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz who issued two reports in 1998 containing devastating admissions about the CIA's knowledge and protection of contras known to be active in the cocaine trade.
The Big Three newspapers' response was mostly to downplay or ignore Hitz's findings, rather than to correct the record.
Because of this misused power of the Big Three -- in this case, to protect the reputation of the Reagan administration and their own failings -- Webb's reputation was never rehabilitated. He was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a move out of a modest rental house near Sacramento.
So, on Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; he laid out a certificate for his cremation; he taped a note on the door telling movers -- who were coming the next morning -- to instead call 911.
Webb then took out his father's pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more.
Even with Webb's death, the big newspapers that had played key roles in his destruction couldn't bring themselves to show Webb any mercy.
After Webb's body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb's few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work. Back in 1985 for the Associated Press, I also had co-written with Brian Barger the first story exposing the contra-cocaine scandal.