In other words, there were real-life American victims, and they were concentrated in African-American communities. That meant the ever-sensitive issue of race had been injected into the controversy. Anger from black communities spread quickly to the Congressional Black Caucus, which started demanding answers.
Secondly, the San Jose Mercury News, which was the local newspaper for Silicon Valley, had posted documents and audio on its state-of-the-art Internet site. That way, readers could examine much of the documentary support for the series.
It also meant that the traditional "gatekeeper" role of the major newspapers -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times -- was under assault. If a regional paper like the Mercury News could finance a major journalistic investigation like this one, and circumvent the judgments of the editorial boards at the Big Three, then there might be a tectonic shift in the power relations of the U.S. news media. There could be a breakdown of the established order.
This combination of factors led to the next phase of the Contra-cocaine battle: the "get-Gary-Webb" counterattack. Soon, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times were lining up like some tag-team wrestlers taking turns pummeling Webb and his story.
On Oct. 4, 1996, the Washington Post published a front-page article knocking down Webb's series, although acknowledging that some Contra operatives did help the cocaine cartels. The Post's approach fit with the Big Media's cognitive dissonance on the topic: first, the Post called the Contra-cocaine allegations old news -- "even CIA personnel testified to Congress they knew that those covert operations involved drug traffickers," the Post said -- and second, the Post minimized the importance of the one Contra smuggling channel that Webb had highlighted in his series, saying it had not "played a major role in the emergence of crack."
To add to the smug hoo-hah treatment that was enveloping Webb and his story, a Post published a sidebar story dismissing African-Americans as prone to "conspiracy fears."
Next, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times weighed in with lengthy articles castigating Webb and "Dark Alliance." The big newspapers made much of the CIA's internal reviews in 1987 and 1988 -- almost a decade earlier -- that supposedly had cleared the spy agency of any role in Contra-cocaine smuggling.
But the first ominous sign for the CIA's cover-up emerged on Oct. 24, 1996, when CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz conceded before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the first CIA probe had lasted only12 days, and the second only three days. He promised a more thorough review.
But Webb had already crossed over from being treated as a serious journalist to becoming a target of ridicule. Influential Washington Post media critic Howard 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 smirked.
Yet, Webb's suspicion was no conspiracy theory. Indeed, Oliver North's chief Contra emissary, Rob Owen, had made the same point in a March 17, 1986, message about the Contra 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.]
Ainsworth and other pro-Contra activists were reaching the same conclusion, that the Contra leadership was skimming money from the supply lines and padding their personal wealth with proceeds from the drug trade. According to a Jan. 21, 1987 interview report by the FBI, Ainsworth said he had "made inquiries in the local San Francisco Nicaraguan community and wondered among his acquaintances what Adolfo Calero and the other people in the FDN movement were doing and the word that he received back is that they were probably engaged in cocaine smuggling."
In other words, Webb was right about the suspicion that the Contra movement had become less a cause than a business to many of its participants. Even Oliver North's emissary reported that many Contra leaders treated the conflict as "a business." But accuracy had ceased to be relevant in the media's hazing of Gary Webb.
In another double standard, while Webb was held to the strictest standards of journalism, it was entirely all right for Kurtz -- the supposed arbiter of journalistic integrity who was a longtime fixture on CNN's "Reliable Sources" -- to make judgments based on ignorance. Kurtz would face no repercussions for mocking a fellow journalist who was factually correct.
The Big Three's assault -- combined with their disparaging tone -- had a predictable effect on the executives of the Mercury News. As it turned out, Webb's confidence in his editors had been misplaced. By early 1997, executive editor Jerry Ceppos, who had his own corporate career to worry about, was in retreat.
On May 11, 1997, Ceppos published a front-page column saying the series "fell short of my standards." He criticized the stories because they "strongly implied CIA knowledge" of Contra connections to U.S. drug dealers who were manufacturing crack cocaine. "We did not have enough proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship," Ceppos wrote.