In our interactions during these joint appearances, I found Webb to be a regular guy who seemed to be holding up fairly well under the terrible pressure. He had landed an investigative job with a California state legislative committee. He also felt some measure of vindication when CIA Inspector General Hitz's reports came out.
However, Webb never could overcome the pain caused by his betrayal at the hands of his journalistic colleagues, his peers. In the years that followed, Webb was unable to find decent-paying work in his profession -- the conventional wisdom remained that he had somehow been exposed as a journalistic fraud. His state job ended; his marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay bills; and he was faced with a forced move-out of a just-sold house near Sacramento, California, and in with his mother.
On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation; and 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.
I told the reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the Los Angeles Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had not published a single word on the contents of Hitz's final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.
To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The Los Angeles Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb or the CIA's admissions in 1998. The obituary -- more fitting for a deceased mob boss than a fellow journalist -- was republished in other newspapers, including the Washington Post.
In effect, Webb's suicide enabled senior editors at the Big Three newspapers to breathe a little easier -- one of the few people who understood the ugly story of the Reagan administration's cover-up of the Contra-cocaine scandal and the U.S. media's complicity was now silenced.
To this day, none of the journalists or media critics who participated in the destruction of Gary Webb has paid a price for their actions. None has faced the sort of humiliation that Webb had to endure. None had to experience that special pain of standing up for what is best in the profession of journalism -- taking on a difficult story that seeks to hold powerful people accountable for serious crimes -- and then being vilified by your own colleagues, the people that you expected to understand and appreciate what you had done.
In May 2013, one of the Los Angeles Times reporters who had joined in the orchestrated destruction of Webb's career acknowledged that the newspaper's assault was a "tawdry exercise" amounting to "overkill," which later contributed to Webb's suicide. This limited apology by former Los Angeles Times reporter Jesse Katz was made during a radio interview and came as filming was about to start on "Kill the Messenger," based on a book by the same name by Nick Schou.
On KPCC-FM 89.3's AirTalk With Larry Mantle, Katz was pressed by callers to address his role in the destruction of Webb. Katz offered what could be viewed as a limited apology.
"As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder[ed] how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope," Katz said. "And we did it in a way that 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 on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California."
Katz added, "We really didn't do anything to advance his work or illuminate much to the story, and it was a really kind of a tawdry exercise. ... And it ruined that reporter's career."
Now, with the imminent release of a major Hollywood movie about Webb's ordeal, the next question is whether the major newspapers will finally admit their longstanding complicity in the Contra-cocaine cover-up or whether they will simply join the CIA's press office in another counterattack.
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