It's been six years since I received the shocking news that journalist Gary Webb had committed suicide with his father's pistol.
In the days after his Dec. 9, 2004, death, I was told that he had succumbed to a deep depression brought on by being blacklisted from his profession for a courageous series that he had written about the real-life consequences of a U.S. foreign policy that put Cold War priorities ahead of protecting Americans from the international drug trade.
Instead of rallying to his side when his series appeared in 1996, prominent news organizations including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had chosen to protect the legacy of Ronald Reagan and to cover up for their own failures in the 1980s to investigate the cocaine trafficking by Reagan's beloved Nicaraguan contra rebels.
But the ostracism of Gary Webb was part of a larger back story. It was a prelude to the massive journalism failures of the past decade when many of the same newspapers joined the stampede for George W. Bush's wars, instead of showing professionalism and skepticism.
It was easier for careerist journalists to go along with Bush's WMD deceptions in 2002-2003 as it was for them to detect supposed flaws in Webb's reporting in 1996 rather than confront the grim reality that "respectable" government officials had protected drug criminals preying on Americans during the "just-say-no" Reagan administration.
Given this painful significance of Webb's death, I have revisited the topic every year since 2004, in part to challenge the executives of these major newspapers to face up to their failures and admit that they not only mistreated Webb but that they let down their readers and their profession.
A Phone Call
For me, the tragic story of Gary Webb began in 1996 when he was working on his "Dark Alliance" series for the San Jose Mercury News. He called me at my home in Arlington, Virginia, because, in 1985, I and my Associated Press colleague Brian Barger had been the first journalists to reveal the scandal of Reagan's Nicaraguan Contras, who were funding themselves in part by collaborating with drug traffickers.
Webb explained that he had come across evidence that one Contra-connected drug conduit had funneled cocaine into Los Angeles, where it helped fuel the early crack epidemic. Unlike our AP stories a decade earlier -- which focused on the Contras helping to ship cocaine from Central America into the United States -- Webb said his series would examine what happened to the Contra cocaine after it reached the streets of LA and other cities.
Besides asking about my recollections of the Contras and their cocaine smuggling, Webb wanted to know why the scandal never gained any real traction in the U.S. national news media. I explained that the ugly facts of the drug trafficking ran up against a determined U.S government campaign to protect the Contras' image.
In the face of that resistance, the major publications -- the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post -- had chosen to attack the revelations and those behind them rather than to dig out more evidence.
Webb sounded confused by my account, as if I were telling him something that was foreign to his personal experience, something that just didn't compute. I had a sense of his unstated questions: Why would the prestige newspapers of American journalism behave that way? Why wouldn't they jump all over a story that important and that sexy, about the CIA working with drug traffickers?
I got the impression that he might be judging me to be either a timid journalist who had gotten scared off of a tough story or maybe a conspiracy buff who shared the belief that top news executives collude to control what Americans get to see and read.
I took a deep breath, sensing that he had no idea of the personal danger he was about to confront. Well, he would have to learn that for himself, I thought. It surely wasn't my place to warn a journalist away from a significant story just because it carried risks.
So, I simply asked Webb if he had the strong support of his editors. He assured me that he did. I said their backing would be crucial once his story was out. He sounded perplexed, again, as if he didn't know what to make of my cautionary tone. I wished him the best of luck, thinking that he would need it.
The Safe Route