Cross-posted from Common Dreams
It's been 18 years since Webb's "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News exploded across a new medium -- the Internet -- and definitively linked crack cocaine in Los Angeles and elsewhere to drug traffickers allied with the CIA's rightwing Contra army in Nicaragua. Webb's revelations sparked anger across the country, especially in black communities.
But the 1996 series (which was accompanied by unprecedented online documentation) also sparked one of the most ferocious media assaults ever on an individual reporter -- a less-than-honest backlash against Webb by elite newspapers that had long ignored or suppressed evidence of CIA/Contra/cocaine connections.
The assault by the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times drove Webb out of the newspaper business, and ultimately to his death.
Beginning this Friday, the ghost of Gary Webb will haunt his tormenters from movie screens across the country, with the opening of the dramatic film "Kill the Messenger" -- based partly on Webb's 1998 "Dark Alliance" book.
The movie dramatizes Webb's investigation of Contra-allied Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers Norwin Meneses and Danilo Blandon (whose drug activities were apparently protected for reasons of U.S. "national security") and their connection to L.A.'s biggest crack dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross.
The original "Dark Alliance" series was powerful in naming names, backed by court documents. Webb added specifics and personalities to the story of Contra drug trafficking first broken by Associated Press in 1985 (ignored by major newspapers) and then expanded in 1989 by John Kerry's Senate subcommittee report which found that Contra drug dealing was tolerated in the U.S. frenzy to overthrow Nicaragua's leftwing Sandinista government. Kerry's work was ignored or attacked in big media -- Newsweek labeled him a "randy conspiracy buff."
There were some flaws and overstatements in the Webb series, mostly in editing and presentation; a controversial graphic had a crack smoker embedded in the CIA seal. But in light of history -- and much smoke has cleared since 1996 -- Webb's series stands up far better as journalism than the hatchet jobs from the three establishment newspapers.
Don't take my word for it. A player in the backlash against Webb was Jesse Katz, one of 17 reporters assigned by L.A. Times editors to produce a three-day, 20,000 word takedown of "Dark Alliance." Last year, Katz referred to what his paper did as "kind of a tawdry exercise" which "ruined that reporter's career" -- explaining during a radio interview: "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 onto one lone muckraker up in Northern California."
Katz deserves credit for expressing regrets about the "overkill."
His role in the backlash was to minimize the importance of Ricky Ross, who received large shipments of cocaine from Contra-funder Blandon. In the wake of Webb's series, Katz described Ross as just one of many "interchangeable characters" in the crack deluge, "dwarfed" by other dealers.
But 20 months before Webb's series -- before the public knew of any Contra (or CIA) link to Ross' cocaine supply -- Katz had written quite the opposite in an L.A. Times profile of Ross: "If there was a criminal mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick." Katz's piece referred to Ross as "South-Central's first millionaire crack lord" and was headlined: "Deposed King of Crack."
One of the more absurd aspects of the backlash against Webb -- prominent in the Washington Post and elsewhere -- was criticism over his labeling of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), a Contra army supported by Blandon and Meneses, as "the CIA's army." As I wrote in an obituary when Webb died: "By all accounts, including those of Contra leaders, the CIA set up the group, selected its leaders and paid their salaries, and directed its day-to-day battlefield strategies." The CIA also supervised the FDN's day-to-day propaganda in U.S. media.
It was as much "the CIA's army" as the force that invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.