Reprinted from Consortium News
Gary Webb's 'Dark Alliance' series turned the rest of the media against him.
(Image by Noel Neuburger) Permission Details DMCA
Looking back over my four decades in the national news media, it's hard to identify one moment when American journalism died. The process was a slow and ugly one, with incremental acts of cowardice accumulating until mainstream reporters were clearly part of the problem, not anything to do with a solution. But the date Dec. 9 has a special place in that sad progression.
It was on Dec. 9, 2004, when the mean-spirited mainstream media's treatment of investigative journalist Gary Webb led him -- his career devastated, his family broken, his money gone and his life seemingly hopeless -- to commit suicide. It was a moment that should have shamed all the big-shot journalists who had a hand in Webb's destruction, but it mostly didn't.
Webb's offense was to have revived the shocking story of the Reagan administration's tolerance of cocaine smuggling by the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s. Though the scandal was real -- and had been partly exposed in real time -- the major newspapers had locked arms in defense of President Ronald Reagan and the CIA. The sordid scandal apparently was deemed "not good for the country," so it was buried.
My Associated Press colleague, Brian Barger, and I had written the first story exposing the Contras' involvement in cocaine smuggling in 1985, but our story was attacked by Reagan's skillful propaganda team, which got The New York Times and other major news outlets to buy into the denials.
Later that decade, a gutsy investigation by then-Sen. John Kerry filled in some of the gaps showing how the Reagan administration's collaboration with drug-tainted airlines and other parts of the Contras' cocaine smuggling apparatus had functioned. But Kerry's probe was also mocked by the major media. Sniffing out that conventional wisdom, Newsweek deemed Kerry "a randy conspiracy buff."
Kerry's brush with this near-political-death-experience over the Contra-cocaine scandal taught him some hard lessons about survival in Washington, which help explain why he was such a disappointing candidate during Election 2004 and why he has shown such timidity in challenging Official Washington's "group thinks" as Secretary of State.
For both U.S. journalists and politicians, there was no upside to doing the hard work of exposing this kind of crime of state. [See Consortiumnews.com's "What's the Matter with John Kerry."]
In 1996, Gary Webb encountered the same stonewall when he stumbled onto evidence showing that some of the Contra cocaine, after being smuggled into the United States, had flowed into the production of "crack" cocaine in Los Angeles and contributed to the "crack epidemic" of the 1980s.
When he published his findings in a series for the San Jose Mercury News, the major newspapers had a choice: either admit that they had slinked away from one of the biggest scandals of the 1980s or redouble their efforts to discredit the story and to destroy anyone who dared touch it. They went with option two.
In a tag-team pummeling of Gary Webb, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times all denounced Webb and decried his reporting. Soon, Webb's editors at the Mercury News were feeling the heat and rather than back their reporter, they sought to salvage their own careers. They sold Webb out -- and he was soon out of a job and unemployable in the mainstream media.
The bitter irony was that Webb's reporting finally forced a relatively thorough and honest investigation by the CIA's Inspector General Frederick Hitz, who concluded in 1998 that not only were the Contras involved in the drug trade from their start in 1980 and through the entire decade but that CIA officers were aware of the problem and helped cover it up, putting the goal of ousting Nicaragua's Sandinista government ahead of blowing the whistle on these corrupt CIA clients.
Yet, even the CIA's confession wasn't enough to shame the major newspapers into admitting the truth and acknowledging their own culpability in the long-running cover-up. It remained easier to continue the demonization of Gary Webb.
At Consortiumnews, we were one of the few news outlets that examined the extraordinary admissions contained in the CIA's two-volume report and in a corresponding Justice Department Inspector General's report, which added more details about how criminal investigations of the Contras were thwarted. But, sadly, we lacked the reach and the clout of the major newspapers.
As the controversy bubbled in 1996, I also had joined with Webb in several speaking engagements on the West Coast. Though we sometimes spoke to large and enthusiastic crowds, the power of the Big Media overwhelmed everything, especially the truth. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Sordid Contra-Cocaine Saga."]