December 15, 2004 - San Diego City Beat (CA)
Editorial: Remembering Gary Webb
When we learned that investigative reporter Gary Webb had died from an apparent suicide last Friday, we considered writing an editorial praising his courageous journalism. Webb's defining work was a 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News that detailed how Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s were selling large amounts of crack cocaine in poor African-American communities in Los Angeles to finance their war against the Sandinista government.
The series also connected the Contra-cocaine scheme to Ronald Reagan's CIA. We came across a piece written about Webb by Jeff Cohen (www.jeffcohen.org), founder of the media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (www.fair.org). Since we can't say it any better than Cohen, we asked him for permission to publish his tribute to Webb, and he graciously gave it.
by Jeff Cohen
Gary Webb, a courageous investigative journalist who was the target of one of the most ferocious media attacks on any reporter in recent history, was found dead Friday after an apparent suicide.
In August 1996, Webb wrote one of the first pieces of journalism that reached a massive audience thanks to the Internet: an explosive 20,000-word, three-part series documenting links between cocaine traffickers, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the CIA-organized right-wing Nicaraguan Contra army of that era.
The series sparked major interest in the social justice and African-American communities, leading to street protests and demands by Congressional Black Caucus members for a federal investigation. But Webb suffered a furious backlash at the hands of national media unaccustomed to seeing their role as gatekeepers diminished by the emerging medium known as the World Wide Web.
Webb's San Jose Mercury News series documented that funders of the Contras included drug traffickers who played a role in the crack epidemic that hit Los Angeles and other cities. Webb's series focused heavily on Oscar Danilo Blandon, a cocaine importer and federal informant, who once testified in federal court that "whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution." Blandon further testified that Colonel Enrique Bermudez, a CIA asset who led the Contra army against Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista government, knew the funds were from drug running. (Bermudez was a colonel during the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.)
Webb reported that U.S. law enforcement agents complained that the CIA had squelched drug probes of Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses in the name of "national security." Blandon's drugs flowed into L.A. and elsewhere thanks to the legendary "Freeway" Ricky Donnell Ross, a supplier of crack to L.A. street gangs.
While Webb's series could be faulted for some overstatement in presenting its powerful new evidence, the fresh documentation mightily moved forward the CIA-Contra-cocaine story that national media had been trying to bury for years. Any exaggeration in the presentation was dwarfed by a mendacious, triple-barreled attack on Webb that came from The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.
The Post and others criticized Webb for referring to the Contras of the so-called Nicaraguan Democratic Force as "the CIA's army"--an absurd objection since, by all accounts, the CIA set up the group, selected its leaders and paid their salaries and directed its day-to-day battlefield strategies.
The Post devoted much ink to exposing what Webb readily acknowledged--that while he could document Contra links to cocaine importing, he was not able to identify specific CIA officials who knew of the drug flow. The ferocity of the attack on Webb led the Post's ombudsman to note that the three newspapers "showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws" in the Webb series than for probing the important issue he had raised: U.S. government relations with drug smuggling.
The L.A. Times' anti-Webb package was curious for its handling of Freeway Ricky Ross, the dealer Webb had authoritatively linked to Contra-funder Blandon. Two years before Webb's revelations, the Times had reported: "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." In a profile of Ross headlined "Deposed King of Crack," the Times went on and on about "South-Central's first millionaire crack lord" and how Ross' "coast to coast conglomerate was selling more than $550,000 [in] rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars."
But two months after Webb's series linked Ricky Ross to Contra cocaine, the L.A. Times told a totally different story, now seeking to minimize Ross' role in the crack epidemic: Ross was just one of many "interchangeable characters"--"dwarfed" by other dealers.
The reporter who'd written the 1994 Ross profile was the one called on to write the front-page 1996 critique of Webb; media critic Norman Solomon noted that it "reads like a show-trial recantation."
The hyperbolic reaction against Webb's series can only be understood in the context of years of bias and animosity toward the Contra-cocaine story on the part of many national media. Bob Parry and Brian Barger first reported on Contra-cocaine smuggling for AP in 1985, at a time when President Reagan was hailing the Contras as "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." The story got little pickup.
In 1987 the House Narcotics Committee chaired by Charles Rangel probed Contra-drug allegations and found a need for further investigation. After the Washington Post distorted the facts with a headline "Hill Panel Finds No Evidence Linking Contras to Drug Smuggling," the paper refused to run Rangel's letter correcting the record.
That same year, Time Magazine correspondent Laurence Zuckerman and a colleague found serious evidence of Contra links to cocaine trafficking, but their story was blocked from publication by top editors. A senior editor admitted privately to Zuckerman: "Time is institutionally behind the Contras. If this story were about the Sandinistas and drugs, you'd have no trouble getting it in the magazine." (The N.Y Times and Washington Post both endorsed aid to the Contra army, despite massive documentation that they targeted civilians for violence and terror.)
In 1989, when Sen. John Kerry released a report condemning U.S. government complicity with Contra-connected drug traffickers, the Washington Post ran a brief report loaded with GOP criticisms of Kerry, while Newsweek dubbed Kerry a "randy conspiracy buff."
In this weekend's mainstream media reports on Gary Webb's death, it's no surprise that a key point has been overlooked -- that the CIA's internal investigation sparked by the Webb series and resulting furor contained startling admissions. CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz reported in October 1998 that the CIA indeed had knowledge of the allegations linking many Contras and Contra associates to cocaine trafficking, that Contra leaders were arranging drug connections from the beginning and that a CIA informant told the agency about the activity.
When Webb stumbled onto the Contra-cocaine story, he couldn't have imagined the fury with which big-foot reporters from national dailies would come at him -- a barrage that ultimately drove him out of mainstream journalism. But he fought back with courage and dignity, writing a book (Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion) with his side of the story and insisting that facts matter more than established power or ideology. He deserves to be remembered in the proud tradition of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, George Seldes and I.F. Stone.
In this era of "embedded reporters," an unembedded journalist like Gary Webb will be sorely missed.
December 13th, 2004 - Democracy Now! (US Web)
Investigative Reporter Gary Webb, Who Linked CIA to Crack Sales, Found Dead of Apparent Suicide
Gary Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who wrote a series of stories linking the CIA to crack cocaine trafficking in Los Angeles, is dead at age 49.
Webb was found Friday morning at his home in Sacramento County, dead of an apparent suicide. Moving-company workers called authorities after discovering a note posted on his front door that read, "Please do not enter. Call 911 and ask for an ambulance." Webb died of a gunshot wound to the head, according to the Sacramento County coroner's office. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Gary Webb's 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News titled "Dark Alliance" revealed that for the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs and funneled millions in drug profits to the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras.
It provoked a fierce reaction from the media establishment, which denounced the series. Following the controversy, San Jose Mercury News executive editor demoted Webb within the paper. He resigned and pushed his investigation even further in his book "Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion."
Robert Parry, veteran investigative journalist and author
of the new book "Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush
Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq." For years he worked as
an investigative reporter for both the Associated Press and Newsweek
magazine. His reporting led to the exposure of what is now known
as the "Iran-Contra" scandal.
Past Democracy Now Coverage:
AMY GOODMAN: we're joined on the telephone now by Bob Parry, veteran investigative journalist, wrote for AP and Newsweek. His reporting led to the exposure of what's now called the Iran-Contra scandal. His latest book is called Secrecy and Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty to Watergate and Iraq. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ROBERT PARRY: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: I heard it from you this weekend that Gary Webb had died of an apparent suicide. Can you talk about Gary?
ROBERT PARRY: Well, I received a call Saturday from the Los Angeles Times asking if I could comment about Webb's death. I went on and explained that the Country owes a huge debt to Gary Webb. What he did was revive a story that some of us at AP and then later Senator John Kerry looked into in the mid-1980s of how the Reagan-Bush Administration had financed the contra war in part by allowing the Contras engage in cocaine trafficking. The evidence even in the mid 1980s was quite strong.
Kerry did a fairly good investigation that was published in a report in 1989, but throughout this, the Washington Press Corps, the Washington Times, L.A. Times denigrated the story. The Reagan-Bush stories denied them by and large and that's where the story was left. Kerry was ridiculed for being a conspiracy theorist for following the leads. It was Gary Webb who revived that investigation in 1996 with his series in the San Jose Mercury News, and again, he was assaulted by these same news elements, the New York Times, the Washington Post, L.A. Times, and what he did was he provoked an internal investigation at justice, at the CIA, and those investigations while they -- the press releases tended to be protective of the agencies, the information contained in the long reports was devastating.
Essentially, the CIA admitted that it was involved with the Contras, who were actively participating in cocaine trafficking. The CIA Inspector General said more than 50 Contras and Contra units were implicated in the cocaine trade, that the CIA knew about it in real time, that it hid the evidence, that it obstructed justice. All of these things were admitted by the CIA itself, by 1998, in response to Webb's series. The great tragedy, I suppose, of the personal tragedy and professional, is that despite these admissions, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the L.A. Times still refused to deal with the facts. It seemed almost like the editors had more of a stake in covering up the truth than the CIA did.
So, Gary Webb's career was allowed to be ruined. The people who were involved in these -- in protecting the CIA from those major papers, their careers blossomed. Jerry Seapost, the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, who sold out Webb and his series received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for ethics because of what he did. So, it seemed like all of the people that did the wrong thing got the benefits, and Gary Webb and people who -- including John Kerry, who did honorable work on this topic, received no benefits at all, and in fact were damaged.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Parry, I wanted to play a clip of an interview that we did with Gary Webb on May 20, 1998. It was just after his book, Dark Alliance, was published. He talked about the media reaction to his investigation in the San Jose Mercury News. This is Gary Webb, 1998:
AMY GOODMAN: Gary Webb, in 1998, May 20, an interview we did when his book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, first came out. This is Democracy Now! We'll get a final comment from investigative reporter, Bob Parry, as you listen to Gary Webb, your thoughts, Bob?
ROBERT PARRY: Well, I think it's quite sad that that voice has been silenced. It was tragic and sad that the mainstream press reacted as it did. As I said to the LA Times Saturday when they asked for my comments, which they did not publish, by the way, I said, you're going to have a hard time dealing with this story, because the LA Times never even reported on the publication of the second volume of the CIA's report. It was that second volume that went through in great detail, really corroborating not just what Gary Webb had reported, but allegations and evidence that's far, far worse than what was in the San Jose Mercury News series. The far darker scandal that went far higher up than anyone thought. The CIA evidence tracks the Contra cocaine problem into the White House, Ronald Reagan's White House. It tracks it into the CIA directly. That's what the evidence is. I'm putting up a story today on consortiumnews.com that will recount some of the evidence that's lost to history. It's just tragic that the LA Times and other major publications cannot face the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you for being with us. People can check the story out at consortiumnews.com. You can go to our website at democracynow.org where we will compile all of Gary Webb's interviews. Gary Webb, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, dead of an apparent suicide.
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