Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says
By Jeff Leen, Washington Post
October 17 at 11:55 AM
Jeff Leen is The Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations.
An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. That old dictum ought to hang on the walls of every journalism school in America. It is the salient lesson of the Gary Webb affair. It might have saved his journalism career, though it would have precluded his canonization in the new film “Kill the Messenger.”
Webb was a real person who wrote a real story, a three-part series called “Dark Alliance,” in August 1996 for the San Jose Mercury News, one of the flagship newspapers of the then-mighty Knight Ridder chain. Webb’s story made the extraordinary claim that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America. What he lacked was the extraordinary proof. But at first, the claim was enough. Webb’s story became notable as the first major journalism cause celebre on the newly emerging Internet. The black community roiled in anger at the supposed CIA perfidy.
Then it all began to come apart. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, in a rare show of unanimity, all wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.
Gradually, the Mercury News backed away from Webb’s scoop. The paper transferred him to its Cupertino bureau and did an internal review of his facts and his methods. Jerry Ceppos, the Mercury News’s executive editor, wrote a piece concluding that the story did not meet the newspaper’s standards – a courageous stance, I thought. “We oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew,” Ceppos wrote. “Through imprecise language and graphics, we created impressions that were open to misinterpretation.”
Webb resigned and wrote a book defending his reporting. The mainstream press, now known as the legacy media, which had vilified him and which he had vilified in turn, never employed him again. He worked as an investigator for a legislative committee in California and finally for an alternative weekly in Sacramento. He had money troubles and other problems, and ended up taking his own life at 49 in December 2004.
Webb’s supporters point to a 1998 report by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz as vindication, because it uncovered an agency mind-set of indifference to drug-smuggling allegations. Actually, it is more like the Kerry committee’s report on steroids: “We have found no evidence in the course of this lengthy investigation of any conspiracy by CIA or its employees to bring drugs into the United States,” Hitz said. “. . . There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.”
Webb could draw a Pyrrhic victory from Hitz’s report. His work and the controversy it engendered forced the CIA to undertake one of the most extensive internal investigations in its history. Jack Blum, the special counsel who led the investigation for the Kerry committee, said after Webb’s death that even though Webb got many of the details “completely wrong,” he had at least succeeded in focusing attention on the issue.
(T)he simple story will get told and retold that the mainstream press and his management betrayed him, threw him under the bus. Many people will believe it. Hollywood was making movies about U.S. government cocaine trafficking as early as 1988. Go ahead and rent “The Last of the Finest” or “Above the Law,” if you can find them on Netflix. In the age of waterboarding and Edward Snowden, widespread CIA cocaine trafficking seems not only plausible but downright antiquated.
There is no “Deep State”. It’s all just a conspiracy theory. And publishing conspriracy theories diminishes your “journalistic credibility”.
Hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah, hah.
Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.