A new film, Kill the Messenger, tells the story of Gary Webb, who as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News in the mid-1990s wrote a widely read series on the CIA’s relationships with Los Angeles crack dealers and the Nicaraguan Contras. Webb’s investigation earned him the wrath of the US government and its mainstream media abetters, who sicced vengeful journalists on Webb’s trail—devoting far greater resources to poking holes in Webb’s story than they ever had or have since to investigating the actual thrust of his claims. As The Nation’s Greg Grandin writes, “Webb was open to attack because the Los Angeles Times alone assigned seventeen reporters to leverage the inherent mysteries of the national security state to cast doubt on Webb.” Hounded out of journalism and into a deep depression, Webb committed suicide in December 2004. The following month, Alexander Cockburn—co-author, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (1999), partially about Webb—published this column:
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Few spectacles in journalism in the mid-1990s were more disgusting than the slagging of Gary Webb in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Squadrons of hacks, some of them with careerlong ties to the CIA, sprayed thousands of words of vitriol over Webb and his paper, the San Jose Mercury News, for besmirching the agency’s fine name by charging it, in his 1996 “Dark Alliance” series, with complicity in the importing of cocaine into the United States.
There are certain things you aren’t supposed to mention in public in America. The systematic state-sponsorship of torture by the United States used to be a major no-no, but that went by the board this year (even though Seymour Hersh treated the CIA with undue kindness in The Road to Abu Ghraib). A prime no-no is that the US government has used assassination down the years as an instrument of national policy; also that the CIA’s complicity with drug-dealing criminal gangs stretches from the Afghanistan of today back to the year the agency was founded, in 1947. That last one is the line Webb stepped over. He paid for his presumption by undergoing one of the unfairest batterings in the history of the US press. His own paper turned on him.
Friday, December 10, Webb died in his Sacramento apartment from what seems to have been a self-inflicted gunshot blast to the head. The notices of his passing in many newspapers were as nasty as ever. The Los Angeles Times took care to note that even after the “Dark Alliance” uproar Webb’s career had been “troubled,” offering as evidence the following: “While working for another legislative committee in Sacramento, Webb wrote a report accusing the California Highway Patrol of unofficially condoning and even encouraging racial profiling in its drug interdiction program.” The effrontery of the man! “Legislative officials released the report in 1999,” the story piously continued, “but cautioned that it was based mainly on assumptions and anecdotes,” no doubt meaning that Webb didn’t have dozens of CHP officers stating under oath, on the record, that they were picking on blacks and Hispanics. There were similar fountains of outrage in 1996 that the CIA hadn’t been given enough space in Webb’s series to solemnly swear that never a gram of cocaine had passed under its nose but that it had been seized and turned over to the DEA or US Customs.