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Gary Webb (1955-2004) was an American journalist best known for his Dark Alliance series, in which he investigated the role of the Contras and the CIA in the crack cocaine explosion in American cities, especially Los Angeles, California in the 1980s.
What Webb did
Webb showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Nicaraguan death squads, the Contras, were using cocaine as a major source of funding, that their market included urban black communities in the United States, especially Los Angeles, and that the CIA, who supported the Contras, learned about it quickly after it began, allowed it to continue, and worked this fact into their strategy.
Webb interviewed many of the relevant players; he traveled to Nicaragua to speak with drug lord Norwin Meneses; he interviewed hotshot Los Angeles drug dealer "Freeway" Rick Ross; he interviewed Oscar Danilo Blandón.
He made the primary sources, including the CIA documents and audio interviews from which he pulled his articles' quotes, available for anyone to download online. Nonetheless, the press and the CIA took advantage of the fact that in the mid-1990s, a majority of Americans were not yet savvy users of the World Wide Web (however, enough urban black activists certainly turned out to be).
What Webb did not do
Webb did not break the story of America's crack coming from the Contras with the CIA's approval. That fact had already been available around the time it occurred. Webb's contribution was gathering and sharing the details and more evidence.
Webb never claimed to have any evidence that the CIA engineered the whole thing, only that they knew it was going on, approved of it, and even met with Contra leaders and funders to discuss it. But the media portrayed Webb as having basically said, "The CIA did it," and used this falsehood to discredit him and his exposures.
Webb's downfall as a journalist is mainly due to his making unsupported claims. If he had had evidence for all of his claims, it would not have made him vulnerable to being discredited. For example, the US Justice Department found that "the allegations contained in the original Mercury News articles were exaggerations of the actual facts," and that "the claims that Blandón and Meneses were responsible for introducing crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles and spreading the crack epidemic throughout the country were unsupported."
The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post did everything to discredit Webb and kill the story. Whether they were motivated by fixing sloppy journalism or by revenge at getting scooped could be open to interpretation.
Jeff Leen of The Washington Post has accused Gary Webb of excessive hyperbole in his summations ("nut graphs" in journalism-speak).
Responding to pressure and desirous to uphold his Newspaper's reputation of credibility, Webb's own editor at the San Jose Mercury News, Jerry Ceppos, penned an article attacking Webb's level of scrupulousness, while not entirely retracting his newspaper's reportage. For doing this, The Society of Professional Journalists gave Ceppos their Ethics in Journalism Award.
The Impact of Dark Alliance
The uproar from the black community in Los Angeles led to CIA director John M. Deutch meeting with black activists in that city in November 1996 and receiving a grilling from them, possibly paving the way for Deutch's resignation a month later.
On December 10, 2004, Gary Webb took his own life. That there were two bullet wounds in his head raised suspicions that his death might not have been a suicide. However, no evidence has yet been presented contradicting the coroner's findings. That hasn't stopped conspiracy theorists from insisting the CIA had him killed.
- The articles that made up Webb's original reportage on the subject
- Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion — Webb's 1998 book (Seven Stories Press, ISBN 1888363681)
- The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On — An essay by Webb about the press's response to his reportage (We're sorry the only online copy we could find is hosted at whale.to). The essay was extracted from the book Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, edited by Kristina Borjesson (2004, Prometheus Books, 2nd ed., ISBN 1591022304), so it's not that bad.
- Kill the Messenger — a surprisingly accurate 2014 film starring Jeremy Renner. It portrays how Webb assembled the story and depicts the media's tomfoolery and its impact on Webb's life. Webb's own son liked it.
- The CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy: A Review Of The Justice Department’s Investigations And Prosecutions (December, 1997) USDOJ/OIG Special Report
- Managing a Nightmare: CIA Public Affairs and the Drug Conspiracy Story CIA Reading Room. 2014/07/29 C01372115.
- Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what 'Kill the Messenger' says by Jeff Leen (October 17, 2014) The Washington Post.
- Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb by Nick Schou (2014) Nation Books, revised edition, ISBN 1568584717.
- The truth in 'Dark Alliance' by Nick Schou (August 18, 2006) Los Angeles Times.
- Paterno, Susan. "The Sad Saga of Gary Webb". American Journalism Review. June/July 2005.
- History vs. Hollywood's take on the matter
- Gary Webb's son on new movie "Kill the Messenger"