Kill the Messenger

The tragic unraveling of one of Americas most talented yet enigmatic investigative journalists.


Such a portrait offers only a misleading caricature of a much more complicated man. Interviews with dozens of Webb's friends, family members and colleagues reveal that Webb was an idealistic, passionate and meticulous journalist, not a cowboy. Those who knew him before "Dark Alliance" made him famous and then infamous say he was happy until he lost his career. His colleagues, with the exception of some reporters and editors at the Mercury Newswho found him arrogant and self-promoting, almost universally loved, respected and even revered him.

The controversy over "Dark Alliance" was the central event in Webb's life, and the critical element in his eventual depression and suicide. His big story, despite major flaws of hyperbole abetted and even encouraged by his editors, remains one of the most important works of investigative journalism in recent American history. The connection Webb uncovered between the CIA, the Contras and LA's crack trade was real—and radioactive. Webb was hardly the first American journalist to lose his job after taking on the country's most secretive government agency in print. Every serious reporter or politician who had tried to unravel the connection between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and cocaine had lived to regret it.

Gary Webb at home in Carmichael, 1998, a few months after leaving journalism. Photo courtesy Sue Bell
Gary Webb at home in Carmichael, 1998, a few months after leaving journalism. Photo courtesy Sue Bell
Webb at the Kentucky Post, early 1980s. Photo courtesy Sue Bell
Webb at the Kentucky Post, early 1980s. Photo courtesy Sue Bell
Gary (left) with father Bill and brother Kurt, circa 1970. Photo courtesy Sue Bell
Gary (left) with father Bill and brother Kurt, circa 1970. Photo courtesy Sue Bell

Senator John Kerry investigated it through congressional hearings that were stonewalled by the Reagan administration, and for this, he was alternately ridiculed and ignored in the media. Journalists like the AP's Bob Parry quit their jobs after being repeatedly shut down by their editors. Some reporters, working on the ground in Central America, had even been subjected to police harassment and death threats for pursuing the story. Webb was simply the most widely and maliciously maligned of these reporters to literally die for the story.

The recent history of American journalism is full of media scandals, from the fabulist fabrications of The New Republic's Stephen Glass and TheNew York Times' Jayson Blair to Judith Miller's credulous and entirely discredited reporting on Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction for TheNew York Times, which helped pave the way for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Webb, despite his stubborn refusal to admit his own errors, hardly deserves to be held in such company. What truly distinguishes his fate is how he was abandoned by his employer in the face of unprecedented and ferocious attacks by the nation's major newspapers, the likes of which had never been seen before or occurred since.

The controversy over "Dark Alliance" forced Webb from journalism and ultimately led him to take his own life. Besides Webb, however, nobody else lost a job over the story—nobody at the CIA, certainly, and not even any of Webb's editors, who happily published his work only to back away from it under withering media attacks before getting on with their lives and receiving promotions. Gary Webb's tragic fate, and the role of America's most powerful newspapers in ending his career, raises an important question about American journalism in an era where much of the public perceives the fourth estate as an industry in decline, a feckless broadcaster of White House leaks with a penchant for sensationalized, consumer-driven tabloid sex scandals.

Webb spent two decades uncovering corruption at all levels of power, at the hands of public officials representing all ideological facets of the political spectrum. Indeed, his very fearlessness in taking on powerful institutions and officials was an ultimately fatal character trait that nonetheless embodies the very sort of journalistic ethic that should be rewarded and celebrated in any healthy democratic society. In 2002, Webb reflected on his fall from grace in the book Into the Buzzsaw, a compendium of first-person accounts by journalists whose controversial stories ultimately pushed them from their chosen profession. His words are worth remembering now more than ever.

"If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me," Webb concluded. "And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job . . . The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."

 Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou; Nation Books. Softcover, 234 pages, $14.95.

 
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