“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.”–Gary Webb
A college dropout with twenty years of reporting experience and a Pulitzer Prize on his resume, Gary Webb broke the biggest story of his career in August 1996, when he published “Dark Alliance,” a three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News that linked the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to America’s crack-cocaine explosion via the Nicaraguan contras, a right-wing army that aimed to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government during the 1980s. Many reporters had written about the CIA’s collusion with contra drug smugglers, but nobody had ever discovered where those drugs ended up once they reached American soil. “Dark Alliance” provided the first dramatic answer to that mystery.
But in the months following its publication, the story was subjected to ferocious attacks by the nation’s biggest newspapers, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. Soon Webb found himself out of a job. After being assigned to a tiny regional bureau, Webb quit the paper and never worked in daily journalism again. On December 10, 2004, Webb committed suicide.
The attacks continued even after Webb’s death. The Los Angeles Times stooped unforgivably low by publishing an obituary that ran in newspapers across the country, which described his life as the author of “discredited” stories about the CIA. The paper even went further, following up his obituary with a lengthy feature story stating that Webb had suffered from clinical depression for more than a decade, even before he wrote “Dark Alliance.” Titled “Written in Pain,” it painted Webb as a troubled, manic-depressive man who had repeatedly cheated on his wife and a was reckless “cowboy” of a journalist.
Such a portrait offered a misleading caricature of a much more complicated man. Interviews with dozens of Webb’s friends, family members and colleagues revealed that Webb was an idealistic, passionate and meticulous journalist. Those who knew him before “Dark Alliance” made him famous and then infamous say he was happy until he lost his career. His colleagues 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 that were 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 L.A.’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 has attempted to unravel the connection between the CIA, the Nicaraguan contras and cocaine, has lived to regret it.