The Death of a Journalist

images (57)On December 10, 2004, a 49-year old man was found dead in his home in Sacramento, California. At first glance the scene bore all the hallmarks of a run-of the-mill suicide case — apart, that is, from one niggling little detail: the man had two gunshot wounds in the head. That didn’t stop the coroner, however, from swiftly pronouncing the cause of death as suicide. It was a verdict that would go universally unchallenged by the U.S. mainstream media, despite the fact that the man in question’s enemies included some of the nation’s most powerful people.

The name of the man who may — or may not have — killed himself was Gary Webb. Not so long ago he was one of the most talented and dedicated investigative journalists of his generation. But instead of receiving the recognition and acclaim his work deserved from the profession he loved, Webb was betrayed by a corporate press determined to undermine and bury each and every compromising state secret he uncovered.

This article is a modest testament to his courageous but largely forgotten sacrifice.

The Crack Pipe Line

Webb’s career-defining work began with investigations into the crack cocaine business blighting many of America’s impoverished inner-city communities in the 1980s. What he discovered was that much of the cocaine flooding the U.S. could be traced back to a U.S.-sponsored war in Nicaragua. 

Webb supported his story with documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They included a 450-page declassified version of an October 1988 report by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz. According to Webb and his supporters, the documents proved that White House officials, including former retired Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, had known about and supported the drug-trade, whose proceeds had been used to fund the CIA-sponsored Contras, an ultra-violent group of Nicaraguan right-wing paramilitaries and mercenaries.

In August 1996 the San Jose Mercury News published Webb’s findings in a 20,000 word, three-part investigative series titled “Dark Alliance”. In what was arguably a first, the report was also published on the then-fledgling Internet, attracting at its peak more than 1.3 million hits a day.

Shooting the Messenger

Yet rather than jumping on the investigative trail laid by Webb, the U.S. mainstream press decided to train their sights on the messenger. The big hired guns, from the New York Times to the  Washington Post and The L.A. Times, launched a massive, orchestrated character assassination campaign against Webb.

The intention was clear: to sow serious doubts in the public’s mind as to Webb’s credibility. What is somewhat less obvious is the motive. Why did so many influential publications and journalists turn so viciously on one of their own? Perhaps the government, the CIA or powerful behind-the-scenes movers and shakers were worried that such widespread public attention to Webb’s reports might resurrect the not-long-buried ghost of the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra affair, one of the most ignominious political scandals in recent U.S. history.

The scandal implicated senior figures in the Reagan administration, as well as shady elements of the country’s shadow government, in two clandestine and arguably treasonous actions: first, providing covert sales of arms to Iran — then the subject of a U.S. arms embargo — in return for the release of hostages of the Teheran Embassy hijacking; and then diverting the funds from the arms sales to  Nicaragua’s Contras. Both actions were taken over the head and behind the back of Congress.

Yet despite the gravity of the charges they faced, almost all of the figures suspected of involvement in the affair were granted immunity from prosecution or later pardoned by President George H Bush. And no doubt they would have been less than pleased to discover the Nicaraguan Contras once again splashed across the front pages.

Thrown Overboard

Whatever the reason for the media backlash against Webb, the consequences were devastating. Under prolonged concerted pressure from its much larger competitors, the San José Mercury News eventually folded, backtracking from Webb’s original story. It also took down the website featuring the Dark Alliance reports.

Webb himself was reassigned to a suburban bureau 150 miles from his home, a position he held briefly before resigning in 1997 due to the interminable commute.

In the subsequent years Webb would struggle to find any kind of meaningful employment as an investigative reporter. In short, one of the most talented, dedicated and outspoken journalists of his generation had effectively been silenced and sidelined by his own colleagues in the corporate press — despite the fact that many of his claims about cocaine smugglers, the Nicaraguan Contra movement and their ability to freely operate without the threat of law enforcement had already been substantiated by an internal CIA investigation.

Indeed, many of the revelations that came out in the wake of Webb’s Dark Alliance series revealed activities that went far beyond even what Webb had alleged. It was revealed, for instance, that not only did the CIA maintain relationships with companies and individuals that it knew were involved in the drug business, but that a memorandum of understanding had been signed between the CIA and Justice Department that effectively freed the CIA from legally reporting drug smuggling by its own assets, a provision that covered the Nicaraguan Contras and the Afghan rebels.

Yet the more that these revelations confirmed the thrust of Webb’s findings, the more he was shunned by the profession he loved. Indeed, an exasperated Webb would later allege that the backlash against him was a form of media manipulation. “The government side of the story is coming through the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post,” he asserted. “They use the giant corporate press rather than saying anything directly. If you work through friendly reporters on major newspapers, it comes off as the New York Times saying it and not a mouthpiece of the CIA.”

Unable to find steady, meaningful work as a journalist and struggling to keep up with mortgage payments on his family home, Webb became depressed and eventually committed suicide in 2004 — or at least so the official story goes. Because, let’s face it, you don’t need to be Sherlock, or for that matter Dr. Watson, to suspect the possibility of foul play in a suicide involving two bullet wounds to the head.

Denigration of Duty

As for the media’s role in Gary Webb’s tragic demise, it just confirms, once again, the lengths to which our bastardised fourth estate will go to make sure that certain compromising truths never make it out into the cold light of day. Rather than serving as a counterweight and protection against the entrenched interests of the rich and powerful, the media has been moulded by the corporatocracy into an essential form of social control. Its main functions are to sell things (including wars), to delude, distract and deceive (especially on economic matters) and to exercise effective damage control whenever compromising information leaks out.

As such, should a genuine journalist of the old school, such as Webb, Julian Assange or Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi, overstep the mark by offering the public real dirt on the machinations of our political and economic elite, the corporate media moves into action to counter the threat — not by addressing the allegations they raise, but by dragging their names through the dirt and destroying their professional reputations. It is a tactic that almost always works, since one person’s truth can always be drowned out by the unified voice of power and coercion.

As Malcolm X once said, before he himself was taken out of the picture, the Media is “the most powerful entity on Earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power – because they control the minds of the masses.”

The good news is that in today’s world there is one way for us, the masses, to defend ourselves against the mainstream media’s malign influence. And that is to stop watching, listening or reading what it has to say or write; to turn off the television and radio (or even better, give them away or destroy them), and to look for the truth elsewhere — for in this new age of the Internet it is finally out there for all to seek.

Rest in Peace Gary Webb, and thank you for reminding us all of the true essence of journalism.

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