Kill the Messenger

The tragic death of one of America's most important investigative journalists

Senator John Kerry investigated it through congressional hearings that were stonewalled by the Reagan administration and for this, he was alternatively 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 it. 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 the New York Times's Jayson Blair to Judith Miller's credulous and entirely discredited reporting on Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction for the New 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 his how he was abandoned by his own 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.

Gary Webb, photographed in his home in Carmichael, CA, in 1998
Brad Wilson
Gary Webb, photographed in his home in Carmichael, CA, in 1998

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."

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