Kill the Messenger
Editor's Note: 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—the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times—and 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.
Nick Schou's new book, Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Gary Webb, examines the tragic unraveling of one of America's most talented yet enigmatic investigative journalists. The following excerpt is being printed with the permission of Nation Books. All rights are reserved.
After days of unrelenting winter rain from a powerful Pacific Storm, the clouds moved east and the skies cleared above the Sacramento valley. The snowcapped peaks of the western range of the Sierra Nevada glowed pink in the glinting early morning sun. On days like this, Gary Webb normally would have taken the day off to ride his motorcycle into the mountains.
Although it was a Friday morning, Webb didn't need to call in sick. In fact, he hadn't been to work in weeks. When his ex-wife garnished his wages seeking child support for their three kids, Webb asked for an indefinite leave from the small weekly alternative paper in Sacramento where he had been working the past four months. He told his boss he could no longer afford the $2,000 mortgage on his house in Carmichael, a suburb 20 miles east of the state capital.
There was no time for riding. Today, December 10, 2004, Webb was going to move in with his mother. It wasn't his first choice. First, he asked his ex-girlfriend if he could share her apartment. The two had dated for several months, and continued to live together until their lease expired a year earlier, when Webb had bought his new house. They had remained friends, and at first she had said yes, but she changed her mind at the last minute, not wanting to lead him on in the hope that they'd rekindle a romance. Desperate, Webb asked his ex-wife, Sue, if he could live with her until he regained his financial footing. She refused.
"I don't feel comfortable with that," she said.
Sue recalls that her ex-husband's words seemed painfully drawn out.
"I don't know if I can do that," she said. "Your mother will let you move in. You don't have any other choice."
Besides losing his house, Webb had also lost his motorcycle. The day before he was to move, it had broken down as he was riding to his mother's house in a nearby retirement community. After spotting Webb pushing the bike off the road, a helpful young man with a goatee and a spider-web tattoo on his elbow had given him a lift home. Webb arranged to get a pickup truck, but when he went back to retrieve his bike, it had disappeared.
That night, Webb spent hours at his mother's house. At her urging he typed up a description of the suspected thief. But Webb didn't see much point in filing a police report. He doubted he'd ever see his bike again. He had been depressed for months, but the loss of his bike seemed to push him over the edge. He told his mother he had no idea how he was going to ever make enough money to pay child support and pay rent or buy a new home.
Although he had a paying job in journalism, Webb knew that only a reporting gig with a major newspaper would give him the paycheck he needed to stay out of debt. But after sending out 50 resumes to daily newspapers around the country, nobody had called for an interview. His current job couldn't pay the bills, and the thought of moving in with his mother at age 49, was more than his pride would allow. "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" he asked. "All I want to do is write."
It was 8 p.m. by the time Webb left his mother's house. She offered to cook him a dinner of bacon and eggs, but Webb declined, saying he had to go home. There were other things he had to do. She kissed him goodbye and told him to come back the next day with a smile on his face. "Things will be better," she said. "You don't have to pay anything to stay here. You'll get back on your feet."
The next morning, Anita Webb called her son to remind him to file a police report for the stolen bike. His phone rang and rang. She didn't bother leaving a message, figuring the movers already had arrived. They had. It's possible they heard the phone ringing. As they approached his house, they noticed a note stuck to his front door.
"Please do not enter," it warned. "Call 911 for an ambulance. Thank you."
When her son failed answer the phone for more than an hour, Anita Webb began to panic. Finally, she let the answering machine pick up. "Gary, make sure you file a police report," she said. Before she could finish, the machine beeped and an unfamiliar voice began to speak: "Are you calling about the man who lives here?"
It is normally the policy of the Sacramento County Coroner's office not to answer the telephone at the scene of a death, but apparently the phrase "police report" startled the coroner into breaking that rule. At some point early that morning, Gary Webb had committed suicide.
The coroners found his body in a pool of blood on his bed, his hands still gripping his father's 38-caliber pistol. On his nightstand were his social security card—apparently intended to make it easier for his body to be identified—a cremation card and a suicide note, the contents of which have never been revealed by his family. The house was filled with packed boxes. Only his turntable, DVD player, and TV were unpacked.
In the hours before he shot himself in the head, Webb had listened to his favorite album, Ian Hunter Live, and had watched his favorite movie, the Sergio Leone spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In a trashcan was a poster Webb had saved from his first journalism job with the Kentucky Post. The poster was an open letter to readers from Vance Trimble, Webb's first editor. Decades earlier, Webb had clipped it from the pages of the paper. Although he had always admired its message, something about it must have been too much to bear in his final moments. Trimble had written that, unlike some newspapers, the Kentucky Post would never kill a story under pressure from powerful interests. "There should be no fetters on reporters, nor must they tamper with the truth, but give light so the people will find their own way," his letter stated.
That morning, Sue Webb was at home in Folsom, just minutes away from Carmichael, when her cell phone started ringing. She was about to walk out the door to bring her 14-year-old daughter Christine to school. Because Sue was running late for a business meeting in Stockton, she didn't answer. But when she recognized the number of the caller as Kurt, her ex-husband's brother, she began to worry. "I was standing in the bathroom, and when I saw that number, I knew something had happened," she says. "I kept saying, 'No, this is not happening, this is not happening.'I was afraid to pick up the phone."
Thoughts raced through her mind. Two days earlier, Webb had taken Christine to a doctor's appointment. At the doctor's office, there was a copy of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, which Webb had loved reading to her years earlier. He jokingly asked her if she wanted him to read it aloud to her. When he dropped Christine off at Sue's house later that day, Christine said her father made a special point of walking up to the door to kiss her goodbye. "He told her to be good to her mom," Sue says. "And he handed her some little bottles of perfume and said 'I love you.' When she asked him if he wanted to come in, he said no."
Sue put her daughter in the car and drove a few blocks to the entrance of the middle-class neighborhood of tract houses where she lives on a wooded hillside on the outskirts of town. "I couldn't stand it anymore, because the phone kept ringing," she says. "It was Anita, and she was just sobbing. And I said, 'Is he gone?' and she said 'Yes.'And I just pulled off the road and started crying and said 'Christine, your daddy's dead.' We had to get out of the car and we sat on the grass together and just started crying. I don't even know how long we sat there."
A woman driving by pulled over and asked what was wrong. Sue gave her the number of the healthcare company where she worked as a sales agent. She asked the woman to call and let them know she wouldn't be able to keep her appointments that day. Then she called her twenty-year-old son Ian and Eric, her 16-year-old, who was already at school, to tell them to meet her and Christine at Anita's house. "I had to tell them on the phone what had happened because they wouldn't let me hang up," she says.
When she arrived at Anita's house, Ian was sitting on the front lawn, tears streaming down his face. "The police had already left," she says. "I told him not to go inside." A block away from the house was a bench with a view of a duck pond. The tranquil scene seemed surreal, dreamlike, frozen in time. "I remember feeling this sense of loss. It was the weirdest thing in the world. I had moved to California to be with Gary and had left my family behind and suddenly I felt alone. And I knew almost immediately that he had killed himself."
That afternoon, Sue met Kurt at the coroner's office. "They took us into a room and the coroner came in and told us that Gary had shot himself and what gun he had used," she says. "It was his dad's gun that he had found when he was a security guard at a hospital in Cincinnati. Some patient had left it there and his dad had kept it. He used to keep it under the bed. I'd get mad because we had kids and he'd stick it in the closet."
Kurt asked the coroner if he was certain it was a suicide. "There's no doubt in my mind," he answered. He added that sometimes, people who shoot themselves have bruises on their fingers from squeezing the trigger. Apparently the will to live is so strong that suicide victims often grip the gun so tightly and for so long they lose blood circulation in their hands. "Gary had bruises on his fingers," Sue says.
A few days later, four letters arrived at Sue's house, one each for her and the three kids. Webb had mailed them before he died. He sent a separate letter to his mother, and a last will and testament to his brother Kurt. He told his children that he loved them, that Ian would make a woman happy someday, and that he didn't want his death to dissuade Eric from considering a career in journalism. His will divided his assets, including his just-sold house, between his wife and children. His only additional wish was that his ashes be spread in the ocean so he could "bodysurf for eternity."
While it was Gary Webb who pulled the trigger, the bullet that ended his life was a mere afterthought to the tragic unraveling of one of the most controversial and misunderstood journalists in recent American history. "Dark Alliance" was the first major news exposé to be published simultaneously in print and on the Internet. Ignored by the mainstream media at first, the story nonetheless spread like wildfire through cyberspace and talk radio. It sparked angry protests around the country by African-Americans who had long suspected the government had allowed drugs into their communities. Their anger was fueled by the fact that "Dark Alliance" didn't just show that the contras had supplied a major crack dealer with cocaine, or that the cash had been used to fund the CIA's army in Central America—but also strongly implied that this activity had been critical to the nationwide explosion of crack cocaine that had taken place in America during the 1980s.
It was an explosive charge, although a careful reading of the story showed that Webb had never actually stated that the CIA had intentionally started the crack epidemic. In fact, Webb never believed the CIA had conspired to addict anybody to drugs. Rather, he believed that the agency had known that the contras were dealing cocaine, and hadn't lifted a finger to stop them. He was right, and the controversy over "Dark Alliance"—which many consider to be the biggest media scandal of the 1990s—would ultimately force the CIA to admit it had lied for years about what it knew and when it knew it.
In the wake of "Dark Alliance," the series and Webb himself was subjected to unprecedented attacks in the mainstream media, which took advantage of the story's most serious flaw—implying but failing to prove the CIA helped spark the crack epidemic—to assert that the CIA had no ties whatsoever to the drug ring Webb expose.
The attacks continued even after Webb's death. The L.A. Times published an obituary that ran in newspapers across the country which summed up his life by claiming he was author of "discredited" stories about the CIA. The paper would later publish a lengthy feature story revealing 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 reckless "cowboy" of a journalist.
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 News who 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 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 that tried to unravel the connection between the CIA, the Nicaraguan contras and cocaine, had lived to regret it.
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.
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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