It has been almost a month since he died and I haven't been able to get Gary Webb out of my mind.
You remember Gary Webb, don't you? He's the investigative reporter who in 1996 produced a series of stories for the San Jose Mercury News called "Dark Alliance," on the connections between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Nicaraguan contras, the right-wing opposition to the leftist Sandinista regime in that Central American nation.
The series' most explosive charge was that a contra-connected drug gang helped fuel the crack epidemic of the 1980s in this country by bringing in large supplies of Colombian cocaine and selling them to black street gangs in Los Angeles, all with the knowledge and, to some extent, the protection of the CIA.
Webb's series, and that allegation especially, touched off a firestorm of criticism in both the government and the media. Not only did the CIA deny his allegations, but three high temples of the American establishment--The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post--all joined in knocking down Webb's stories. Eventually, even his own editor at the Mercury News effectively disavowed him and the series.
Gary Webb himself became radioactive within the newspaper industry and went to work in California state government. When he died last month at age 49, ostensibly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, he was jobless and, apparently, hopeless.
I have a confession to make: I still think Gary Webb had it mostly right.
I think he got the treatment that always comes to those who dare question aloud the bona fides of the establishment: First he got misrepresented--his suggestion that the CIA tolerated the contras' cocaine trading became an allegation that the agency itself was involved in the drug trade. Then he was ridiculed as a conspiracy-monger--joked one commentator, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail." In the end, Webb was rendered untouchable.
I know that I risk being marked down as something of a nut for saying I think Webb was fundamentally right. As my friend and former Commentary page columnist Salim Muwakkil said in one of his pieces on this issue: "To connect the CIA with crack--a drug with race-specific overtones--is considered a mere variation of the old theme of black genocide and is thus deemed irrational in mainstream discourse."
But try thinking of it from a black American's point of view. The CIA was tasked with helping the contras, a group President Ronald Reagan had declared the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers. So intent was the Reagan-Bush administration on assuring the survival and success of the contras that it attempted an illegal bargain with the hated mullahs of Iran in order to benefit the Nicaraguans.
Now, you're a CIA agent who must decide whether to blow the whistle on some of your charges for supplementing their budget by trading in cocaine on the side--or just turn your head and not "see" anything. Between the contras, beloved of the president, and some black gangsters in L.A. (we won't talk about the zoned-out, zonked-out end users), who is the more expendable?
I am reminded here of the climactic chapters of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," in which a seething Harlem goes up in flames. It happens not because of anything the protagonist and his cherished "Brotherhood" do. It happens because the leadership of the Brotherhood elects to do nothing, to cease expending any energy at all on Harlem and its problems.
Who is the more expendable? I think Gary Webb had it figured out just right.
Don Wycliff is the Tribune's public editor. He listens to readers' concerns and questions about the paper's coverage and writes weekly about current issues in journalism. The views expressed are his own.
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