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R.I.P. Gary Webb -- Unembedded Reporter

Jeff Cohen

Gary Webb, a courageous investigative journalist who was the target of one of the most ferocious media attacks on any reporter in recent history, was found dead Friday after an apparent suicide.

In August 1996, Webb wrote one of the first pieces of journalism that reached a massive audience thanks to the Internet: an explosive 20,000 word, three-part series documenting links between cocaine traffickers, the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the CIA-organized right-wing Nicaraguan Contra army of that era. The series sparked major interest in the social justice and African-American communities, leading to street protests, constant discussion on black-oriented talk radio and demands by Congressional Black Caucus members for a federal investigation. But weeks later, Webb suffered a furious backlash at the hands of national media unaccustomed to seeing their role as gatekeepers diminished by the emerging medium known as the WorldWideWeb.

Webb's explosive San Jose Mercury News series documented that funders of the Contras included drug traffickers who played a role in the crack epidemic that hit Los Angeles and other cities. Webb's series focused heavily on Oscar Danilo Blandon, a cocaine importer and federal informant, who once testified in federal court that "whatever we were running in L.A., the profit was going to the Contra revolution." Blandon further testified that Colonel Enrique Bermudez, a CIA asset who led the Contra army against Nicaragua's leftwing Sandinista government, knew the funds were from drug running. (Bermudez was a colonel during the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.)

Webb reported that U.S. law enforcement agents complained that the CIA had squelched drug probes of Blandon and his partner Norwin Meneses in the name of "national security." Blandon's drugs flowed into L.A. and elsewhere thanks to the legendary "Freeway" Ricky Donnell Ross, a supplier of crack to the Crips and Bloods gangs.

While Webb's series could be faulted for some overstatement in presenting its powerful new evidence (a controversial graphic on the Mercury News website superimposed a person smoking crack over the CIA seal), the fresh documentation mightily moved forward the CIA-Contra-cocaine story that national media had been trying to bury for years. Any exaggeration in the Mercury News presentation was dwarfed by a mendacious, triple-barreled attack on Webb that came from the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

The Post and others criticized Webb for referring to the Contras of the so-called Nicaraguan Democratic Force as "the CIA's army" -- an absurd objection since by all accounts, including those of Contra leaders, the CIA set up the group, selected its leaders and paid their salaries, and directed its day-to-day battlefield strategies.

The Post devoted much ink to exposing what Webb readily acknowledged -- that while he could document Contra links to cocaine importing, he was not able to identify specific CIA officials who knew of the drug flow. The ferocity of the attack on Webb led the Post's ombudsman to note that the three national newspapers "showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws" in the Webb series than for probing the important issue Webb had raised: U.S. government relations with drug smuggling.

The L.A. Times' anti-Webb package was curious for its handling of Freeway Ricky Ross, the dealer Webb had authoritatively linked to Contra-funder Blandon. Two years before Webb's revelations, the Times had reported: "If there was a criminal mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick." In a profile of Ross headlined "Deposed King of Crack," the Times went on and on about "South-Central's first millionaire crack lord" and how Ross' "coast to coast conglomerate was selling more than $550,000 rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars."

But two months after Webb's series linked Ricky Ross to Contra cocaine, the L.A. Times told a totally different story, now seeking to minimize Ross's role in the crack epidemic: Ross was just one of many "interchangeable characters" -- "dwarfed" by other dealers.

The reporter who'd written the 1994 Ross profile was the one called on to write the front-page 1996 critique of Webb; media critic Norman Solomon noted that it "reads like a show-trial recantation."

The hyperbolic reaction against Webb's series can only be understood in the context of years of bias and animosity toward the Contra-cocaine story on the part of many national media. Bob Parry and Brian Barger first reported on Contra-cocaine smuggling for AP in 1985, at a time when President Reagan was hailing the Contras as "the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." The story got little pickup.

In 1987 the House Narcotics Committee chaired by Charles Rangel probed Contra-drug allegations and found a need for further investigation. After the Washington Post distorted the facts with a headline "Hill Panel Finds No Evidence Linking Contras to Drug Smuggling," the paper refused to run Rangel's letter correcting the record.

That same year, Time magazine correspondent Laurence Zuckerman and a colleague found serious evidence of Contra links to cocaine trafficking, but their story was blocked from publication by top editors. A senior editor admitted privately to Zuckerman: "Time is institutionally behind the Contras. If this story were about the Sandinistas and drugs, you'd have no trouble getting it in the magazine." (The N.Y Times and Washington Post both endorsed aid to the Contra army, despite massive documentation from human rights monitors that they targeted civilians for violence and terror.)

In 1989, when Sen. John Kerry released a report condemning U.S. government complicity with Contra-connected drug traffickers, the Washington Post ran a brief report loaded with GOP criticisms of Kerry, while Newsweek dubbed Kerry a "randy conspiracy buff."

In this weekend's mainstream media reports on Gary Webb's death, it's no surprise that a key point has been overlooked -- that the CIA's internal investigation sparked by the Webb series and resulting furor contained startling admissions. CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz reported in October 1998 that the CIA indeed had knowledge of the allegations linking many Contras and Contra associates to cocaine trafficking, that Contra leaders were arranging drug connections from the beginning and that a CIA informant told the agency about the activity.

When Webb stumbled onto the Contra-cocaine story, he couldn't have imagined the fury with which big-foot reporters from national dailies would come at him -- a barrage that ultimately drove him out of mainstream journalism. But he fought back with courage and dignity, writing a book (Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion) with his side of the story and insisting that facts matter more than established power or ideology. He deserves to be remembered in the proud tradition of muckrakers like Ida Tarbell, George Seldes and I.F. Stone.

In this era of "embedded reporters," an unembedded journalist like Gary Webb will be sorely missed.


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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is jeffcohen.org.

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