Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Tragic Passing of Gary Webb

Today, the news of Gary Webb’s untimely death at 49 shot around the Internet. To many, Webb was a true media hero, a man who reported a controversial -- albeit well-documented -- connection between the rise of crack cocaine in Los Angeles, the CIA, and the Contras.

According to the news reports, Webb shot himself in the head, presumably upset because of his recent divorce and his pending move out of the house where he had until recently lived with his wife and three children.

Tom Dresslar, who had known Webb for years, was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News today as saying,

"He had a fierce commitment to justice, truth and cared a lot about people who are forgotten and society tries to shove into the dark corners," Dresslar said. "It's a big loss for me personally and a great loss for the journalism community.''

The NarcoSphere reported that Dresslar said Webb was " a hard-core, no-fear investigative reporter," who " wasn't afraid to stand up to whatever authority."

I had a personal experience with Gary Webb I would like to share. He talks about this starting on page 450 of his book Dark Alliance. I am “the woman in Southern California” he referenced.

When his story first broke, I marveled at the boldness not just of his writing but of the San Jose Mercury’s bravery in printing it. I thought they were both amazingly naïve as to the power of the CIA, especially in the media. At that point in my life that topic was a prime focus.

The treatment the powers that be gave Webb’s story was predictable. First, there was utter silence. He had this amazing tale to tell, and not one other paper in America reported it. But this story was launched in full detail on the Web. Accompanying the stories, for a journalistic first, were scans of court documents, audio files of testimony, pages from notebooks, and all kinds of supporting documentation. It was truly wonderful. For once, the public didn’t have to take on faith what a reporter said. He shared his best evidence with everyone in the world who had Internet access. And the supporting documentation was impressive.

When I read these stories, I watched, and waited. I had this nagging feeling. He had attacked the CIA. And the CIA does not sit still when attacked in such a manner.

Sure enough. The opening salvo came from Walter Pincus in the Washington Post. Pincus wrote a story in which he created allegations Webb had not made and then tore them down. This tactic was to be repeated over and over until the only ones who knew what Webb had actually said were the who had bothered to read his pieces all the way through.

When I saw Pincus go to work, I grinned and got on the Web to find Webb. I found his e-mail address and sent him some interesting information. On my desk, for nearly a year prior, I had left out one document that just didn’t seem to fit in my files anywhere. I knew I’d have a use for it someday. The day had come.

The document was a photocopy of an article Pincus himself had written, back in the sixties, and which had, ironically, appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Webb’s own paper.

I wrote Gary, then a stranger, that of course Pincus was attacking him. The article I referred Gary to, by Pincus, was titled, “How I Traveled Abroad On CIA Subsidy.” I was to later meet Gary in person on two occasions. At our second meeting, he told me ‘the rest of the story.’ When he received my citation to that article, he thought it was too good to be true and thought I or someone was trying to set him up with fake bait. But he called the Mercury’s archives to check it out. Sure enough, they had that article. He STILL thought he was being set up. It was just too delicious. So he went to a small library in Sacramento where he was at the time and looked it up for himself on microfiche. Sure enough, the article was there, on the date I had mentioned.

His eyes were opened. I continued to correspond with him for a time, and sent him a copy of Carl Bernstein’s underreported essay, published in an October 1977 issue of Rolling Stone, titled, “The CIA and the Media.” In the article Bernstein elaborated on the formal and informal relationships the CIA had with all the major media, from CBS to the New York Times, from upper management to the individual reporters and stringers at home and around the world.

During the Church and Pike committee investigations of the media, this was the most sensitive piece - the CIA’s relationship with the media. It was the one thing the CIA fought to keep from the investigators. They gave up their Castro and Lumumba assassination plots but they would not reveal the names of their media assets, to the chagrin of the Congressional investigators.

In later years, CIA documents spoke openly of how the CIA controlled all the mainstream media in this country, and how that control had helped turn some CIA failures into success stories, or how other stories had been discredited or nipped in the bud.

Gary was so taken with this relationship that he ultimately wrote a chapter on the CIA and the media for Kristina Borjesson’s excellent book Into the Buzzsaw : Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of the Free Press.

I wish I had gotten to know him better. I wish I could have shown him how much he meant to me. Because when everyone and their brother came out and kicked him black and blue after his “Dark Alliance” series for the Mercury News, he didn’t give up, as most reporters do when faced with that situation. He was a fighter to the end. When his own publisher caved in to pressure and ultimately forced him out of the paper, Webb did not give up. He kept writing, ultimately turning his series into a book. And he kept telling the truth about other crimes. And he kept losing jobs. But above all, he kept going.

Was it just too much for his family to take? Were there other factors that led to his divorce? I do not ask to know the personal details of his life. That was for him and his family to know and others to treat only with respect. But everyone I know has the same burning question. Was it really suicide? Or was foul play involved? Someone told me that Gary was working on a book about the Bush family in 2003. Is that true? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.

I pray that someone in the media will do this great man the service of conducting a serious, honest investigation into his death and reporting on it in detail and with the utmost care for accuracy. He’d have done no less for any of us.

Dear Gary,

I wish you knew how many of us reeled in anguish when we heard of your passing. We know how rare you were, and the world is poorer today for your absence.

God bless you, Gary Webb. Rest in peace.


Blogger Real History Lisa said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

I later learned it was suicide, and that he had threatened many times, and that his family had tried to help. See my write-up here.

5:48 PM  

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