Jun 21, 2005

"The Sad Saga of Gary Webb" [LINK]

Indeed, there's a very sad piece in the American Journalism Review devoted to former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, whose 1996 "Dark Alliance" series alleging CIA collusion in the American drug trade to support the Nicaraguan Contras turned out to be, as the euphemism goes, "flawed." After Webb resigned from his job in the wake of the subsequent retraction, his career went into a downward spiral that, coupled with a history of depression, finally resulted in his suicide last December. Susan Paterno argues that Webb was a rather stubborn, arrogant, "to-the-barricades" type of guy, which made him a perfect scapegoat for negligent editors who failed to reign in his wilder conclusions:

In the final analysis, "Dark Alliance" was a series in search of competent editing; the remarkable lack of editorial oversight produced what became one of the most notorious sagas in American journalism. Much of what Webb wrote was accurate: The drug traffickers he profiled were sending money to help the CIA-backed contras in the war in Nicaragua. But his editors allowed him to push the story's thesis far beyond what the facts could support, suggesting drug-dealing contras caused America's crack epidemic with the CIA's knowledge. The story included no CIA response; Webb said his editors never asked for one. Though Webb compiled an impressive circumstantial case, the editors failed to hold the story to what he could substantiate, letting him make leaps in reasoning that would earn failing marks in freshman logic.
Leaving out the issue of the story's flaws, and even Webb's personality flaws, what strikes me is the sense of how badly he wanted the story to be true, and the intoxicating effect of the subsequent notoriety. Every reporter dreams of the big Pulitzer-prize-winning exposé, and to a large extent this is how the dream plays out:
Webb basked in the adulation and embraced his newfound power. He called editors and producers [of other publications] "chickenshit" for ignoring "Dark Alliance" and suggested in an online discussion, "Now we know what CIA stands for — Crack in America," the L.A. Times quoted Webb as saying. He felt emboldened. "It was remarkable to think journalism could have this kind of effect on people," he said, "that people were out marching in the streets because of something you'd written."

At the same time came "the temptations," says friend Greg Wolf. "A movie and book deal, 'The Tonight Show,' all of a sudden he's got literary groupies." ...

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