Sunday, December 18, 2005

Dork Dark Alliance

A Wikipedia editing session (on Katharine Graham, who, I never noticed before, spelled her name like my girlfriend Katharine Cortesi and Katharine Hepburn do) led to my adding info to the Washington Post entry on the Post ombudsman's 1996 response to the Post's handling of the CIA/Crack story.

Which just reminds me what a crazy saga the Gary Webb "Dark Alliance" series kicked off. There was the original series itself, the misleading denunciations in the mainstream press, the CIA's own 2-part internal investigation that it announced (surprise) exonerated itself, the actually quite damning content of the report when released, the Mercury News retracting Webb's pieces and sending him to journalistic Siberia, Webb's slipping into depression.

What I didn't know was that Webb committed suicide last year. He wrote several notes,
mailed them to friends and family, and shot himself in the back of the head (twice--the first bullet grazed him).

The response to his 1996 series from mainstream journalism was shameful. The major papers had ignored or downplayed the story until Webb scooped them. But instead of continuing the story, which indicated that Freedom of Information Act requests were bearing fruit and would reward further investigation, some big names lined up to dismiss him as an unprofessional conspiracy-monger. The facts ended up bearing him out, but by then it was too late. I imagine that most NY Times readers still figure the CIA/Crack accusations were groundless.

That journalistic spinelessness is what draws me to the story. From a September 1998 Esquire article about Webb:
Finally, in early October [1996], The Washington Post ran a story by Roberto Suro and Walter Pincus headlined, THE CIA AND CRACK: EVIDENCE IS LACKING OF ALLEGED PLOT... Perhaps the best summary of the Post's retort to Webb came from the paper's own ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, some weeks later: "The Post... showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose's answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves. They were stronger on how much less money was contributed to the contras by the Mercury News's villains than their series claimed, how much less cocaine was introduced into L.A., than on how significant it is that any of these assertions are true."

In late October, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times weighed in on consecutive days. The Los Angeles Times had two years before described [Contra-supplied LA drug dealer] Freeway Rick Ross vividly: "If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack's decade-long reign, if there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles's streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick .... While most other dealers toiled at the bottom rungs of the market, his coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than five hundred thousand rocks a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars." In the 1996 response to Webb's series, the Los Angeles Times described Ross as one of many "interchangeable characters" and stated, "How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ross." Both stories were written by the same reporter, Jesse Katz, and the 1996 story failed to mention his earlier characterization [emphasis added].

A common chord ran through the responses of all three papers: It never really happened, and if it did happen, it was on a small scale, and anyway it was old news, because both the Kerry report and a few wire stories in the eighties had touched on the contra-cocaine connection.
A big part of the problem lay with Webb, who was prone to hyperbole and had what David Corn called "a low threshhold for truth," which made him an easy target for debunkers, despite the core truth of his articles.

His editor Jerry Ceppos, in the Merc's retraction of the "Dark Alliance" series, wrote: "I believe that we fell short at every step of our process--in the writing, editing and production of our work. Several people here share that burden. We have learned from the experience and are changing the way we handle major investigations. But ultimately, the responsibility was, and is, mine." This is a guy who gets accused of selling out Webb, but surely he wanted the series to run and be unimpeachable and regretted failing.

After Webb's suicide, one of his earlier Merc editors wrote, "Part of what made [Webb] great destroyed him. He was an immensely talented reporter, a good writer and a sometimes difficult human being. Once convinced he was right, Webb didn't budge... His lack of doubt demanded a firm editor to challenge him." The series "was as much an institutional failure as it was a personal one. Yet Webb bore the chief consequences."