Revisiting “Tawdry” Treatment of Reporter who Broke Story on CIA-Contra-Crack-Cocaine Connection

Saturday, June 01, 2013
Gary Webb

It’s been nearly ten years since reporter Gary Webb shot himself in the head following a torrent of criticism over his series of stories for the San Jose Mercury News about the crack-cocaine epidemic ravaging Los Angeles and the country.


The premise of Webb’s 1996 three-part exposé, “Dark Alliance The Story behind the Crack Explosion,” was that the explosion of crack-cocaine in America’s ghettos was indirectly abetted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The chief source of drugs for the number one street distributor was a Nicaraguan exile connected to the right-wing, CIA-backed Contras, who were fighting to overthrow that country’s leftist Sandinista-led government. 


The June issue of Los Angeles Magazine revisits the story with a first-person account by former Los Angeles Times reporter Jesse Katz, one of 17 reporters pulled together after Webb’s series ran to “analyze” the narrative for the newspaper’s readers. They, and their journalistic brethren across the country, analyzed it and Webb to death.


And now, with the benefit of hindsight and a voluminous 1998 report from the CIA inspector general that outlined the extensive knowledge the agency had about Nicaraguan drug dealing, Katz has a different take on Webb and his work.


“It was a tawdry and defensive exercise, all these august institutions piling on a lone muckraker,” Katz writes in the magazine. “Rather than advance what he got right, we aimed our firepower at his shortcuts, lambasting him for each omission and overstatement.”


Webb, who came under fierce attack by politicians and competing journalists, was abandoned by his editors at the Mercury News and left the paper. No decent publication would hire him and he lost his home before committing suicide. His story is scheduled to be made into a movie, Kill the Messenger, starring Jeremy Renner as Webb. Shooting is supposed to begin this summer.


Katz had written about the crack-cocaine epidemic for the Times two years before Webb’s series, focusing on a key protagonist, Ricky Ross, who “did more than anyone else to democratize it, boosting volume, slashing prices and spreading disease on a scale never before conceived.” But after Ross surprised Katz by getting busted again after two stints in jail, Katz moved to Houston and continued to write for the newspaper from there.


After the Webb series, Katz joined the Times task force and, in the words of LA Weekly reporter Nick Schou, “recast Ross as a much less central player in the crack plague, thus helping dilute the effect of ‘Dark Alliance.’”


Ross went to prison for at least some of his crimes, but was released in September 2009. Katz has not lost interest in the subject whom, he admits, he has always found fascinating. “I was drawn to Rick, to his effervescence and accessibility, to the confounding disconnect between his outlandish deeds and his modest habits.” 


Katz’s piece in Los Angeles Magazine is a profile of Ross, who lives in a halfway house and hustles T-shirts on Venice Beach in Los Angeles. It’s a fairly laudatory piece, reflecting Katz’s ongoing attraction for the unique character “who has survived so many incarnations, whose life is such an irresistible puzzle.”


It was that attraction, apparently, that compelled Katz to revisit the Ricky Ross affair and depart from usual journalistic behavior. “We parachute into people’s lives, root around for something that can be distilled and packaged—with accuracy and empathy, at our best—then move on,” Katz writes.


Perhaps they do, unless their work is unfairly ripped to shreds, their reputations ruined and their careers wrecked. Then, sometimes, they kill themselves.  

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Ex–L.A. Times Writer Apologizes for "Tawdry" Attacks (by Nick Schou, LA Weekly)

Freeway Rick Is Dreaming (by Jesse Katz, Los Angeles Magazine)

The Dark Stain from the Dark Alliance: Cautionary Tales from the Tragic Saga of Gary Webb (by H. “Corky” Johnson, Op-Ed News)

The Contra Story (Central Intelligence Agency)


Mike Fitzgerald 5 years ago
Dear Mr. Broder, Sorry but I will have to call bullshit on the way you concluded your story about the sad fate that befell Gary Webb. You wrote: <“We parachute into people’s lives, root around for something that can be distilled and packaged—with accuracy and empathy, at our best—then move on,” Katz writes. I remember well when Webb's "Dark Alliance" series appeared in 1996. It was the sort of big, ambitious and bombshell-packed project that was written to precisely win a Pulitzer. But even as I read it, I (like so many others) found it impossible to ignore the overhype and sensationalism contained in its many words. Meanwhile, "Dark Alliance" set off a furor in the black community of Los Angeles because of Webb's allegations that the CIA purposely unleashed the crack epidemic on African-Americans. At first I was infuriated at the CIA and my government for such heinous behavior. But when it turned out that Webb's allegations could not substantiated, my anger shifted to Webb and the Mercury News for recklessly writing and publishing racially incendiary charges that inflamed a community still recovering from the riots of only a few years before. Your story, Mr. Broder, also implies that the critical backlash against "Dark Alliance" played the central role in Webb's suicide, and therefore his critics are somehow responsible for his death. Again, I call bullshit. People end their lives for a complex, often obscure set of reasons that are usually impossible to trace to a single cause. We might never truly know why Gary Webb ended his life, much to his family's great sorrow and grief. But I can assure you that the criticism heaped upon Webb for "Dark Alliance" was more than justified.

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