|English | Español||December 21, 2014 | Issue #29|
Crack, Cigarettes, and the arrival of Gary
"Journalists are revolutionaries and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
By George Sanchez
March 3, 2003
Awarding-winning investigative reporter and author of Dark Alliance Gary Webb joins the Narco News staff. School of Authentic Journalism partial Scholar and Webb advisee George Sanchez introduces the prestigious journalist.
You’ve probably heard the rumors —the ones about the CIA funneling crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles. The first time you heard it, you probably passed it off as a ridiculous conspiracy theory filed by some hippie nut making LSD in a basement. But like it or not, it’s part of the popular lexicon in the United States. And there’s one man to thank: Gary Webb.
Al Giordano introduces him as the Comeback Kid of Authentic Journalism. Around the Narco News “office,” he’s affectionately known as “Master Two.” Brazil’s Authentic Journalists nicknamed him the Marlboro Man of Authentic Journalism. Luis Gomez says he’s the greatest living journalist. However, when he introduced himself to me, it was just Gary.
His 1996 three-part investigative series for the San Jose Mercury News was, to put it lightly, explosive. For a year, Webb followed a trail that would eventually lead him to the roots of the crack cocaine epidemic that had crippled the African American community in the United States. Searching through the muck and mud, Webb kept at it. With each turn more outrageous than the last, Webb ultimately brought to light a truth that had been kept secret for more than a decade and one that could have feasibly destroyed Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
When Webb and the San Jose Mercury News did bring “Dark Alliance” to light, there were a few more unexpected turns.
“Dark Alliance,” wrote HotWired Magazine, “is making digital and media history. The Mercury News is demonstrating for perhaps the first time how the web and the traditional press can fuse to good effect —and that there’s still a chance to break modern media’s parochial instincts and return some power to journalists outside of Washington and New York…”
Praise piled on from various media organizations as well as Congresswoman Maxine Waters, while African American communities in Oakland and Los Angeles pressed lawsuits against the government and the Senate established a committee to investigate the matter. But don’t forget about the backlash. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times all went on the offense, covering their own asses by discrediting Webb’s reporting and swallowing the CIA’s line that there was no contra-crack-CIA connection, nor knowledge of such a relationship. Then San Jose Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos backed away from Webb in an open letter to readers almost one year after the story broke.
“I believe that we fell short at every step of our process, in the writing, editing and production of our work,” wrote Ceppos. “We oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew.”
Towards the end of the tumultuous year that followed the unveiling of his investigation, Webb signed off on journalism. Or so he says. Within a year Webb began working as a consultant to the California State Legislature’s Task Force on Government Oversight, doing basically what he’d done before: sifting through bureaucracy and reporting on governmental error. All the while he picked up a whole slue of awards for his investigative reporting that led to the “Dark Alliance” series.
But the night I met Gary Webb, none of this was the issue. The sky was fading from a perfect ocean blue to the dark of the Mexican night. The glow of the white concrete buildings in the early moonlight floated like a specter. The streets were near empty and the voices from the nearby coffee shops and bars were hushed. The loudest sounds were the scrapes of tennis shoes on a basketball court in the middle of this small coastal town in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Webb was sitting on the top row of the concrete bleachers, chasing sips of his Negra Modelo with the drag of a cigarette and watching the game. He hardly noticed me creep up on him. While we weren’t the only souls watching the game, it seemed we were the only ones from our group of Authentic Journalists intrigued by the novelty of a basketball game out here.
Under the sharp contrast of the night’s shroud and the bright beams of the court’s light, we laughed about his early experience as a reporter, pissing off San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, and North America’s dependence on Jon Stuart and the Daily Show for news. When the game came to an end and the court nearly empty, our first meeting concluded in our parting of ways.
Over the next nine days though, we spoke on and off.
During one of his presentations to the school, Webb shared with the Authentic 27 a story from his career in which he had to interview a bride and her mother after her groom was stabbed to death the night of his bachelor party. Under pressure from his editor, Webb said meeting the story’s deadline was “very hard,” one of many understatements. Webb relayed how he cried his way through the story. But Webb got the story done and never forgot the experience.
As my advisor during the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, I’d go to him with questions and ideas for the stories I had been assigned. But he took questions from the other students too. From accessing Reagan-era government documents to investigative reporting tips, Webb was at our disposal, whether he was smoking cigarettes on the terrace of our hotel or sharing a laugh on the final night of our summit.
It’s rare to come across a reporter like Gary Webb, much less an editor.
When it came time for our school of Authentic Journalism to scatter to all parts of the western hemisphere, Gary Webb stepped forward with one last bit of advice. Distressed by Jules Sigel’s pessimistic presentation and conclusion that journalists aren’t revolutionaries, Webb left the students with his final perspective on this craft of journalism.
“Journalists are revolutionaries and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” said Webb to the group. “You have to fight to change the world,” he continued.
Gary Webb is as authentic as they come. He’s a reporter open to anything. And why not? Anything can lead you to something and that something could be the big one—and if not, then that something’s at least another story.
For a reporter to hold the memory of a small, dime-a-dozen story about the tragic death of some unknown man is a sign of something. It’s the proof of heart in a very cold industry. It is the mark of a reporter who carries with him a little bit of each story and leaves each source a little bit of himself. It is the preview of a reporter who would toil for years on a story that had the potential to destroy his career while exposing the moral corruption of the government of the United States of America and never once back down.
A generation of North American journalists before mine came of age in the shadows of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward – proof that journalism can change the world. Initiating the steps that would ultimately carry former US President Richard Nixon out of the White House, they reminded all that journalists weren’t merely observers but also active players in the shaping of society.
My generation does not have the same obvious example that the former generation does. But we have ours nonetheless. And Gary Webb is one of them.
Last night my best friend asked me if I believed “Dark Alliance.”
As thoroughly reported as it is and as invested to detail as Webb is, how could I not?
And those rumors you might have heard, well, take a closer look and you might find them to be more than the ramblings of left-wing conspiracy nuts.
Don’t call it a comeback folks, he’s been here for years.
Damas y Caballeros, may I introduce to you, Mr. Gary Webb.
Full Disclosure: The author wishes to acknowledge the material assistance, encouragement, and guidance, of The Narco News Bulletin, The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, publisher Al Giordano and the rest of the faculty, and of the Tides Foundation. Narco News is a co-sponsor and funder of the international drug legalization summit, “OUT FROM THE SHADOWS: Ending Prohibition in the 21st Century,” in Mérida, Yucatán, and is wholly responsible for the School of Authentic Journalism whose philosophy and methodology were employed in the creation of this report. The writing, the opinions expressed, and the conclusions reached, if any, are solely those of the author.
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