Investigate This... If They Let You
The Commercial Media Are Killing the Type of Journalism Gary Webb Championed
By Andrew Stelzer
June 24, 2005
I’ve been lucky. I have a full-time job, delivering news every day about things that matter. No car crashes, no fires, no sex scandals, no celebrities. But issues that really affect people and communities, like the lack of affordable healthcare, the effects of environmental polluters, and the continuing struggle for equality and civil rights.
But I found out recently that what I do is called “feeding the beast,” mass-media insider talk to describe churning out one, two, even several stories each and every day. It’s a grind, and often I feel as if I’m not doing what I should be — going deeper into stories, uncovering hidden secrets buried inside the machinery of government and corporations, and holding the powerful accountable for wrongs against society.
The opposite of feeding the beast is the time-honored tradition of muckraking. Investigative journalists are the superstars of integrity in the world of journalism, the people who turn society upside down by exposing Watergate, the Iran-contra scandal, or whatever dastardly deeds the current government of power in your home country is doing under the radar. Although former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman said, “investigative reporting is just good reporting,” there is an important distinction between a reporter who does an exorbitant amount of work to uncover new information and those who spread and add to the initial story once it has seen the light of day.
While many reporters would love to go beyond the limitations of filing daily stories, becoming an investigative journalist is another story. News organizations don’t seem to advertise for these jobs in the classifieds. Maybe it’s like being a spy: somehow you gradually disappear into the shadows of society and find you have become one of these people, with an insatiable thirst for the truth that lies in the file cabinet just behind that guy in the fine tailored suit with the really nice teeth.
The Canary in the Coal Mine
Many of these issues have become more prominent since the death of reporter Gary Webb in December 2004. Webb dug up the dirt on how CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contra rebels were financing their war against the Sandinista government by selling large amounts of crack cocaine to drug dealers operating in poor African-American communities in Los Angeles. In 1996, Webb’s story, “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind The Crack Explosion,” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, and it was arguably the first exposure of U.S. government impropriety to receive mass attention through the Internet.
The story was any investigative journalist’s dream, filled with government corruption, international intrigue, institutionalized racism, lies, and hypocrisy. It validated what many people believed, but what was missing from the national dialogue: that the U.S. government’s involvement in the drug war was about money and maintaining political control in other countries, and that poor people, especially brown and black, are considered expendable. Veteran journalist Robert Parry, who first reported on the same issues 11 year earlier, credits Webb for bringing long-overdue scrutiny to this dark chapter of history. However, Parry notes in an essay written after Webb’s death, “When black leaders began demanding a full investigation of these charges, the Washington media joined the political Establishment in circling the wagons.”
In a textbook example of what can happen to a renegade reporter when the U.S. government and the corporate media form a collaborative-spin machine, Webb’s work was torn apart. The CIA denied the charges, and the three most powerful U.S. newspapers effectively discredited Webb’s reporting and his credibility. “The CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking Of Alleged Plot,” read one Washington Post headline. The New York Times followed with: “Though Evidence Is Thin, Tale Of CIA and Drugs has Life of its Own.” One L.A.Times reporter said he had been assigned to the “Get Gary Webb team.” And Webb himself wrote, “At one point I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about.”
In November, three months after “Dark Alliance” was published, Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser wrote that the three newspapers “showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in Webb’s stories than furthering the investigation of U.S. government relations with drug smuggling.” Journalists ignored a 1988 report from the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, which stated that there were “serious questions as to whether or not U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua.” Later, there was practically no coverage of a 1998 internal CIA investigation, which found Webb’s charges about the contra-cocaine scandal to be true.
Journalist Alexander Cockburn calls this the CIA’s “uncover-up” strategy in which “the agency first denies with passion, then later concedes in muffled tones, the charges leveled against it.” The uncover-up worked. Most of Webb’s obituaries failed to acknowledge the CIA investigation that two years later had validated his work.
But two years was too late. Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of The Mercury, had refused to back up his reporter. Instead, he issued a retraction stating that Webb’s work fell short of the paper’s standards, and Webb was forced out of his job. After being fired, Webb bounced around from job to job, but never recovered from the betrayal of The Mercury. He and his wife divorced, and he had trouble getting hired to do what he loved. On December 10, 2004, Webb was found dead at his home in Sacramento, from a gunshot wound to the head, an apparent suicide.
When Webb died, the uncover-up became personal for me. In 2003, I spent several weeks with Webb, and a few dozen other journalists in Mexico. Since then, we had formed a loosely knit electronic community centered around the Narco News website, and the spin-off Narcosphere blog. Immediately, the Narcosphere became the place reflect on Webb’s life and work.
“I still have, stashed in a corner of my house in Mexico, a few issues of the Mercury, containing your stories that are still fresh, still true. An old friend of mine in 1996 remembered my love for the Sandinista Revolution and was nice enough to send me those papers…with a note of hope — not the hope of earning or getting anything, but that once, just once, the truth about these rotten people would be known.”
– Luis Gomez, Bolivian Journalist
If you think that his suicide did not send as powerful a message as the stories he investigated and penned in life, think again: Gary was The Last North American Career Journalist. He presided over a transitional era and his death marks the end of that era. Fellow and sister journalists: The canary has died in the coal mine. Run out of that mine now, and seek alternate routes to truth-telling. There is no longer room for us inside the corporate machine.
– Al Giordano, journalist and Narco News founder
It was Al’s comments that led me to question how the cozy relationship between the government and the owners of the major media corporations affects investigative journalism. What about the news organizations which aren’t owned by plutocrats? Are they so scared of losing access that they’ll back down and refuse to defend their reporters, even on a really, really great story?
Lies My TeeVee Told Me
Steve Wilson might commiserate with those who have lost faith. His bosses stopped supporting him before his big story even broke. You may know Wilson from the movie The Corporation, which details how he and reporter Jan Akre were hired by WTVT, a local Fox TV station in Tampa, Florida in 1997. Promotional spots touted Wilson and Akre as the station’s new team of investigative journalists. Walking through clouds of smoke-machine generated mist, the ads for “The Investigators” boasted that Wilson and Akre would fight for the public good. “Do any stories you want,” Fox’s producers told the reporters. “Ask tough questions and get answers.”
Eight years and one long court case later, Wilson and Akre have filed a complaint with the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to have WTVT’s license revoked. They claim that the TV station distorted their investigative story on Bovine Growth Hormone so much that it was untruthful, a violation of the public’s interest and FCC regulations.
Their first story would have exposed the dangers of Monsanto-produced BGH, a synthetic hormone showing up in America’s cows and milk, unbeknownst to American consumers. Three days before the story was scheduled to air, Monsanto threatened WTVT with a lawsuit, and the station immediately caved. Wilson says WTVT wanted them to deliberately distort the news. “When we wouldn’t give into their threats and wouldn’t accept hush money,” explained Wilson, “They fired us.” A Florida State court eventually found that Fox “acted intentionally and deliberately to falsify or distort the plaintiffs’ news reporting on BGH,” and awarded Akre and Wilson $425,000. However, after repeated appeals, another judge nullified this ruling, stating that TV news in fact has no obligation to tell the truth, and that the two reporters were wrongly given federal whistle blower status.
The BGH story eventually aired, but it was narrated by a different reporter and it was so watered down (after 83 edits with Wilson and Akre), it barely resembled the original. Among other things, the final version left out information about Monsanto suing to stop ecologically conscious companies from labeling its milk as BGH-free; allegations that grocery chains misled customers about their efforts to avoid selling milk from treated cows; and Monsanto’s history of manufacturing government-approved products that later proved harmful, such as Agent Orange.
In 30 years of working at some of the biggest networks, like CBS and ABC, Wilson said he had never seen a case in which any reporter is told by the management of the news organization to deliberately lie. “Had we never told the story of Bovine Growth Hormone, that would have been reprehensible and a violation of what I see as the duty of a news organization to serve the public interest,” said Wilson. “But it wouldn’t have been lying to people.”
Survival Means Having No Enemies
So now we have newspapers that fail to back up their journalists, and TV stations that tell their reporters to lie. Where’s the hope? And if things are so bad, how come we seem to know about some pretty damning scandals right now.
For answers, I decided to go to the source. Seymour Hersh, one of the few investigative journalists who has managed to stay plugged into the highest echelons of power and still get the story published, says he doesn’t see his craft dying out. His recent breakthroughs about prisoner abuse in the Abu Grahib prison and U.S. military moves to invade Iran are solid evidence that there is still some room for stories sharply critical of the reigning government, stories that are circulated worldwide. Hersh writes for the New York Times and the New Yorker magazine, about as far as one can get from a low-budget indymedia monthly or renegade weblog. Don’t apply for his job anytime soon, but don’t despair either. “Newspapers still see one of their functions is to correct wrongs,” says Hersh.
Hersh does admit that the resources that support his type of work are dwindling. In 40 plus years digging up dirt, Hersh says newspapers have always been hesitant to spend money. “The biggest problem we have [today] is that newspapers are a dying institution. Most of the major dailies in the last five years are suffering significant reductions in circulation. And when you are going to cut back operations, you cut back investigative reporters expenses.”
“Its always about money,” says Hersh, whose latest book Chain of Command is published by Harper-Collins, a company owned by conservative media-magnate Rupert Murdoch. “Some of the people that own the publishing house probably hate my views. Do you really think [Murdoch] cares about what’s being published as long as money’s being made? I don’t think so.”
While budget cuts and media consolidation are making things tough, Hersh is encouraged by the options for up and coming muckrakers, especially through the internet and the rapidly-expanding grassroots journalism of bloggers. “There’s so much more media, we have all these different outlets now and you can really get things out,” said Hersh.
Send in the Reinforcements
“Most newspapers either don’t have the money or don’t want to put the money into investigative reporting, cause there is no daily reward,” admits George Sanchez, a reporter for the Monterey County Herald in California. “You don’t have something every day. You have a great story in a couple of weeks but people want to see results immediately.”
At 26 years old, Sanchez is the future of this endangered craft. He did some investigative work right out of college for Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting. But his mentors told him to get a job at a daily paper, feed the beast and earn his chops.
From conversations with his elders, Sanchez sketched some ancestry to his vocation. “Immediately following Watergate, there was a general interest from the public for good reporting,” says Sanchez. “People saw what journalists could do when they had the time and the means to dig into the story and hold public officials accountable.”
Times are tough right now with media consolidation. Sanchez has worked for both Gannett and Knight Ridder, which together own about 200 papers. “Gannett has never been interested in investigative work. It’s never been so much about politics, but just time and newspapers needing to fill the paper.”
But Sanchez doesn’t believe in the surveys Gannett used to determine that “readers are more interested in quick features than they are long investigative features.” He’s not discouraged by the USA Todayification of countless dailies. And, he didn’t throw in the towel when his story about the Nostra Familia prison gangs was not quite killed, but buried on page D99 in a Bay-area newspaper. He still doesn’t know why the story was quietly pushed to a spot where it would fail to generate much attention, but has his theories. (True to his profession, there are only theories until there’s evidence.)
Even though TV news legally can lie, corporate takeovers of newspaper chains are making editors weak in the knees, and there’s not enough money to put food on the table, “There’s an egotism to be the first one to get the story.” That’s what Sanchez says will keep investigative journalism alive. But I figure it’s not just the ego. Sanchez also knew Gary Webb, and considered him a role model and a mentor. So now he has a lot to live up to, maybe a little revenge on his mind, and a tradition to uphold. But fortunately, Sanchez has some reinforcements along side him, with the spread of independent media that is arguably doing better investigative work than 99 percent of the elite press corps. In 1999, Gary Webb was asked what people could do to get better news and information, if they couldn’t get it in the newspapers. “You do it yourself,” Webb answered. “You’ve got to start rebuilding an information system on your own. And that’s what’s going on.”
Andrew Stelzer is a 2003 graduate of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, and returned in 2004 as a professor. This article appears in the July/August 205 issue of Clamor magazine.
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