Mar
01
1998

'Are You Sure You Want to Ruin Your Career?'

Gary Webb's fate a warning to gutsy reporters

Imagine this: You’re an investigative reporter with nearly 20 years experience. You publish a multi-part investigative series in a reputable daily paper. The story electrifies the public and sends the country’s premier newspapers scurrying to find fault with it. After exhaustive examination involving dozens of journalists at several major papers, the original story is found--except for a few details and overstatements--to be basically sound.

Yet you find yourself ostracized. Your follow-up stories go unpublished. After being transferred and taken off the investigative beat, you leave journalism.

Is this how today’s newspapers reward gutsy investigative reporting on politically sensitive topics? It sure looks that way.

Extra! readers will have no difficulty putting flesh on this skeleton. The reporter is the San Jose Mercury News’ Gary Webb. The story is Webb’s three-part series, published in August 1996, that documented that Nicaraguans linked to the CIA-backed Contras had brought crack cocaine into Los Angeles and channeled profits to the Contras. In the months that followed, Webb wrote additional stories that went unedited and unpublished. In June 1997, 10 months after the initial series appeared, Webb was transferred from Sacramento to the paper’s outpost in Cupertino--a four-hour round-trip commute--and told he was no longer an investigative reporter. In December, he left the paper. He now works for a government oversight committee in Sacramento.

Examining the aftermath of Webb’s "Dark Alliance" series makes clear that investigative reporting--particularly reporting that approaches politically sensitive agencies such as the CIA--can cost a reporter dearly.

Steady backstep

As he began research on the story, Gary Webb didn’t know what was at risk. When he first spoke with Bob Parry--the Associated Press reporter who, along with Brian Barger, broke the Contragate and Contra/drug stories--Webb thought Parry was being "overly cautious." "I thought he was being kind of foolish," Webb recalled, when Parry asked him: "Are you sure you want to ruin your career?"

Webb kept digging. In the weeks that followed the series’ initial publication, the Mercury News defended it. But after what Webb describes as the "Los Angeles Times/New York Times double-whammy"--the two papers, along with the Washington Post, ran articles furiously attacking the series--the Mercury News began a slow but steady backstep.

By January 1997, when Webb turned in follow-up stories, none of his editors called to edit them. "It was just total silence," he said. By March, Webb was told that the paper was going to write a letter to readers about the series.

On May 11, 1997, the Mercury News published an editorial written by executive editor Jerry Ceppos which characterized the series as "important work" and "solidly documented," but outlined several aspects of the series in which the paper should have done a better job in presenting the "gray areas."

The editorial was notably neither a correction nor a retraction. It asserted that the Mercury News:

  • presented “only one interpretation of complicated, sometimes-conflicting pieces of evidence” in a “few key instances”;
  • failed to identify the amount of money involved as an estimate;
  • oversimplified how the crack epidemic in America grew; and
  • "created impressions that were open to misinterpretation" through "imprecise language and graphics."
  • Ceppos acknowledged in the editorial that Webb disagreed with his interpretation of the evidence.

    A month later, Webb was transferred to Cupertino and told he was no longer an investigative reporter.

    Webb was told he was being transferred because of how he responded to the paper’s "review process." He now believes that this was management’s way of saying that they were unhappy he disagreed with their assessment of how significant the Contra-linked "Dark Alliance" drug ring was in spawning the crack epidemic in south central Los Angeles. "It was a disagreement on epidemiology," he said.

    Given his union contract, Webb couldn’t be fired. In fact, after his transfer to Cupertino, the Newspaper Guild prompted arbitration hearings. When he left the paper, Webb signed a confidentiality agreement which prevents him from discussing the terms of his departure. He now works for the Joint Legislative Staff Task Force on Government Oversight in Sacramento. (Through an email interview, Ceppos declined to be more specific or contradict Webb’s version of events concerning how Webb and his follow-up stories were handled by the Mercury News.)

    Pulling the rug out

    In assessing the story and its aftermath, some journalists have been struck by the fact that Webb took the blame for the series alone. That’s the reaction of James Aucoin, a former journalist and now a University of South Alabama communications professor who specializes in the history of investigative reporting. Aucoin said that Webb "followed all the standard operating procedures. Any errors could have been corrected in follow-up stories without destroying him or his career."

    "If there’s any bad guys in this," Aucoin continued, "it’s the people at his newspaper. They pulled the rug out from under him. The editors had the responsibility to make sure the story was done right and make sure the documents were correct. They had just as much responsibility for oversight. Yet he’s the one who took the fall."

    Reflecting on the history of Watergate coverage, Aucoin noted that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein "were not particularly supported by their fellow colleagues outside the Washington Post. The reason those stories were allowed to continue was because Ben Bradlee and Mrs. [Katharine] Graham allowed them," he said. "You see the tremendous importance of editors and publishers at a publication. If they’re not willing to back the reporter, the report is not going to get done."

    While Webb doesn’t deny that he was abandoned by the Mercury News’ editors, he said he was given a chance to rejoin the club. "I was out on a limb because I chose to be," he said. "If I had gone along with the crowd and been willing to say, 'Yeah, we should have done that and that,' I’m sure I would still be there. I felt strongly we got the thing right the first time."

    Another aspect of the "Dark Alliance" aftermath which strikes Aucoin as significant is who attacked the story. In the days when investigative journalist Ida Tarbell took on Standard Oil in the pages of Harper’s, Standard Oil came after Tarbell. "In the case of Gary Webb’s charges against the CIA and the Contras," he said, "the major dailies came after him. Media institutions are now part of the establishment and they have a lot invested in that establishment."

    Webb thinks the source of the attacks makes perfect sense. "The government side of the story is coming through the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post," he said. "They use the giant corporate press rather than saying anything directly. If you work through friendly reporters on major newspapers, it comes off as the New York Times saying it and not a mouthpiece of the CIA."

    As for the impact of Webb’s experience on other journalists, Aucoin expects it to have a "chilling effect on the whole practice [of investigative reporting.] If reporters are asked to do a story and then they lose their careers over it, why should they even attempt to do the stories? It sends a major message to reporters about the kind of information they’re supposed to come back with."

    Internet--or independent

    So if politically sensitive investigations are unwelcome in many of the nation’s newspapers, are there outlets for such stories? Webb credits the Internet (as well as talk radio) with generating the national uproar over the Dark Alliance story. Recalling the press freeze-out in response to AP’s initial Contragate investigations, Webb said, "What [the national media] did with Parry and Barger was try and ignore them, and to a large extent, they succeeded. When they couldn’t ignore the stuff we did [at the Mercury News], they came after us. Back in 1985, Parry and Barger didn’t have the luxury of the Internet. Our website made it accessible to people who ordinarily couldn’t read or hear about it."

    But the Internet, however valuable, is still only an ancillary distribution mechanism which can’t support the costs of investigative journalism. Nor does it have the credibility of the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Thus initial publication of such controversial material remains problematic.

    After leaving the Associated Press for Newsweek and leaving Newsweek for independence, Bob Parry decided to launch his own magazine called I.F., named for journalistic maverick I.F. Stone and George Seldes’ publication In fact. "To do what I want to do," said Parry, "I think I.F. is the only option to report on these topics in an honest way."

    "Even if you go to the left press, there’s a lot of uneasiness about these stories," Parry continued. "Editors are afraid of being called conspiracy theorists. People say it’s old. It’s a hard sell. I got tired of making it sell."

    Given his experience the last two years, Webb is a convert to Parry’s way of thinking. "The only way you’re going to do effective journalism is to be truly independent," he said. "It’s a difficult thing to do, but George Seldes and I.F. Stone did it. There’s no reason modern-day journalists can’t do it too. You don’t get 401-Ks and health benefits, but at least you get to tell the truth."