A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
If you had tried to write a story ten years ago arguing that the CIA was promoting or practicing torture, you'd be looked at as some kind of reconstructed Marxist or something like that. And now you can read about that every day in the major newspapers. -- Nick Schou
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Nick Schou, an editor at Orange County Weekly, reviews and analyzes the remarkable and tragic story of Gary Webb, an investigative reporter who wrote a shell-shocking, three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 about the CIA's controversial connection to Nicaraguan Contras selling crack cocaine in the United States. The mainstream media attacked and vilified Gary Webb for this reporting. Webb left the Mercury News after the paper distanced themselves from the story, and he was never able to find another job in journalism. He killed himself two years ago.
The saddest part is that Gary's story was eventually proved to be true, including admissions by the CIA that the agency did have ties and knowledge of a drug smuggling operation in the United States, but simply turned a blind eye to the drug trafficking operation.
We spoke to Nick Schou about his thorough and balanced treatment of Gary Webb's story, which is truly an American tragedy.
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BuzzFlash: Your book, Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb is truly an American tragedy. You went back and looked at Webb's reporting on the CIA crack cocaine story, and you basically found that Gary Webb got the story right. Is that accurate?
Nick Schou: There were problems with the story, but those were pretty much confined to the lead paragraph. The only thing that was really misleading about the story is the way it was packaged by his editor. The San Jose Mercury News felt it had a hot ticket, a Pulitzer to get out of this story, only to abandon Gary after the story became controversial.
The misleading element was that it stated that the activities of this drug ring helped spark the crack cocaine epidemic. And Gary never believed that. The story didn't actually say that. After he left journalism, and when he finally wrote his book, he tried to clarify that he never actually believed that, and that the story had been over-hyped by his editors.
The important thing to remember is that the CIA denied any tie to this drug ring whatsoever, and that was used by the mainstream media when they attacked Gary in print. After Gary was driven out of journalism, the CIA released a report admitting that it had covered up its relationship with Contra drug traffickers for more than a decade. The L.A. Times, which had spent more time and energy than any other paper attacking Gary Webb, never even wrote a story about that. That should be a scandal, in and of itself.
BuzzFlash: So to clarify, the San Jose Mercury News, in their marketing of the story, said things that even Gary Webb didn't say. They said the Contras helped cause the crack explosion.
Nick Schou: They said that it helped spark it, which is kind of a vague statement, and it may or may not be true. It's something that's kind of impossible to prove either way. Determining the exact impact of any one drug ring, no matter how powerful and involved it was, is really complicated, especially in a disaster like the crack plague.
But there's no denying that what he had on his hands was a really important piece of history that had been covered up for a long time. He wasn't the first reporter to write about this issue, but he was the first reporter to actually track down where drugs were coming into this country as a result of the CIA's involvement in Central America, and where they ended up.
Webb found that one of the most notorious crack dealers in history, "Freeway" Ricky Ross, was being supplied by these very people. So that was a huge story. The CIA report later made clear that it was even worse than Webb could have possibly known. The CIA ended up admitting ties to dozens of trafficking organizations that were involved in Nicaragua.
BuzzFlash: One of the assertions Webb made, which other people took out of context, alluded to the fact that the CIA turned a blind eye to the trafficking of cocaine into the country. But Webb did not overtly say that the CIA was actually selling drugs in the streets of Los Angeles.
Nick Schou: Right. And many people believed that before he wrote his story, and used his story as further evidence of this notion. That made it all the easier for the mainstream media to attack Gary Webb.
The L.A. Times and The New York Times wrote huge stories trying to debunk this conspiracy theory, but they neglected to point out that Gary didn't believe that himself. After his career had already been pretty much ruined, Gary would go around giving readings of his book, and he would start every speech by saying exactly that -- that he believed what had happened here was a horrible accident of history, and that the CIA never deliberately tried to addict anybody to drugs.
BuzzFlash: Without a doubt, the CIA turned a blind eye to the problem and knew it was going on but didn't try to stop it.
Nick Schou: Well, Gary suspected as much, and there was strong circumstantial evidence that the CIA was well aware of the activities, but there was no way to know. That was another element of the hypocrisy and the criticism of his reporting -- that the story didn't contain any admissions from the CIA about what was happening. It is really naïve to think that those would be possible to get. But again, after he wrote his book, the CIA finally admitted that they had turned a blind eye to this.
BuzzFlash: As a side note, just like the crack epidemic in the late eighties and nineties, there's probably a similar story with the CIA turning a blind eye to what's going on in Afghanistan now with opium. The production rate of opium in Afghanistan has spiked since the fall of the Taliban. All kind of groups are selling opium, both our enemies and our allies to prop up the economy, their militias, and the remnants of the Taliban. These are open fields of poppy farms. It's not like it's hidden underground or anything. We know it's happening.
Nick Schou: The drug industry gets bigger every year. That is the biggest open secret out there. There's just a huge market for illicit drugs, and it's hard to find any country that isn't affected by it.
The way it works is basically that foreign policy has always trumped drug policy. That's the central hypocrisy in the whole war on drugs; it plays sort of a backstage role to foreign policy.
That's why, for years, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) would be arresting drug dealers in the U.S. who were selling cocaine that was being brought into the country; but those investigations never went up the food chain all the way, because the people smuggling drugs into the country often were doing so with the cooperation of our allies, like Mexico or Columbia, which is another key ally in the war on drugs. It's much easier for the DEA to have a mandate year after year to bust people on the street, and go after petty drug distributors, leaving the actual traffickers at the top of the industry alone. It just keeps going on, year after year after year.
BuzzFlash: Why did the L.A. Times especially, and the Washington Post and The New York Times, react so strongly to Webb's three-part series? What was it about his coverage that so offended the mainstream media and prompt such retaliation against Webb?
Nick Schou: Well, there are a couple of different things. First of all, I think the mainstream media would have been all too happy just to completely ignore this kind of a story. But because this Dark Alliance series was one of the first big news exposés to be published on the Internet, they didn't have that choice. It became very high profile, and it took a couple of months of nightly news coverage before those three papers weighed in on it. But they didn't really have a choice.
The second part of it is that all three papers had pretty much ignored this story, going back to the 1980s when the reports about Contra drug trafficking first became public. And they had covered this. Their reporters had written about it, but those stories always ran in the back of the news. They never were front-page stories.
And Senator John Kerry, who investigated this, was viewed as a kind of a conspiracy nut for going after it. His reputation was almost completely ruined as a result of that. Reporters who tried to aggressively cover this, in many cases, saw their careers ruined over it as well. People like Bob Parry, who wrote the first story about the CIA knowledge of Contra drug trafficking, ended up losing his job at the Associated Press over this.
Specifically with the L.A. Times, not only had they ignored the story, like everyone else, but they had come late to the story of "Freeway" Ricky Ross. A few years before Gary's story came out, the L.A. Times had written a big profile of him, calling him the person most responsible for the crack epidemic in L.A. So when they read Dark Alliance, which revealed where "Freeway" Rick's drugs came from and showed Agency involvement in that organization, they were under a special pressure to try to develop the story, because they had been the ones who had already put "Freeway" Ricky Ross on the map.
I talked to the reporter who actually wrote that original story. He was working in Texas at the time, and he was brought back by the L.A. Times to L.A. to write another story about Ross, where he said that Ross was just one of many players. He was at a loss to explain the difference between those two stories on "Freeway" Rick. Needless to say, there isn't really a satisfactory explanation for what happened, other than that the Times was simply trying to rewrite history, now that they had been scooped.
BuzzFlash: I think the operative word about this is the word "conspiracy." If a journalist's story seems too crazy to be believed, it's very quickly discredited.
It's what I call the "Oh, come on," phenomenon. But there's no question that the CIA has a long history of making deals and alliances with unsavory characters, with people who are not Mother Teresa. To me, it's so interesting that there's only so far that you can go with a story.
Nick Schou: I think it was a lot easier to dismiss a story like this ten years ago than it would be now. Not only has the CIA admitted its long-standing ties to drug-trafficking organizations. That's all history now. But they've been implicated in so many other scandals since that came out that it's just hard to keep track.
If you had tried to write a story ten years ago arguing that the CIA was promoting or practicing torture, you'd be looked at as some kind of reconstructed Marxist or something like that. And now you can read about that every day in the major newspapers.
I don't know necessarily that the mainstream media has really learned any kind of valuable lesson over its criticism of Dark Alliance, because so much of that criticism relied on anonymous government officials issuing blanket denials. And those are the same kind of anonymous sources that told the media to run with the story of Saddam Hussein hoarding weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be complete nonsense, and which helped pave the way towards a disastrous war in Iraq.
BuzzFlash: How exactly did the San Jose Mercury News, which trumpeted Webb's story on the front page, eventually distance itself from Webb's story and more or less retract the series.
Nick Schou: First the paper defended Gary's work. But the thing is, Gary was already kind of a hotshot investigative reporter when he started working at the Mercury News. He already had nearly twenty years of experience behind him. And he was working out of a very tiny bureau in Sacramento, so he wasn't really well known or particularly well liked at the headquarters of the paper with all the other reporters. Very few people other than a few editors at the paper even knew about this story, which was part of the problem, because there were some personality conflicts that prevented really good editors from actually editing the story. And the managing editor of the paper stopped reading it halfway through, and didn't have any training as an investigative reporter.
In that atmosphere, once the mainstream media really starting attacking this story, the support for Gary's work really didn't last beyond that. And Gary felt that there was a lot more to the story. He had done a lot of reporting that was edited out, and he was very dissatisfied with that whole process.
But rather than let him continue to report the story, the paper decided to take him out of the mix, and decided to reinvestigate his work. They assigned another reporter to try to duplicate what he had done. And that reporter came back and said: Well, some of it's right, some of it's wrong.
This caused a huge firestorm of controversy. The San Jose Mercury News felt they had to tell their readers essentially, well, we didn't mean to imply that the CIA had deliberately done anything, which a lot of people believed.
Gary predicted accurately that that kind of a letter to readers would be viewed as a complete retraction of the story, even though that's not what it was. But he was right, that's exactly how it was perceived. He resigned a few months after the paper printed this sort of half retraction/half defense of his work. And he refused to go along with it. That's the main thing. He repeatedly went on the air and talked to reporters, including myself, saying that he felt he'd been betrayed, and that he had all this extra work that they wouldn't let him put in the paper. That pretty much sealed his fate at the Mercury News.
BuzzFlash: After leaving the Mercury News, what did he wind up doing with his life and the rest of his career?
Nick Schou: He never really worked in daily journalism again after that. He was able to get a job as an investigator for the State of California, up in Sacramento, where his family lived, but he went through some personal problems. He went through a divorce, and ultimately ended up not being very challenged in his government job.
He really was a born-and-bred investigative reporter, and that was always what he wanted to do. He tried to get back into journalism shortly before he committed suicide, and sent out fifty resumes to papers across the country, but wasn't hired. He ended up working for a small alternative weekly in Sacramento, but he wasn't able to pay his bills. His salary was a fraction of what it used to be. And he had child support payments. He ultimately had to sell his house and move in with his mother in order to settle his debts. He committed suicide, literally, the morning he was supposed to move in with his Mom, at age 49, which was, I think, too much for him to be able to take at that point. He had really sort of reached the end of his dwindling psychological resources.
BuzzFlash: Do you think Webb's story had a chilling effect on what few investigative reporters are even left?
Nick Schou: Yes. Investigative reporting is a tough business. The kind of investigative reporting that Gary really pursued, which is really the nuts and bolts, unglamorous kind of research involving documents and extensive hours and hours in libraries and other places, digging through records and so forth, is really something that most reporters don't bother with because it's simply not all that rewarding.
Most of the hotshot investigative reporters out there that we're all familiar with - people like Bob Woodward, and even to a certain extent, Seymour Hersh - pretty much rely on having very powerful connections who leak them information. Then they essentially just type up their interviews.
The system doesn't exactly reward the type of aggressive, very difficult reporting that Gary Webb used to do. I think that's a shame. And unfortunately, in general, the media is suffering a decline of public trust and a decline in leadership.
More and more people are turning to the television for news, if they pay any attention to news at all. But I think there's a real strong need for the type of journalism that Gary Webb stood for. Throughout his career, as I found in researching this book, he was always going after abuses of power and corruption, regardless of the politics. He really was non-partisan when it came to exposing abuses of power. I think that's exactly what the media should be doing.
BuzzFlash: Would you say there's an over-arching narrative or a conclusion that you've drawn from writing this book, Kill the Messenger?
Nick Schou: I think it's a cautionary tale for people who are considering careers in investigative reporting, and just for anyone who cares about a functioning, aggressive press in a democratic society.
One of the most intriguing perspectives I got on the book was from a French filmmaker, who is actually the only person who covered Gary Webb's suicide on screen -- the news media in the U.S. completely ignored this. This French filmmaker made a documentary about it.
He actually pointed out that, when the CIA report came out basically vindicating all of Gary Webb's work, the main reason, it seems, it had been ignored was that the Monica Lewinsky scandal had just broken out. He made the point to me, and I share his view, that in a democratic society, censorship of the press isn't so much a problem or a threat. It's just what he called media noise. That's the tendency of the media to just focus on relatively silly, unimportant stories to the exclusion of really important news.
I think that's the biggest threat and the biggest lesson of this book -- that media noise helped destroy Gary Webb's career. He wasn't so much censored by the government, but by his fellow reporters who had this sort of pack mentality, and didn't objectively do their jobs. They did their readers a disservice.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much, Nick, for speaking with us.
Nick Schou: Thank you.
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Interview conducted by Senior Editor, Scott Vogel.
Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, by Nick Schou, a BuzzFlash premium.
"Gary Webb's Death: American Tragedy" (Robert Parry/Consortium News).
"Kill the Messenger: The Tragic Life of Gary Webb," (Doug Ireland/In These Times, posted on Alternet)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW