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Higher Ground: Gary Webb was the messenger



Many years ago, I heard a story that the CIA purposefully allowed the funneling of crack cocaine into Los Angeles and other inner cities across the country in order to fund a war in Nicaragua. It was told to me on the street. I didn't read it. As a young woman living in the Bronx, I heard the story again and again, as matter-of-fact as the sun rises each morning in the east. The CIA, everyone said, knew where the crack was, who it came from, and despite the War on Drugs, the flow was never impeded, rather the lowest level of addict or poorest and most desperate of the pushers were the ones targeted for incarceration.

I didn't know where this story came from. I only knew that to the poor, the black, or the Hispanic American, it was true. It angered me, and fueled my fire to end the drug war.

Then, through a journalist I knew committed to telling the truth about the War on Drugs, I met a man named Gary Webb — and learned that not only was he the journalist who had exposed this "Dark Alliance" between the CIA and crack cocaine, but his career and his life were destroyed by his fellow journalists for it.

Webb, unable to regain the career he was made for, committed suicide in 2004.

It's strange to sit in a theater today, and watch Kill the Messenger, a film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb, portraying his groundbreaking story and subsequent destruction by fellow journalists. No, strange isn't the correct word — infuriating is. The media killed a man, cut his balls off with their words for doing nothing more than telling the truth. Sure, he scooped the L.A. Times. But the L.A. Times didn't further his story — rather, they attacked Webb, and admit doing so.

As an esteemed colleague said in an aside to me last week: the L.A. Times newsroom deserved to be gutted for being such petty assholes.

But it wasn't only the L.A. Times attacking Webb. They went at him with The New York Times, and The Washington Post (the reporters there had worked for the CIA).

And still, The New York Times doesn't acknowledge their role in this drama. Greg Grandin comments on The New York Times' reaction to Webb's story (that continues to this day via their media critic David Carr) in a recent article for The Nation:

Carr tentatively suggests that perhaps journalists should have better spent their energy reporting the larger story, rather than relentlessly fact-checking Webb. At the same time, though, he presented the campaign that ultimately drove Webb to his death as a "he-said-she-said-who-can-ultimately-say?" matter of interpretation, given ample space to Webb's tormentors, like Tim Golden, who wielded the hatchet for The New York Times...

Understand: Webb's reporting was validated by the government's own documents.

Such is the state of media criticism that Carr could make notice of [a] "little-noticed" Senate report [authenticating Webb's reporting] without pointing out the obvious: it was "little-noticed" because newspapers, like his, little noticed it ...

Grandin continues:

Carr's worst offense against Webb — other than not mentioning that Webb had won a Pulitzer Prize, for his work with a team of reporters [investigating] the 1989 San Francisco earthquake — is that he blames Webb himself for his downfall ...

Why does all this matter? On a very small scale, because The New York Times, supposedly the most respected source of journalism in the world, had the chance to issue a mea culpa and tell the truth, and chose rather to blame their victim.

But of much greater importance to note: Webb's story was the first news story to "go viral" — before that was even a phrase. It was 1996, the Internet was new, and suddenly, a small paper in Northern California mattered, and a story could be read by anyone, from anywhere. It was, in every way, a game-changing moment for journalism.

What should have been celebrated and acted upon with consideration by other journos on the street and up into the halls of Congress, was instead scrubbed, in a fit of anger, jealousy, and conspiracy.

Webb, a man who told the truth — a truth proved by the government's own documents — was destroyed, along with tens of thousands of Americans who succumbed to, or knew someone who succumbed to, crack.

Then, a few years later when the government released documents that supported the truth Webb exposed, the media was too busy covering President Clinton's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky to care.

Today, we have a continuation of this scenario: There is overwhelming evidence that the Drug War (among many, many other acts of our government) is a farce; that prohibition does not work; that money stays in the hands of criminals and law enforcement; that we are the largest incarcerator on earth; that the bulk of our incarcerated are there for non-violent drug offenses. We know these things — both intuitively as a nation and with facts and figures from our own government. The poor in our nation perhaps know these truths most intimately, and they have carried on Webb's story long after his colleagues discredited him. To them, whether they knew Webb's name or not, Webb was a hero who validated what they know as truth.

Yet the bigger story every day is Kim Kardashian.

Worse, journalists today rarely dare go where Webb did; rather too many spend their days finding cat videos or drumming up fear of people from the Middle East, or Ebola.

Authentic journalism, said Webb, is telling the people what the government doesn't want them to know. That's what he did, and he paid dearly for it.

Our democracy and our people are only as strong as our press — we have an opportunity now to return to authentic journalism. We must, in fact, and permit Webb's story to inspire us to a deeper commitment to truth — anything less is to let Webb's purpose go in vain.

Here's Gary Webb telling his own story, in his own words. To read more about Webb, including his controversial book, Dark Alliance, go to

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