Eighteen years after it was published, “Dark Alliance,” the San Jose Mercury News’s bombshell investigation into links between the cocaine trade, Nicaragua’s Contra rebels, and African American neighborhoods in California, remains one of the most explosive and controversial exposés in American journalism.
The 20,000-word series enraged black communities, prompted Congressional hearings, and became one of the first major national security stories in history to blow up online. It also sparked an aggressive backlash from the nation’s most powerful media outlets, which devoted considerable resources to discredit author Gary Webb’s reporting. Their efforts succeeded, costing Webb his career. On December 10, 2004, the journalist was found dead in his apartment, having ended his eight-year downfall with two .38-caliber bullets to the head.
Who were the perps? Reporters from the LAT, acting on orders from above – and with CIA help:
… newspapers like the Times and the Post seemed to spend far more time trying to poke holes in the series than in following up on the underreported scandal at its heart, the involvement of U.S.-backed proxy forces in international drug trafficking. The Los Angeles Times was especially aggressive. Scooped in its own backyard, the California paper assigned no fewer than 17 reporters to pick apart Webb’s reporting. While employees denied an outright effort to attack the Mercury News, one of the 17 referred to it as the “get Gary Webb team.” Another said at the time, “We’re going to take away that guy’s Pulitzer,” according to Kornbluh’s CJR piece. Within two months of the publication of “Dark Alliance,” the L.A. Times devoted more words to dismantling its competitor’s breakout hit than comprised the series itself.
The CIA watched these developments closely, collaborating where it could with outlets who wanted to challenge Webb’s reporting. Media inquiries had started almost immediately following the publication of “Dark Alliance,” and [former CIA Directorate of Intelligence staffer Nicholas] Dujmovic in “Managing a Nightmare” cites the CIA’s success in discouraging “one major news affiliate” from covering the story. He also boasts that the agency effectively departed from its own longstanding policies in order to discredit the series. “For example, in order to help a journalist working on a story that would undermine the Mercury News allegations, Public Affairs was able to deny any affiliation of a particular individual — which is a rare exception to the general policy that CIA does not comment on any individual’s alleged CIA ties.”
The attacks worked. Reporters who could get away with the sloppiest stuff so long as they attacked the approved targets (hint: nobody ever lost a 1990s gig at the WaPo, LAT, or NYT for going after Bill Clinton or Al Gore, no matter how questionable the evidence), suddenly found themselves holding Webb’s work to much higher standards than they themselves observed.
Webb’s career collapsed, and his mental state collapsed along with it. In December of 2004, unable to make a living as a journalist, having been made a pariah by persons not fit to carry his laptop, he was found dead of two gunshot wounds to the head.
Police ruled the death a suicide. Yet one of the persons who helped wreck his career copped to feeling something approaching remorse for his role in Webb’s death:
As [investigative journalist Nick] Schou reported for L.A. Weekly, in a 2013 radio interview L.A. Times reporter Jesse Katz recalled the episode, saying, “As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder[ed] how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope. And we did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”
As much as it’s true that he suffered from a clinical depression for years and years — and even before ‘Dark Alliance’ to a certain extent — it’s impossible to view what happened to him without understanding the death of his career as a result of this story,” he explained. “It was really the central defining event of his career and of his life.”
“Once you take away a journalist’s credibility, that’s all they have,” Schou says. “He was never able to recover from that.”