A Day When Journalism Died

Exclusive: Dec. 9 has a grim meaning for the Republic, the date in 2004 when investigative reporter Gary Webb, driven to ruin by vindictive press colleagues for reviving the Contra-cocaine scandal, took his own life, a demarcation as the U.S. press went from protecting the people to shielding the corrupt, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Looking back over my four decades in the national news media, it’s hard to identify one moment when American journalism died. The process was a slow and ugly one, with incremental acts of cowardice accumulating until mainstream reporters were clearly part of the problem, not anything to do with a solution. But the date Dec. 9 has a special place in that sad progression.

It was on Dec. 9, 2004, when the mean-spirited mainstream media’s treatment of investigative journalist Gary Webb led him his career devastated, his family broken, his money gone and his life seemingly hopeless to commit suicide. It was a moment that should have shamed all the big-shot journalists who had a hand in Webb’s destruction, but it mostly didn’t.

Journalist Gary Webb holding a copy of his Contra-cocaine article in the San Jose Mercury-News.

Journalist Gary Webb holding a copy of his Contra-cocaine article in the San Jose Mercury-News.

Webb’s offense was to have revived the shocking story of the Reagan administration’s tolerance of cocaine smuggling by the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s. Though the scandal was real and had been partly exposed in real time the major newspapers had locked arms in defense of President Ronald Reagan and the CIA. The sordid scandal apparently was deemed “not good for the country,” so it was buried.

My Associated Press colleague, Brian Barger, and I had written the first story exposing the Contras’ involvement in cocaine smuggling in 1985, but our story was attacked by Reagan’s skillful propaganda team, which got The New York Times and other major news outlets to buy into the denials.

Later that decade, a gutsy investigation by then-Sen. John Kerry filled in some of the gaps showing how the Reagan administration’s collaboration with drug-tainted airlines and other parts of the Contras’ cocaine smuggling apparatus had functioned. But Kerry’s probe was also mocked by the major media. Sniffing out that conventional wisdom, Newsweek deemed Kerry “a randy conspiracy buff.”

Kerry’s brush with this near-political-death-experience over the Contra-cocaine scandal taught him some hard lessons about survival in Washington, which help explain why he was such a disappointing candidate during Election 2004 and why he has shown such timidity in challenging Official Washington’s “group thinks” as Secretary of State.

For both U.S. journalists and politicians, there was no upside to doing the hard work of exposing this kind of crime of state. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “What’s the Matter with John Kerry.”]

Same Stonewall

In 1996, Gary Webb encountered the same stonewall when he stumbled onto evidence showing that some of the Contra cocaine, after being smuggled into the United States, had flowed into the production of “crack” cocaine in Los Angeles and contributed to the “crack epidemic” of the 1980s.

When he published his findings in a series for the San Jose Mercury News, the major newspapers had a choice: either admit that they had slinked away from one of the biggest scandals of the 1980s or redouble their efforts to discredit the story and to destroy anyone who dared touch it. They went with option two.

In a tag-team pummeling of Gary Webb, The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times all denounced Webb and decried his reporting. Soon, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News were feeling the heat and rather than back their reporter, they sought to salvage their own careers. They sold Webb out and he was soon out of a job and unemployable in the mainstream media.

The bitter irony was that Webb’s reporting finally forced a relatively thorough and honest investigation by the CIA’s Inspector General Frederick Hitz, who concluded in 1998 that not only were the Contras involved in the drug trade from their start in 1980 and through the entire decade but that CIA officers were aware of the problem and helped cover it up, putting the goal of ousting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government ahead of blowing the whistle on these corrupt CIA clients.

Yet, even the CIA’s confession wasn’t enough to shame the major newspapers into admitting the truth and acknowledging their own culpability in the long-running cover-up. It remained easier to continue the demonization of Gary Webb.

At Consortiumnews, we were one of the few news outlets that examined the extraordinary admissions contained in the CIA’s two-volume report and in a corresponding Justice Department Inspector General’s report, which added more details about how criminal investigations of the Contras were thwarted. But, sadly, we lacked the reach and the clout of the major newspapers.

As the controversy bubbled in 1996, I also had joined with Webb in several speaking engagements on the West Coast. Though we sometimes spoke to large and enthusiastic crowds, the power of the Big Media overwhelmed everything, especially the truth. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Sordid Contra-Cocaine Saga.”]

Webb’s Demise

In the years after the Contra-cocaine story was buried once again, I lost touch with Webb who had landed a job with a California state legislative committee. So, I didn’t realize that after that job ended, Webb’s life was spiraling downward. Even modest-sized newspapers refused to consider hiring the “disgraced” reporter.

Webb’s marriage fell apart; he struggled to pay child-support and other bills; he was faced with a forced move out of a house near Sacramento, California, and in with his mother. Deeply depressed, according to his family members, Webb chose to end his life.

On Dec. 9, 2004, the 49-year-old Webb typed out suicide notes to his ex-wife and his three children; laid out a certificate for his cremation; and taped a note on the door telling movers, who were coming the next morning, to instead call 911.

Webb then took out his father’s pistol and shot himself in the head. The first shot was not lethal, so he fired once more. (Yes, I know that conspiracy theorists have seized on the two shots to insist that Webb was murdered by the CIA, but there is no proof of that and by pushing that baseless account, people simply let the real culprits the big newspapers off the hook.)

After Webb’s body was found, I received a call from a reporter for the Los Angeles Times who knew that I was one of Webb’s few journalistic colleagues who had defended him and his work. I told the reporter that American history owed a great debt to Gary Webb because he had forced out important facts about Reagan-era crimes. But I added that the Los Angeles Times would be hard-pressed to write an honest obituary because the newspaper had essentially ignored Hitz’s final report, which had largely vindicated Webb.

To my disappointment but not my surprise, I was correct. The Los Angeles Times ran a mean-spirited obituary that made no mention of either my defense of Webb, nor the CIA’s admissions in 1998. The obituary was republished in other newspapers, including The Washington Post.

Even though Webb’s reputation posthumously received some rehabilitation with a sympathetic portrayal of his ordeal in Jeremy Renner’s 2014 movie, “Kill the Messenger,” some news executives who aided the Contra-cocaine cover-up in the 1980s and abetted the destruction of Webb in the 1990s still won’t admit their complicity in suppressing one of the most important stories of that era, people such as The Washington Post’s Jeff Leen and Leonard Downie. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “WPost’s Slimy Attack on Gary Webb and “How the Washington Press Turned Bad.”]

A few journalists have continued to find nuggets of the Contra-cocaine scandal, including from accounts by former CIA contract pilot Robert “Tosh” Plumlee, who supplied details about his work ferrying guns and drugs for Reagan’s Contras, as reported by John McPhaul of The Tico Times, based in San Jose, Costa Rica. Even Fox News poked into the Contra-cocaine connection in an article about alleged CIA complicity in the 1985 torture-murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.

But the resistance from the major U.S. news media and the ferocity from Reagan’s acolytes whenever their hero’s legacy is challenged have left this very real scandal in the netherworld of doubt and uncertainty, a key chapter of America’s Lost History in which Dec. 9, 2004, conveys a baleful message.

[As part of our end-of-year fund drive, Consortiumnews is offering a DVD of “Kill the Messenger” and a CD of Webb and Parry speaking about the Contra-cocaine scandal in 1996. For details on this special offer, click here.]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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21 comments for “A Day When Journalism Died

  1. Truth first
    December 9, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    It is simply not possible to have a functioning democracy when you have a corrupt mainstream media.

    If you think you have either in America then you have not being paying attention.

  2. justwondering
    December 9, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    You say that the CIA “confessed” that they were involved in a 1998 investigation. I went to https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/cocaine/contra-story/findings.html#3 and I don’t see that there.

    Can you point us to sources for the CIA admitting that WEBB’s allegations were true?

    • Consortiumnews.com
      December 9, 2015 at 6:53 pm

      You can read the link in the article, https://consortiumnews.com/2014/12/13/the-sordid-contra-cocaine-saga-2/, which details the CIA’s admission that it was aware of the Contras’ involvement in cocaine smuggling and the agency’s unwillingness to turn in its Contra clients. In the CIA’s Inspector General’s report, Hitz denies that the CIA “conspired” with the Contras to smuggle cocaine but he admits that the agency had detailed knowledge throughout the 1980s, systematically looked the other way and concealed evidence of the problem.
      Robert Parry

      • Richard Patten
        December 9, 2015 at 7:29 pm

        Just a thought: Reading about Venezuela democratic loss and about TPP, I recall bribery and political sabotage being involved in CIA/ multinational takeover of democratic-leaning countries, and knowing bribery has been involved in EU/banking takeover of Greek economy, I wonder if the same CIA/multinational effort in creating and pushing the TPP.

    • jpmcphaul
      December 9, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      Look at Conclusions:
      https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/cocaine/contra-story/intro.html

      Among other things:
      CIA Policies and Practices. CIA acted inconsistently in handling allegations or information indicating that Contra-related organizations and individuals were involved in drug trafficking. In some cases, CIA pursued confirmation of allegations or information of drug allegations. In other cases, CIA knowledge of allegations or information indicating that organizations or individuals had been involved in drug trafficking did not deter their use by CIA. In other cases, CIA did not act to verify drug trafficking allegations or information even when it had the opportunity to do so. In still other cases, CIA deemed the allegation or information to be unsubstantiated or not credible.
      With respect to air services companies, contract air crew members and other companies that were used to support the Contra program, CIA took prompt action in responding to ADCI Gates’ April 9, 1987 instructions by requesting relevant information from U.S. law enforcement agencies in addition to the FBI. However, CIA’s actions in response to information received from law enforcement agencies that indicated a possible drug trafficking connection by air services companies and individual crew members were inconsistent. Despite such information, several pilots and one mechanic continued to be associated with their companies in support of the Contra program

    • jpmcphaul
      December 9, 2015 at 7:09 pm

      See conclusions:
      https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/cocaine/contra-story/intro.html

      Among other things:

      CIA Policies and Practices. CIA acted inconsistently in handling allegations or information indicating that Contra-related organizations and individuals were involved in drug trafficking. In some cases, CIA pursued confirmation of allegations or information of drug allegations. In other cases, CIA knowledge of allegations or information indicating that organizations or individuals had been involved in drug trafficking did not deter their use by CIA. In other cases, CIA did not act to verify drug trafficking allegations or information even when it had the opportunity to do so. In still other cases, CIA deemed the allegation or information to be unsubstantiated or not credible.
      With respect to air services companies, contract air crew members and other companies that were used to support the Contra program, CIA took prompt action in responding to ADCI Gates’ April 9, 1987 instructions by requesting relevant information from U.S. law enforcement agencies in addition to the FBI. However, CIA’s actions in response to information received from law enforcement agencies that indicated a possible drug trafficking connection by air services companies and individual crew members were inconsistent. Despite such information, several pilots and one mechanic continued to be associated with their companies in support of the Contra program

    • jpmcphaul
      December 9, 2015 at 7:20 pm

      See conclusions:
      https://www.cia.gov/library/reports/general-reports-1/cocaine/contra-story/intro.html

      Among other things:
      “CIA Policies and Practices. CIA acted inconsistently in handling allegations or information indicating that Contra-related organizations and individuals were involved in drug trafficking. In some cases, CIA pursued confirmation of allegations or information of drug allegations. In other cases, CIA knowledge of allegations or information indicating that organizations or individuals had been involved in drug trafficking did not deter their use by CIA. In other cases, CIA did not act to verify drug trafficking allegations or information even when it had the opportunity to do so. In still other cases, CIA deemed the allegation or information to be unsubstantiated or not credible.
      With respect to air services companies, contract air crew members and other companies that were used to support the Contra program, CIA took prompt action in responding to ADCI Gates’ April 9, 1987 instructions by requesting relevant information from U.S. law enforcement agencies in addition to the FBI. However, CIA’s actions in response to information received from law enforcement agencies that indicated a possible drug trafficking connection by air services companies and individual crew members were inconsistent. Despite such information, several pilots and one mechanic continued to be associated with their companies in support of the Contra program”

  3. Threadzilla
    December 9, 2015 at 5:19 pm

    “Yes, I know that conspiracy theorists have seized on the two shots to insist that Webb was murdered by the CIA, but there is no proof of that and by pushing that baseless account, people simply let the real culprits – the big newspapers – off the hook.”

    The “proof” is statistical, i.e. hard math, not speculative or anecdotal. Suicides with two shots to the head are exceedingly rare. Such cases almost always involve a misfire or a very low caliber weapon, like a .22. Webb’s father’s handgun, which was mentioned in general terms, was .38 caliber.

    Whether or not a suicide supports any chosen narrative, it is reasonable to weigh the supremely freak possibility of two self-inflicted shots to the head with a .38 vs. a man who almost certainly was on the hit list of an organization that has openly boasted of its professional and creative methods of assassination.

    • December 10, 2015 at 4:20 pm

      I agree. Logic, odds, and the type of enemies this man would have had point away from suicide. Certainly the main stream media that demonized the man would be responsible for his loss of job, family problems, and depression but not his death. His death was either his choice or it wasn’t. I bet on the latter.
      jason
      thefinalhour.ca

  4. oopsie
    December 9, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    And, Oswald was a desperate lone wolf
    And, he was rightfully liquidated by an angry patriot before any chance of a trial
    And, there was no Gulf of Tonkin incident
    And a tower one day, just decided to all by itself, fall flat on its face
    And Pearl Harbour really was a surprise attack
    And the Lusitania carried no munitions supply
    And the various media/press writes and reports as one.
    Since there is no guiding iron glove.
    And terrorism and terrorists mean we should give up our liberties.
    Out of legitimate fear
    And the media/press reports it all as one voice.
    So, amalgamate it all into one the whole kit and kaboodley and call it VERITAS
    Then, pop another beer.
    Because one, like Galileo, should never question.
    Because that is just tin foil hat.

  5. Ethan Allen
    December 9, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    Thank you Robert both for your sincere fealty to Gary Webb’s legacy of factual and courageous investigative journalism, and for your own determination to maintain the tradition of providing reliable and informed reporting.
    That sad day of Gary’s demise may not have been the precise day that professional investigative journalism died, but it is certainly one of the most memorable and dramatic moments that undeniably expose the depth of the wanton collusion and corruption of most of the charlatans posing as journalists in today’s mainstream corporate media.
    “Work is love made visible.” KG
    As Usual,
    EA

    • art guerrilla
      December 10, 2015 at 9:30 pm

      just a ‘me too’…
      webb was too much a true reporter, not a stenographer for Empire, as fills most of the lamestream media… (the ONLY thing palin got ‘right’, even a blind pig, etc…)
      it will ever be thus under Empire’s boot heel: the courageously outspoken will be silenced…

      sure, we sheeple talk tough, but who will stand against Empire ? ? ?
      i will stand with you, if you stand with me; but it is dog awful hard to stand alone, as the too few heroes have: manning, browning, shwarz, kiriakou, blinney, klein, webb, snowden, hastings, etc…
      ALL of them heroic patriots i admire…
      (conversely, there isn’t ONE washingtoon ‘leader’, ONE mainstream media whore, or ONE captain of industry i would bother to piss on if they were on fire…)

  6. December 9, 2015 at 8:58 pm

    Rob,

    This piece is a timely and welcome, albeit sad, reminder to us all — especially in this age when it seems to be ‘open season’ on those people such as investigative journalists and whistleblowers who have the courage to speak truth to power — that Gary Webb’s legacy should never be forgotten, or in the case of the execrable MSM, never denigrated or downplayed.

    Webb may not have nailed every detail of the story at first, but he didn’t have to. After breaking the story he had already done the hard yards, after which it was incumbent upon the Big Guns — the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post — with all the resources available to them and backed up by the “reach and clout” to go the Full Monty with it. And of course all the while credit him with breaking it to begin with.

    The fact they failed to do this was in and of itself bad enough; the fact they then effectively conspired to throw Webb under the bus is one of the singularly ugly blots on the ever increasingly barren landscape that represents mainstream media investigative journalism. It is and remains also a savage indictment on the moral stature and ethical integrity of the profession as a whole.

    One final point. It occured to me reading this story that there are probably many other investigative journos including freelancers who might otherwise be prepped to follow their noses with any number of the potential big stories in and around Washington (the original “Naked City”), but after considering Webb’s fate it must surely give them pause. This of course represents the darker side of that legacy.

    Doubtless, this would have been the main rationale for the MSM’s reprehensible treatment of Webb in the first instance. As ‘Dubya’ himself might have said: “Mission Accomplished”.

    Greg Maybury
    Editor / Publisher
    poxamerikana.com

  7. NoOneYouKnow
    December 9, 2015 at 11:25 pm

    Thanks for this memorial to Webb.
    I’ve always assumed the attacks on Webb were coordinated by CIA through its willing partners in the MSM. I’m interested to find you think they were only protecting their reputations.

  8. Mencken
    December 10, 2015 at 11:02 am

    This tragic history of the Webb affair misses an important point. For years, to this day, the CIA has infiltrated major media outlets and essentially owns some part of all major media figures. This has been true for decades, and former CIA opratives have admitted it, even bragged about it. This was certainly true when newspapers were far more influential, i.e., the 1980s and 90s, than they are now. So the shameful, lockstep, collective behavior of the NYT, WaPo, and the LA Times, is no surprise. Controlling the news is the CIA’s trump card especially when it needs or wants to cover its dirty butt, as was the case with crack cocaine and the Contras; and many other situations that are deemed to be too dangerous for the American public to know the truth.

    Webb and his editors made the mistake of believing that there is a ‘free’ independent press, and took on forces, to their great misfortune, the magnitude of which they didn’t realize. Webb needed to be made an example of, and he was. What has happened to investigative journalism, the need to tell truth to power, over the past 20 years? It has all but disappeared, certainly at the major media outlets. This website is an exception, but it obviously isn’t considerd a threat by the large invisible hand, fortunately for its operators, else Parry etal would be subject to the same treatment Webb got.

  9. David Smith
    December 10, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Mr. Parry, by not letting the truth Gary Webb exposed die in obscurity, you give Gary Webb immortality, the only immortality possible in this world without light or truth. Many Thanks.

  10. Mortimer
    December 10, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    April 17, 2014
    RIP Michael C Ruppert, the Cop that busted the CIA
    By Mark Wachtler

    April 16, 2014. Los Angeles. (ONN) Three days ago, America lost a freedom fighter and a friend. Michael C Ruppert was a former Los Angeles Police Detective who was the first credible source to identify the CIA as a major drug trafficker, importing billions of dollars in illegal drugs and selling them on the streets of America to fund its clandestine and illegal operations around the world. Ruppert’s courage, on that day and ever since, has opened the eyes of millions of us. And for that we will forever honor him.

    Michael C Ruppert (1951 – 2014)

    On November 15, 1996, then CIA Director John Deutch was making a public relations appearance at an inner city Los Angeles high school. There in a town hall style forum, he addressed local residents, community leaders, law enforcement professionals, and C-SPAN about the war on drugs in America, and especially their city of Los Angeles. But as the forum’s microphone made its way around for questions, a serious and professional looking gentleman rose and uttered the words that shocked the world. The man was Michael C Ruppert, former LAPD narcotics officer, and forever a target of government retribution.

    Michael C Ruppert wasn’t some crackpot with conspiracy theories. He was one of the most professional and serious people there was when it came to law enforcement and drug trafficking. What was unique was that he was on the inside, where he had first-hand experience with CIA agents trafficking large quantities of illegal drugs on a regular basis. And just after leaving the police force, he acted on what must have seemed like fate or destiny to him – the Director of the CIA making a public appearance in his own home town. The rest is history.

    Catching the audience and media by surprise, Michael Ruppert told Director John Deutch, “I will tell you Director Deutch, as a former Los Angeles Police narcotics Detective, that the Agency has dealt drugs throughout this country for a long time.” His remark was met by scattered cheers from the local residents in attendance. US Rep. Juanita McDonald (D-CA) then took the main microphone and literally silenced the auditorium, refusing to let anyone speak until everyone took their seat again. She appeared determined to let him speak.

    “Director Deutch, I will refer you to three specific Agency operations known as Amadeus, Pegasus and Watchtower,” Ruppert nervously but determinedly told America’s CIA Director with the audience and C-SPAN viewers looking on, “I have Watchtower documents, heavily redacted by the Agency. I was personally exposed to CIA operations and recruited by CIA personnel who attempted to recruit me in the late seventies to become involved in protecting Agency drug operations in this country.”

    Showing just how long the CIA’s drug trafficking operation within the US has been going on, Michael Ruppert goes on to lecture CIA Director Deutch, “I have been trying to get this out for eighteen years, and I have the evidence. My question for you is very specific sir. If, in the course of the IG’s investigation, you come across evidence of severely criminal activity, and it’s classified, will you use that classification to hide the criminal activity, or will you tell the American people the truth?”

    The very next moment of the exchange is as ominous as it is real.

    Michael Ruppert spent the following years being shadowed by government agents, with a seemingly endless streak of bad luck following, a string that eventually led to his suicide this weekend.

    The end of a hero’s journey

    That pretty much sums up Michael C Ruppert’s introduction to the American people. And he’s been a hero to many ever since. He’s gone on to investigate other accusations of large government conspiracies such as the September 11 attacks with his book, ‘Crossing The Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil’ (click on the ad to the right to order from Amazon). He also published the newsletter, ‘From the Wilderness’ from 1998 to 2006. It was at that time that his endless string of bad luck cost him his publication, his life savings and his energy to go on.

    It was no secret that Ruppert suffered from depression and probably a case of PTSD after doing battle with a wicked and invisible shadow government for nearly 20 years. He insisted to his last days that the government had been intimidating and harassing him since he came forward that day. But that didn’t stop him from fighting on.

    On April 13, 2014, always trying to warn the American people of the slowly creeping collapse that’s quickly descending upon us, Michael Ruppert finished his radio show, left two notes for dear friends, and took his own life. For anyone who thinks Michael may have been murdered by that shadow government, one of those two dear friends has penned a public response assuring all his loyal and heartbroken fans that it truly was an unfortunate suicide.

    —-Gary Webb, Michael Ruppert and Michael Hastings
    RIP you brave United States Patriots, all… .

  11. paul devincenti
    December 10, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    we will never forget

  12. AriusArmenian
    December 10, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Excuse me, but how did he commit suicide with two shots to his head?

    He was executed.

  13. December 11, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    While I have great respect for Garry Webb, think you are being too pessimistic about the efforts of others, your own, mine about more crucial aspects of Iran-Contra, and other investigators.

  14. Deep Throat2
    December 12, 2015 at 10:14 am

    I have a fellow colleague at the LA Times who’d be interested in re-posting some or all of yours and Webb’s final articles with Hitz’s final report. Email me for further instructions.

Comments are closed.