<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

Editorial Policy and Disclosures

Narco News is supported by:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism

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All contents, unless otherwise noted, © 2000-2011 Al Giordano

The trademarks "Narco News," "The Narco News Bulletin," "School of Authentic Journalism," "Narco News TV" and NNTV © 2000-2011 Al Giordano


The Life and Times of Gary Webb

His Journalism Was Vindicated, Yet the Industry Kept Him in Exile

By George B. Sanchez
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

January 25, 2005

“This, sadly, is a true story.”

– Author’s Note, Dark Alliance

Gary Webb has been dead for more than a month. In the wake of his suicide, after the shock and the mourning, questions persist as well as a nagging introspection. In tracing the arc of his life, from the mischievous editorials of a high school writer to a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, it becomes clear that Webb believed in the journalism that comes off the press every morning and is delivered to homes and newsstands hours later. As a reporter, he believed in newspapers. In fact, Webb’s work strengthened the foundation of North American newspapers, from Kentucky to California, but Webb was ultimately cast out of the newsroom and left to wander in exile for one single story he uncovered. That same story was later vindicated, not by his former newspaper, or the ones that attacked him, but by the very institution his reporting criticized: the Central Intelligence Agency. But he never found his way out of exile and that will haunt us forever.

* * *

We arrive to the service late. I have driven with Julia Reynolds, my mentor and editor of El Andar. Julia didn’t know Gary personally, but she knew his work and was shaken by his death nonetheless.

Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2003
By car, Salinas is more than three hours southwest of Sacramento. On top of leaving my apartment half-an-hour after I had planned, when we arrive to California’s capital, we must search for carnations through the suburban sprawl surrounding downtown Sacramento on the last shopping weekend before Christmas. Buried beneath the massive shopping malls, strips of barren businesses, fast food chains with drive-thru’s and multi-screen movie theaters, we find a florist. Under clear cellophane and a single ribbon, the florist wraps three white carnations and one red one. One last gift to Gary, from Narco News Bulletin reporter and editor Luis Gomez, who is in La Paz, Bolivia, reporting.

Back to my truck and again blitz through the crowded streets and packed thoroughfares, only to arrive at the service one half-hour late.

Given the holiday traffic and figuring it’ll be family and other journalists, it won’t start on time anyway, I say aloud.

When we arrive, dressed in black with flowers in our hands, the hotel staff, without asking a question, points us to the Garden Terrace Room. I nod in thanks. Our foot steps echo as we move quickly over tiled floors. Down the hallway and to the left, he says.

We walk down the hallway. I turn the corner the first. I am wrong.

There is a large crowd – at least 40 people deep—huddled around the entrance to the room at the end of the hallway: Grizzled young bikers in padded black leather and torn blue jeans, elderly well wishers in faded grey over coats, an African-American man in a black leather jacket and matching beret, professional types in conservative blue suits with yellow ties, and scraggly haired, flowing robed, peaceniks.

Everyone in the hallway strains forward to hear what’s being said inside the room. Awkward and reserved, our eyes avoid each other, darting away when caught by another, and collectively peering into the doorway, where inside, people sit, solemn and focused, darkly dressed. Another 40 folks, at least, stand against the walls inside the room, in the aisles, and at the back of the hall. By my count, there are thirteen rows of six bisecting the room. That’s at least 159 people seated within.

Outside, we listen. Someone retells a tale, though it’s barely audible.

When the speaker’s story ends, another door opens and those standing in the hallway are ushered in. We enter.

There is no casket. There is no body. Gary paid for his own cremation. I learned this from the Sacramento Bee. At the front of the room is a pair of tables with displays of his work, an assortment of journalism awards and his old typewriter. Atop the typewriter, a relic for a young journalist like myself, is a black and white photo of our man. And in the darkened corner, there is a projection of a familiar portrait of him.

Maybe it’s familiar because he looked the same in every photo.

The trees look like they are rustling behind him in the California breeze…a collared shirt beneath a plain windbreaker, his moustache and his soft brown hair. I can’t tell if he’s about to crack a smile or grunt and glare. But it is his eyes that grab your attention.

In this picture, just like every other one, he looks like he’s staring back.

Today, the day of his memorial service, it has been eight days since Gary Webb took his life with two shots from his father’s pistol. He was 49 years old.

When I first met Gary, he was 48.

* * *

At the beginning of 1999, about four years before I met him, Gary spoke to an audience of about 300 at the First United Methodist Church in Eugene, Oregon.

“I think I was fifteen, I was working for my high school paper, and I was writing editorials. This sounds silly now that I think about it, but I had written an editorial against the drill team that we had for the high school games, for the football games…they thought it was a cool idea to dress women up in military uniforms and send them out there to twirl rifles and battle flags at halftime. And I thought it was sort of outrageous and I wrote an editorial saying I thought it was one of the silliest things I’d ever seen,” he said to the audience, no doubt hoping for something more dramatic and noble.

It must have been around 1970 or 1971, according to his memory.

Gary went on to say how the editorial caused a fuss with the drill team girls, who demanded an apology. Gary said he refused to run a retraction and eventually a meeting was set up between the girls and him.

“At that moment, I decided, ‘Man, this is what I want to do for a living.’ And I wish I could say that it was because I was infused with this sense of the first amendment, and thinking great thoughts about John Peter Zenger and I.F. Stone, but what I was really thinking was, ‘Man this is great way to meet women.’”

Proof again, Gary didn’t shy away from the truth, no matter how inconvenient.

* * *

Eight years after the drill squad confronts him, between 1978 and 1979, the year I am born, Gary is living in the basement of his wife’s parents house, writing about rock n’roll for a local weekly newspaper. His dad up-and-leaves and Gary chooses to forgo the last stretch of journalism school to support his mother and younger brother.

What does Journalism School matter anyway?

He applies for a job at the Kentucky Post. Its readership size, today, is estimated at around 28,667, a small paper by standards of the North American news business.

After some hazing, a string of stories, including one about a run over dog that is saved by a child, operated on by a local vet, and able to walk again, Gary gets hired.

In Kentucky, he debuts what may be his first investigative series: A 17-part story on organized crime and the coal industry. The series brings the paper’s first national news award in half a century.

By the early 1980s, Gary gets picked up by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a daily newspaper with an audience of around 875,000 and tops 1 million on the weekends. For a reporter to jump from the Post to a paper this size is rare and almost unheard of.

In 1987, he gets an offer from the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper about the same circulation size as the Plain Dealer, but considered one of the top ten newspapers in the country, according to Columbia Journalism Review, an industry magazine. The San Jose Mercury News is the flagship of Knight-Ridder, a multi-million dollar news corporation that owns 31 papers across the country, including the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Enquirer, the Detroit Free Press, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, the Contra Costa Times, and the Monterey County Herald.

Gary accepts. Three years later he helps the paper win a Pulitzer for their coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake, along with five other reporters.

Throughout his career with the San Jose Mercury News, he pens stories about police who abuse the law regarding property seized from drug dealers. He uncovered evidence of government officials who side-stepped bidding laws for equipment purchases. He attacked then-California Attorney General Dan Lungren on the state’s asset forfeiture program.

Then in 1995 he found a message on his desk in Sacramento.

* * *

The memorial service is somber. It has to be. Death is natural. Suicide is not.

Gary’s sons, Eric and Ian, each speak. Christine, Gary’s daughter, read to the audience a passage from her journal, a letter to her father after she heard the unfortunate news. Sue, Gary’s ex-wife, spoke as well, solid as rock and a pillar of strength even as I fell apart when I approached her later that afternoon. She offered some words from her dead ex-husband, quelled any notion that his death was other than intentional, and laughed when she could.

Ghosts of Gary’s personal life made their way to the podium through the throats of friends and well wishers. A young biker who called himself Junior spoke through the microphone and wished the family well, telling a story about how Gary was there for him when he lost his brother. A Vietnam Veteran made his peace with Gary’s loss. Carlos DeVilla, a teammate of Gary’s who played hockey with our man, brought some context to Gary’s life.

“We used to kid Gary Webb about his difficulty on skates. Many an opponent, and some times a teammate, would find Gary Webb charging down on him, chasing a puck, unable to stop. Granted he was a good player, but that boy couldn’t stop worth a damn,” DeVilla laughed. “Woe was the poor player, or as a matter of fact, the story line, that Gary had his sights set on. See, Gary couldn’t stop himself when he had his sights set on something, whether he was chasing that puck or pursuing his latest story. Gary Webb had no brakes. He would pursue his life’s passion with tenacity and courage, without regard to his self interest, in his quest for his own truths and his understanding.”

Gary the puck chaser.

We all laughed. Another woman by the name of Kimberly spoke.

“One of the things that no one knew about him was that he could take an entire computer apart and upgrade it,” she said. “You know, if you had a $500 computer, he could turn it into a $3,000 computer in a day. He could put in a hardwood floor, a lot better than this one, all by himself.”

We laugh again.

“He could take a car apart and put it back together. He could fix a motorcycle that broke down. He could do anything.”

She continued.

“So many of us reporters are one-dimensional. We’re like him – we’re driven, we’re so committed to it, but we’re not really good at anything else. One thing that amazed me is that he could do anything, absolutely anything. That’s one of the things I’ll always remember about him.”

But it was inevitable that Dark Alliance would be the subject of most of the afternoon’s testimonials.

“The Dark Alliance series was one of the most profound pieces of journalism I have ever witnessed,” read a note from U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters. “Gary’s work was not only in-depth, revealing, and confrontational, but it single-handedly created discussion and debate about the proliferation of crack cocaine and the role of the CIA. Unfortunately, the major newspapers attempted to silence him by undermining his personal character and his professional integrity.”

“I do want to say what I am sure you already know,” wrote journalist Robert Parry, who first reported for the Associated Press the CIA-Contra connection nearly ten years before Gary. Parry was unable to make the service. “Gary Webb was an American hero. Without his courageous work, an important chapter of American history would have been left largely unwritten. As a journalist, Gary could not stand for that. It was Gary’s misfortune that this chapter was very troubling. It was an ugly tale of how the U.S. government protected Nicaraguan Contra drug traffickers who were shipping cocaine into the United States. It was a story of how the U.S. government put an ideological obsession ahead of its duty to protect American kids from dangerous drugs. Gary’s articles were special too, because they removed the story from the clinical terms of geo-political policy debate that Washington preferred. Gary showed the real life consequences on the streets of America. Gary’s articles also explicitly criticized the privileged national press corps for failing to blow the whistle when the crimes were underway a decade earlier when plenty evidence already preceded them.”

* * *

Dark Alliance began the minute Gary picked up that note left on his desk back in 1995 and gave a call to a woman whose boyfriend was in federal court on trafficking charges.

Gary’s ex-wife and companion of 31 years, Sue Bell, recalled Dark Alliance as she stood before the hundreds assembled for her husband’s memorial service.

“The day I will never forget was the day he told me about this link between cocaine traffickers and the crack epidemic of the ‘80s and the CIA’s organized, right wing, Contra army of that era,” she said. “He was as amazed as all of us when he discovered the link. He threw himself into the story, doing what he loved to do best, exposing the truth.”

The story took Gary to the Federal Court building in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, to Miami and Nicaragua. He plunged into thousands of pages of documents and conducted hundreds of interviews.

In December of 1995, Gary wrote a pitch to his editors at the San Jose Mercury News. It read:

“This series will show that the dumping of cocaine on L.A.’s street gangs was the back end of a covert effort to arm and equip the CIA’s rag-tag army of anti-communist contra guerillas.”

And it did—aggressively, relentlessly, and with thorough documentation.

Eight months later, on August 18, 1996, the story appeared on the web. It began like this:

“For the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found.”

There was more that Sue shared with the audience about that time of her life.

“What he wasn’t ready for was what followed next,” recalled Sue, her voice beginning to falter. “After 19 years of being a top investigative reporter, he was being attacked by the national media. Until that point, I never realized how much the national media can manipulate a story and change its meaning.”

In July of 1998, under the byline “Times Staff Writer,” the Los Angeles Times wrote:

“The Justice Department’s internal watchdog said Thursday that he found no evidence that U.S. government officials protected a California drug-trafficking ring whose members contributed money to the Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras during the 1980s. Inspector General Michael R. Bromwich, reporting on a 15-month investigation, said he concluded that the drug dealers had contributed money to the rebels but that the amounts were ‘relatively insignificant’ and there was no evidence that Contra leaders or the CIA knew about them. Bromwich’s investigation, and its 407-page report, was produced in response to a 1996 story in the San Jose Mercury News. The newspaper claimed that a San Francisco-based drug-trafficking ring introduced crack cocaine to Los Angeles, sent millions of dollars to the CIA-backed Contras and operated under the protection of U.S. government officials.”

The 448 word article ended like this:

“The newspaper concluded last year that its articles had been flawed, and reporter Gary Webb resigned in December.”

When the Los Angeles Times ran Gary’s obituary six years later, they couldn’t help but mention Dark Alliance as well.

“Gary Webb, an investigative reporter who wrote a widely criticized series linking the CIA to the explosion of crack cocaine in Los Angeles was found dead in his Sacramento-area home Friday.”

Even in death they couldn’t resist kicking the man while he was down.

The fourth sentence of his obituary reads:

“Three months after the series was published, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said it conducted an exhaustive investigation but found no evidence of a connection between the CIA and Southern California drug traffickers.”

It continues:

“Major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Washington Post, wrote reports discrediting elements of Webb’s reporting.”

The editorials failed to mention what followed after the three ring national media circus went after Gary.

Nowhere was it written that the CIA’s internal investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz vindicated much of Gary’s reporting. Nowhere was it printed that the CIA’s second report, which depicted an agency so obsessed with promoting the government’s ideological agenda that harm done to citizens of the United States of America, was overlooked in an Orwellian ends-justify-the-means operation. Nowhere did it say that the government eventually admitted to more than Gary had initially reported.

No. That would have been too much. That would have been too honest.

About the responses to Dark Alliance from the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Washington Post, Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive wrote for Columbia Journalism Review:

“Their editorial decision to assault, rather than advance, the Mercury News story has, in turn, sparked critical commentary on the priorities of those pillars of the mainstream press.”

As previously mentioned, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post went to work knocking down Gary and reminding all other second-tier national papers not to interfere with the control of the established gatekeepers. The three papers sought to clear themselves of being beat to a major, international story by a Knight-Ridder newspaper by discrediting Gary and simultaneously scaring away anyone else who attempted to break an international story in what is still considered their media domain.

Kornbluh wrote that “…one (Los Angeles) Times reporter characterized himself as being ‘assigned to the ‘get Gary Webb team’’ and another was heard to say ‘We’re going to take away that guy’s Pulitzer.’ The opening ‘About this series’ teaser made it clear that the Times pieces would explicitly address, and deny, the validity of all the main assertions in ‘Dark Alliance.’”

As the opposition gained strength, Gary’s San Jose Mercury News editors bent like a reed in the wind. Specifically San Jose Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos, whose front page concession was picked up with glee by the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post and applauded.

Even in the wake of Gary’s death, their posture never changed. Read Scott Herhold’s column, which was published in the San Jose Mercury News on the Thursday before Gary’s memorial service:

“He was an immensely talented reporter, a good writer and a sometimes difficult human being. In many ways, he represented the best of our craft – its compassion, its obligation to speak truth to power. His flaw was the flip side of his virtue. Once convinced he was right, Webb didn’t budge. It wasn’t that his facts were wrong: It was the lines he drew between them… Dark Alliance was as much an institutional failure as it was a personal one. Yet Webb bore the chief consequences.”

At least they got one thing right.

Following Ceppos’ infamous, but much applauded, concession, Gary was shipped off: away from his family, from his home, to a suburban news bureau 150 miles away. He tried to fight the newspaper, even going on a byline strike, by continuing to report and write but not allowing the newspaper to print his name as the reporter. However, with little support from the daily newspaper business that had been his life blood ever since he began his career as a reporter, Gary resigned.

In his poem entitled “September 1, 1939,” W. H. Auden wrote: “All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie.” The same can be said for Gary, and any other reporter of his stature. But in the end, that wasn’t enough for Gary.

He continued to do what he always did: investigating, reporting, and writing. First, for the California State Legislature’s Task Force on Government Oversight. Then, for the California State Assembly speaker’s office, where his reporting again dug up a story, again based on government documents, about the California Highway Patrol’s practice of racial profiling, or singling out California motorists and pulling them over based solely on the color of their skin. Again, his bosses caved in under the pressure. Then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa had the director of the Office of Member Services, Lynn Montgomery, write a two-page cover letter explaining Gary’s report on Operation Pipeline, back-handedly dismissing the integrity of Gary’s work and giving the Los Angeles Times, and others, another chance to attack Gary. And they did.

Gary leads a session at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism in February, 2003.
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2003
The New York Times even went the extra step. Joining in on the latest attack of Gary, they decided to investigate Operation Pipeline on their own. They came back in 1999 with an indictment of racial profiling. The fact that Gary first reported it for Esquire magazine one year earlier, and later for the government, wasn’t credited.

Gary kept writing. Picking up freelance gigs here and there: a piece on FBI whistleblower Lok Lau for Asian Times and most recently, investigations for the Sacramento News and Review, he also had time to pass on his on experiences to the inaugural class of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism. Gary was my advisor. Narco News Bulletin founder Alberto Giordano called him the “comeback kid of authentic journalism.”

In February 2004, Gary was one of several employees fired from the Office of Member Services by California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Central L.A. Democrat. The firings never made much sense in the press. One account said Gary was among a group fired for failing to show up to work. Nunez’s Chief of Staff later said the firings were because “these individuals” could not do their jobs “in a manner consistent with job descriptions.”

At the time, Gary was reportedly researching the federal government’s Patriot Act and vocational education reform.

* * *

Gary’s suicide wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. All the facts point to the conclusion that he may have been planning it for quite some time. According to his ex-wife and the mother of his children, Gary had written and mailed notes to family members. His own cremation was paid for already. Sue Bell was named beneficiary of all the bank accounts in his name.

When a moving company arrived to his house that Friday afternoon in December 2004, it was reported that a sign was left on the porch that said don’t enter, please call the police. Inside his Carmichael home, his drivers license was left out so his body could be identified.

Apparently the last night his mother saw him alive, Gary said, “If I can’t write, then what’s the point?”

“After the loss of his journalism career and his marriage, Gary lost his spirit to live,” Sue said at the service. “In the end, he said, all he knew what to do was write. ‘That is what I am, this is who I am,’ he said. ‘If I can’t be myself and live the way I want to, then what’s the point?’ It’s hard for me to sum up Gary’s life because he had so much to live for, but had lost sight of it all.”

Gary left behind notes for her as well, Sue said.

“‘At the end,’ he wrote, ‘when I think back on my life, I know the happiest times were the times when we were all together’,” Sue said. “He also asked for my forgiveness. But to me, there is nothing to forgive.”

“He just made a bad move, one he can’t take back, one we’ve all got to learn to live with,” was all his ex-wife said about Gary’s suicide.

What would Auden have done if he could not project the voice with which he undid the folded lie?

* * *

In his letters to a young poet, the early 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes:

“Confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your whole life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

There is no doubt as to the answer Rilke’s proposed introspection would have produced in Gary. His life, his entire life, was the life of a newspaper reporter. Since high school, Gary said he knew what he’d be. And he was. And he built his entire life around his need to write, to report. His professional life, nearly twenty years of work, never strayed from the printed word.

But after the San Jose Mercury News pushed Gary out, making him the journalistic equivalent to an untouchable or a black listed idealist of the McCarthy-era, his life was taken from him.

* * *

I remember Gary standing in the printing press room of the daily newspaper Por Esto! in Mexico’s Yucatan. The newspaper’s editor, Don Mario Menendez, was giving a tour of his operation. Though I had worked for a few years as a freelance journalist, I had never seen a printing press before.

Then I noticed Gary, taking in the noxious fumes of the wet ink and the paper rolling off the press. He did it with a smile. He looked at Luis Gomez. Luis too had his nose up in the air, sniffing the scent. “You remember that,” Gary said. Luis nodded and looked at me. The Mexican with the English-Austrian accent invited me to smell the air. “What’s the big deal,” I asked after drawing in the scent. Luis only shook his head in disapproval. Both he and Gary were reminded I was of another generation that rarely sees the presses roll.

The Kentucky Post. The Cleveland Plain Dealer. The San Jose Mercury News. And then nothing.

It’s unfathomable. Not even losing a limb would come close to what it was like for Gary to lose the newspaper life. At least without a limb, you can carry on; adapt. But Gary was shut out forever.

The argument can be made that his resignation was his time to enter the so-called alternative media, or rather, the non-corporate media. To a degree, he did. He even served as guest editor of the Narco News Bulletin for a short period in 2003. Corporate or not, weekly or not, it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t a daily newspaper, it wasn’t what he had built his life around; it wasn’t his home. Even into his last days, he had been searching for a reporting job.

His exile was no mistake. The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Jose Mercury News, and every paper that carried one of their wire stories attacking Gary are all culprits in this story of media assassination.

They destroyed him as much as those two bullets did.

And this leaves me feeling frightened and alone.

Gary came of age, like Alberto Giordano, Julia Reynolds, and countless others, in what very well may be North American print media’s finest days. They saw United States President Richard Nixon and his White House staff fall like a deck of cards because of the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the Washington Post, and an aggressive stringer for the New York Times and the New Yorker by the name of Seymour Hersh. When Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was killed by a car bomb in 1976 after he had set up a meeting with a source, dozens of reporters descended upon Phoenix, Arizona, to finish Bolles’ work and bring to light the events that led to his death. That gathering was the foundation for the Investigative Reporters and Editors group.

My generation witnessed the exact opposite: reporters taking the government’s line for the truth and reporters turning against their own.

As I write, there are soldiers my age dying in Iraq, sent into a war zone on the premise of an imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, weapons that, reporters were told time and again, were very real and very dangerous, weapons, that despite all the inside tips given to Judy Miller and the New York Times, never existed.

As for reporters turning on their own, it may only happen a once in a lifetime, but once, as Gary’s family knows, is enough.

So what have I inherited? What have we inherited?

Pure and simple, a business, a business where info graphics, background boxes, bullet points, and stenography suffice where reporting once stood. A business that allows advertisement to find its way to the front page, a business were readers are not human beings, neighbors, and communities, but a market, a homogenous market, whose readership means little more than rack sales and home subscriptions (which are also declining with each year). It is a business that no longer refers to newspapers or special reader supplements as such, but merely product, product; plain and simple. A business that won’t allow young reporters with aspirations a foot in the door unless they’ve given their time, usually free and without stipend, to another publication, inevitably keeping the working poor, working class, and middle class outside the privileged realm of media production. A business that is desperate without a working fax machine, internet connection, and other technological innovations that inevitably keep reporters cooped in their newsroom and away from the streets, from the public, and from the people they write about. The basic facts still manage to make their way into the paper; the who, what, when, where, how, but we rarely do we get the why. There may be a bit of color in a sentence or two, but context and history, the real meaning to the story, that’s what’s increasingly slipping away.

For the record, Dark Alliance was not without problems; problems that every journalist has been guilty of in her or his career. The error of assumption and estimation, at the behest of editors or over-zealous reporters interested in “sexing up the lede” or making the story as punchy and grabbing at the very beginning. But assumptions are made to the best of our knowledge when there are “just the facts” before us. And, as in Gary’s case, the assumptions tend to wind up on the most conservative side of things, to err on the side of caution.

But I am left standing with a bitter lesson. That Gary Webb was killed by the institution I work for day and night. The institution he loved. The institution that, despite all the damage done, he still recommended I enter with passion, heart, and courage.

While attending the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, I wondered in the back of my mind whether or not I should try to find a reporting job with a daily newspaper. I talked to Gary about this. I mentioned that one of my previous editors had told me the best thing I could do as a young reporter was find a small paper with a good editor who used to report for a big paper. Otherwise, that editor told me, you’ll get eaten alive.

Gary looked me straight in the eye and said that was very good advice.

Gary wasn’t your average newspaper reporter because he truly believed in the power of the press. Spend enough time in any North American newsroom and you’ll get an ear full of jaded resentment and bitter disgust. But Gary, for lack of a better word, had faith in the press. His work, his life, his passion and his dedication was proof of that.

If anyone had a bone to pick with the newspaper business, it was Gary, but he never dissuaded me, or anyone else I know of, from staying away from reporting. In fact, one of Gary’s last wishes, said Sue Bell at Gary’s memorial service, was for his son, Eric, to become a journalist. She read this note aloud:

“If I had one dream for you, it was that you would go into journalism and carry on the kind of work I did, fighting for those who can’t help themselves and attacking with all your might and power the oppression and bigotry and stupidity and greed that surrounds us.”

Like the corrupt institutions he ravaged with the written word, there is always an honest person inside trying to do the right thing, be it in the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times, the Pentagon, or the Salinas Californian. How did he know this? Because he interviewed them and they were often his sources, the people who bore witness first hand to injustice and couldn’t stand to let it slip quietly into the night. And he was one of them, an honest reporter doing the right thing.

Faith is grounded in belief, be it founded or blind. Gary had faith. Otherwise he wouldn’t have continued to report after his days with the San Jose Mercury News ended. If he didn’t believe in newspapers anymore, he wouldn’t have continued to file stories for those who would take them. He wouldn’t have joined up with Narco News and he wouldn’t have told me to find that newspaper job with a good editor.

If we abandon our newsrooms, we change nothing and we spit on the work of Gary Webb, who only wanted in life to be in a newsroom. If we lose faith, the stories that must make it to the light of day remained buried. If we give up, wash our hands of journalism and leave the newsroom empty, we will be replaced by those that drove Gary out.

I’ve always heard veteran reporters say that once you make it to the bigger papers and magazines, the fight to get the story out becomes even more vicious. Gary lived for that fight and so will we.

George B. Sanchez is a staff writer for the Monterey County Herald. Now living in Salinas, California, Sanchez’s work has appeared in the London Guardian, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, La Jornada, and Punk Planet, as well as other publications. In February 2003, Sanchez took time off from his work with Julia Reynolds and the Center for Investigative Reporting to attend the inaugural class of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism. He was assigned to Gary Webb as an advisee and maintained contact with Gary after the school session ended.

Sanchez can be reached at gbernardsanchez@aol.com.

In Memoriam: Gary Webb

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