Gary Webb

Something I missed over the weekend: Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who wrote a series of articles linking the CIA, Nicaragua’s anti-government contra rebels, cocaine traffickers, and the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, was found dead in suburban Sacramento on Friday, December 10. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head, and the sheriff’s and coroner’s offices up there are quoted as saying Webb appears to have committed suicide. (Un-shockingly, some in the parallel conspiracy-driven universe have revealed his death was a “suicide,” in quotation marks, meaning that he was rubbed out as someone who knew too much about the “Bush Crime Family.”)

Right here I’ll say I would need to go back and read what he wrote, how other media responded, and the substance of government investigations to offer an informed opinion about Webb’s stories. What’s clear was that as an investigative reporter, Webb was the real thing, sharing a Pulitzer Prize at one point and getting lots of other recognition for his work before the contra cocaine story.

In saying he had evidence that the CIA was in bed with people who had helped trigger a disaster of epic proportions in the second-biggest U.S. city and beyond, he was suggesting something that most people would reject as fantastic, too evil to be true, to byzantine to really hold together. That was my own reaction. And like most messengers bearing such tidings, he paid a price: others in the journalistic establishment worked to discredit his work, his own paper wound up repudiating the stories, he was transferred to a bureau office 100 miles from where he lived. Sixteen months after the series ran, he quit the Merc. And continued to pursue the story, eventually expanding his investigation into a book, from outside a big-city paper.

Conclusion: I don’t have any. The guy was 49. He believed passionately, and apparently sincerely and without cynicism, in the integrity of his journalism. He had three kids and had been pushed outside the professional realm he loved (his former wife is quoted as saying, “All he ever wanted to do was write”). And he apparently shot himself. It’s a tragedy, that’s all.

3 Replies to “Gary Webb”

  1. The Merc buried this story in its obits section on Sunday. That, and the story itself, made me sad.
    In 1996, I was organizing a student journalism conference (Calif. Intercollegiate Press Assoc.) at Cal Poly. We needed a keynote speaker. What hotter name was there in journalism at the time than Gary Webb? The guy, aside from his byline being on top of the most controversial story to ever be printed in the Mercury News, helped also to usher in the online news era. His taped recordings and notes were put online at the innovative for all to see and hear.
    We needed Gary Webb.
    So I found Gary’s home phone number, and gave him a call. He graciously accepted the offer to come speak to more than 200 of the state’s top journalism prospects, and gave a fascinating talk about how we students could learn from his experiences.
    At a time when every 20-year-old aspiring journalist wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein, Gary Webb was indeed the real deal, as you say.
    It was an honor to meet him.

  2. I’ve been reading the Gary Webb retrospectives and obits quite a bit over the past few days, and have found some interesting stuff, most of which Romenesko is linking to here:
    The LA Weekly’s take on Webb is particularly good:
    I haven’t done any conspiracy hunting yet, but it’s obvious that the tin foil types are blaming his death on the CIA, or others. After all, the coroner says, Webb shot himself twice.

  3. Gary Webb spoke at a forum at my church, regarding the CIA/inner city drug connection. I found him witty and erudite. It’s so hard to reconcile his suicide to my impression. He was one of a kind.

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