Friday, January 14, 2005

My Thoughts On Gary Webb

From a letter to a friend on the far left:

I am following up on our previous Gary Webb discussion, because while 'the rise and fall of Webb' may offer a good example of the mainstream media’s failures (though not necessarily because they are puppets of corporations, but because they have certain journalistic best practices that the left wishes could be waived for any story involving the CIA), it is also an example of leftist straw-man politics and that when there happens to be criticism of a story like Webb’s it’s not NECESSARILY a heinous coordinated campaign to suppress The Truth. In short, I merely reiterate what I have said before in our discussions, with some more concrete evidence.

If you recall, I never denied the “essential truth” of Webb’s story – but I insisted that the left should not deny there were some major problems with the story that might possibly have contributed to the reaction to it. This might seem ‘too nuanced’ or something to you, but unfortunately for the left, it is a perfectly reasonable distinction that journalism has to preserve, and does so for both Gary Webb and for people on the right -- who might, for instance, want to find evidence for Kofi Annan’s culpability in the Oil For Food scandal where there is none. Or consider that the CBS Bush National Guard story was probably 'essentially true' -- this does not somehow mean that Dan Rather is excused of using bogus evidence for it.

Even the left has had to admit there were problems with Webb's story, and I’m unsure why you are unwilling to admit this and concede that it could possibly have something to do with why somebody in the mainstream media might say that “there are problems with Webb’s story.” It seems to me there’s some connection between the problems in his story and people SAYING that there were problems with the story. [See the last paragraph for what the mainstream media actually said, which is basically that.] You need to realize that when FAIR's Jeff Cohen writes “Webb’s series could be faulted for some overstatement in presenting its powerful new evidence,” this is actually code for “there were some serious issues regarding journalistic best practices.” In his 1998 review of “Dark Alliance” David Corn does something similar, dissecting some of the problems with the story, without denying its “essential truth” or whatever. Is Corn a stooge, too? No, but he understands something about journalistic practice that Webb didn’t, or forgot in the heat of the moment.

Also, as I said before, Webb could not take 20,000 words to meanderingly explore, if not to prove, some shadowy linkage between some low-level drug dealers and the CIA. Since he could not find much of a DIRECT connection between Langley and the California drug ring (which was part of the reason the rest of the media couldn’t really do much with the story, though of course they never really tried), he had to try to prove something else that was BIG. So he went after Ricky Ross, claiming he was a major dealer (which he was most emphatically not, at least not by 1996, which is what the LA Times and every other investigation found – Jeff Cohen’s obituary and Alexander Cockburn’s book "Whiteout" gloss over this), and that therefore the CIA bore significant responsibility for the crack epidemic. David Corn goes through the major holes in this thesis. Webb’s information about “millions” in drug profits and “drug rings” might have been true but were not supported by his evidence. Blandon-Meneses did not raise millions and Blandon could not be linked to Langley, etc., etc.

All this just might be why some people in the mainstream media took issue with the graphic on the Mercury News website that superimposed a crackpipe on the CIA seal, or with the front-page headlines “Shadowy Origins of Crack Epidemic” or “America’s Crack Plague Has Roots in Nicaragua’s War,” which could only be supported by a very loose definition of “origins” and “roots.” When the editor of the Mercury News later apologized, he was not merely doing the corporations’ bidding and renouncing everything Gary Webb had written, but rather confessing to this sort of exaggeration. The editor admitted the articles were “poorly written and edited” which is journalistic code for “some of the documentation is bad,” which is indisputably true, and which was partly the reason Webb felt compelled to flesh out his argument in “Dark Alliance.”

What did the CIA end up ‘admitting?' Corn says that the CIA Inspector General may not have admitted to what you seem to think it admitted to – they did not, per Corn, “admit any complicity in the crack explosion.” Of course, Corn finds this suspect, but that doesn’t have anything to do with flaws or lack thereof in Webb’s stories.

Finally, let me address some of the left’s shibboleths about what the mainstream media did in reaction to Webb. The NY Times wrote some articles calling the evidence “thin,” and the articles “flawed” and “misleadingly packaged” (as one editorial put it) but not “baseless” or "fabricated," and the editorial page defended Webb’s “investigative journalism.” Tim Golden of the Times wrote 2500 words on reactions in South Central to the story, far more than the Times spent on any "debunking" of Webb. And whatever you want to say about the NY Times coverage, they certainly didn’t ignore the story. They reviewed Webb’s book in 1998 (along with Cockburn’s “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and The Press”). Meanwhile, David Corn of all people reviewed “Dark Alliance” for the Washington Post in 1998, an assignment he got (I suspect) partly because the WashPo editors felt slightly bad about their coverage of the original Mercury News series. None of that seems like a cover-up to me. The idea that the mainstream media simply smeared Webb and covered up the story is not really supportable.

There are a lot of good lessons here for both the left and the establishment. As for Webb's death, it's a tragedy, period. He was a better investigator than he was a journalist, but he always meant well, and he did yeoman's work in telling an important and overlooked story.