Forget Deep Throat:
Why Gary Webb Matters

George B. Sánchez


Editor’s Note:

When the Watergate conspiracy broke and the press brought down a president, some of us actually grew up dreaming of being investigative reporters. The year that Nixon fell was an awesome time, when the press wielded its mighty pen in the face of tyrants.

It’s ironic that Deep Throat now feels safe enough to reveal himself -- in an era when more journalists have been subpoenaed than any time in recent memory. If his actions had affected the current administration, a reporter working with a modern Deep Throat might face 18 months in federal prison for refusing to reveal sources.

Gary Webb, who committed suicide this past winter, had a passion as strong as Woodward and Bernstein’s, but he was a man of our times, of our day. And in our day, conservative administrations have learned their lesson from Watergate – they’ve learned how to reign in the press, while the press itself no longer cares or dares to make waves.

When Gary’s “Dark Alliance” series first ran and its editors backpeddled a mile away from it, a reporter friend from Washington commented that “an East Coast paper would never abandon its reporter like that. A Washington Post editor would say ‘We stand by our story!’”

Perhaps, but even that was another day and another place. Under the shuffle of an unjust history, Gary’s commitment to investigative reporting – and the consequences he suffered -- matter more today than ever.

-Julie Reynolds




“This, sadly, is a true story.”
– Gary Webb, Dark Alliance

Gary Webb and Luis Gómez in Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, in 2003 at the NarcoNews School of Authentic Journalism
NarcoNews file photo

We arrive late to the service.

By car, Salinas is more than three hours south west of Sacramento. On top of leaving my apartment half an hour after I had planned, when we arrive to the state’s capital, we have to search for carnations through the suburban sprawl surrounding downtown Sacramento on the last shopping weekend before Christmas. Buried beneath the massive shopping malls, endless strip malls, fast food chains with drive-thru's and multi-screen movie theaters, we find a florist. Under clear cellophane and a single ribbon, she wraps three white carnations and one red one.

Back to my truck and again blitz through the crowded streets and packed thoroughfares, only to arrive at the service one half hour late.
Figuring it’ll be family and other journalists, and given the holiday traffic, it won’t have started 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 said.
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 garden terrace 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 isles, 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.

The speaker stops speaking. Another door opens and those standing in the hallway are ushered in. We enter.
There is no casket. There is no body. He 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.

At the beginning of 1999, 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.

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 had the balls to say what we all knew but never said aloud.

Eight years after the drill squad confronts him, Gary is living in the basement of his wife’s parents house, writing about rock n’roll for some 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 J-School matter anyway?

He applies for a job at the Kentucky Post. After some hazing, a string of stories, including one about a run over dog that is saved by some kid, 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.

By the early 1980s, Gary gets picked up by The Cleveland Plain Dealer. In 1987, he gets an offer from the San Jose Mercury News. He accepts. Three years later, along with five other reporters, he helps the paper win a Pulitzer for their coverage of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Throughout his career there, he pens stories about police who abuse the law regarding property seized from drug dealers. He uncovered government officials who side step bidding laws for equipment purchases. He attacked then California Attorney General 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 spoke. 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 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 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 lose. Carlos DeVilla, a team mate 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 team mate, 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. “Whoa 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 the 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 hard wood 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.”

“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 Water. “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 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 the person on the other end of the phone; a woman whose boyfriend was in federal court on trafficking charges. Thirteen 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.”

Even Sue mentioned Dark Alliance when 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, 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.

“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, relentless, and with thorough documentation.

“What he wasn’t ready for was what followed next,” recalled Sue, dressed in all black, her speech 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 a “Times Staff Writer” byline, 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.”

Well guys, nobody likes to admit they’ve pissed on their pants after taking a leak.

It continues:

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

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

No where was it written that the CIA’s internal investigation by Inspector General Frederick Hitz vindicated much of Gary’s reporting. No where was it printed that the CIA’s second report, which pointed out an agency so obsessed with promoting the government’s own ideological agenda that harm done to citizens of the United States of America, were overlooked in an Orwellian ends-justify-the-means operation. No where 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 honest.
When the debris cleared after Dark Alliance was published, a whole new storm began to kick about. As previously mentioned, both Times’ and the Post went to work knocking down Gary and reminding all other second tier national papers not to interfere with the control of the established gate keepers. The three papers saved their own asses, buried Gary’s and scared away any one else who attempted to break an international story in what is still considered their media domain.

Gary’s editors bent like a reed in the wind, specifically Jerry Ceppos, whose front page concession was picked up with glee by the three majors 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 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 out 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 once. Yet Webb bore the chief consequences.”

At least they got one thing right.

Following Ceppos’s infamous concession, Gary was shipped off: away from his family, from his home, to a suburban bureau 150 miles away. He tried to fight them, even going on a byline strike, but 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.

W. H. Auden wrote in his poem, September 1, 1939, “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, at least for Gary, that wasn’t enough.

He continued to do what he 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 racial profiling practices among the California Highway Patrol. 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.

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 the government’s practice of racial profiling much like Gary’s. That Gary first reported in Esquire magazine a year earlier, and later for the government, wasn’t mentioned.

Gary kept writing. Picking up freelance gigs here and their: a piece on Lok Lau for Asian Times and most recently, for the Sacramento News and Review. And he had time to pass on his on experiences to the inaugural class of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism. For a brief spell, he was editor of the Narco News Bulletin in 2002. Al called him the “comeback kid of authentic journalism.”

In February 2004, Gary was one of at least three employees fired from the Office of Member Services by California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, 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 death wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. All the facts point to the proof that he may have been planning this for quite some time. According to Sue, he had written and mailed notes to family members. His own cremation was paid for already. Sue was named beneficiary of all the bank accounts in his name.

When a moving company arrived to his house that Friday afternoon, 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 he couldn’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 site of it all.”

Gary left behind notes for his wife, she said.

“’At the end,’ he wrote, ‘when I think back on my life, I know the happiest time 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.”

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, 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; you whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

There is no doubt to the answer Rilke’s proposed introspection would have produced of 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 print shop of the Por Esto. He was 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,” he 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. Luis only shook his head in disapproval. Both he and Gary were reminded I was of another generation.

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

It’s unfathomable. Not even loosing a limb would come close to what it was like for Gary to lose the newspaper life. At least with 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. 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.

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 frightened and alone.

Gary came of age, like Alberto Giordano, my mentor Julia Reynolds, and countless others, in what very well may be North American Print Media’s finest days. They saw the House of Nixon fall like a deck of cards because of the work of Woodward, Bernstein, and an aggressive stringer by the name of Seymor 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. It was the foundation for the prestigious Investigative Reporters and Editors group.

My generation witnessed the exact opposite. Reporters taking the governments line for the truth and reporters turning on their own.

What have I inherited? What have we inherited?

Pure and simple, a business, a business where infographics, 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. 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 priviledged 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 facts still manage to make their way into the paper; the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Maybe a bit of color in a sentence or two, but context and history, the real meaning to the story, that’s what’s increasing 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, usually at the behest of editors 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 out knowledge when there is just the facts before us. And, as in Gary’s case, the assumptions tend to wind up on the 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 day and night for. The institution he loved. The institution that, despite all the damage done, he still recommended I enter with passion, heart, and courage.

If anyone had a bone to pick with the newspaper business, it was Gary, but Gary never dissuaded me, or anyone else I know of, from staying away from reporting.


Because like the corrupt institutions he ravage with the written word, there is always an honest person inside trying to do the right thing, be it 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. And he was one of them.

A previous version of this story appeared in NarcoNews

© 2005 El Andar Magazine









Gary had the balls to say what we all knew but never said aloud.