The ‘big three’ are quick to turn on the little guy

Do not skip this week’s excellent cover piece by Melinda Welsh on Kill the Messenger, a new film about Gary Webb, an investigative reporter who in 1996, near the start of the Internet Age, wrote a series about the Nicaraguan Contras smuggling cocaine into South Central Los Angeles, among other places, and the CIA’s knowledge of the drug trafficking. Jeremy Renner plays the embattled Webb, whom journalists at the so-called “big three”—The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post—went out of their way to rebuke for what they claimed was inferior reporting.

Webb’s story, published in the San Jose Mercury News, went viral—before that term existed as we now know it. His editors caved under the pressure of reports from those media giants, all of which went to great lengths to undermine Webb’s work. The Merc didn’t stand by the story, and Webb was exiled to a bureau in the burbs, eventually quit his job, and less than a decade after filing the series, took his own life.

I cannot begin to imagine what Webb felt being under that kind of scrutiny from those paragons of journalism. But I did get a taste of it about a decade ago, after I challenged the work of an L.A. Times reporter who wrote a story about Chico’s Greek system and the party scene. The piece was prompted by the death of fraternity pledge Matthew Carrington, whose drunken would-be frat bros put him through a bizarre water-consumption ritual that killed him. The story went national, and in parachuted the Times.

A friend who pointed me to the story didn’t spot any red flags, but I read it closely and, as I wrote, the piece was “replete with errors, omissions and unnamed sources.” I was less than two years into my first reporting gig with the local daily and didn’t expect the firestorm that those words would trigger in the national journalism community. Long story short, my piece went viral, too, and I ended up on the receiving end of many snarky and critical emails from staff at the Times, The Gray Lady and other papers.

To be fair, my story was flawed. I wrote it along with two other A1 stories that day, and it was getting late when I told my editor that I wanted to hold the piece to seek comment from the reporter. I was advised to file the story without doing so, which went against my better judgment. The next day, I tracked him down to make that right.

Unlike Gary Webb, I was vindicated within days. The Times ran a 130-word correction and I became the David in a David vs. Goliath media debate. Within weeks an internal investigation by the paper led to the reporter’s dismissal. My little story was nowhere near as important as Webb’s exhaustive piece. That’s the tragedy here. Webb’s main assertions were later confirmed, but the “big three” remained silent. That’s one hell of an omission in Gary Webb’s story. Until now.