We’re coming up to an anniversary at SN&R that nobody wants to talk much about. It was around this time last year when investigative reporter Gary Webb died in his Carmichael home from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Gary worked on staff at SN&R for the last few months of his life, so many of us here took his death pretty hard.
As some of you know, Gary gained both national acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News (later expanded into a book, Dark Alliance) that revealed a CIA connection to a drug ring involving Nicaraguan contras, Los Angeles street gangs and the crack-cocaine explosion of the 1980s. His reporting was soon assailed by the mainstream media—most notably The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. His editors at the Mercury News backed down and apologized for the story “falling short.” Gary resigned, thus ending his career in the mainstream media.
Much later, the CIA admitted that, yes, the contras were involved in drugs and drug trafficking in Los Angeles and that, yes, the CIA knew about it. But even after this belated disclosure, no apologies were forthcoming to Gary for his bold investigative work.
Today, the mainstream newspaper industry is in trouble, with a declining readership, unending rounds of layoffs, reporters’ scandals, uneasy stockholders and generally reduced prospects for the future. I found myself wondering this week what Gary would have thought of it all.
Would he have felt the decline was justifiable payback for the industry’s arrogance, its lack of guts … its mediocrity? I don’t think so. Though thoroughly cognizant of its deepest flaws, Gary surely would have seen what’s happening to mainstream newspapers as a troubling sign for the future of journalism in America.
Nobody here knew Gary too well. He kept to himself and seemed resolved to keep a great distance between himself and the rest of us. But the anniversary of his death seems time to say this, at least: We admired him. We miss him. And for his sake and that of journalism, we wish, on so many levels, that things had turned out differently.