Gary Webb’s legacy
New anthology collects the reporter’s lesser-known work
It’s important to remember that he was right.
Gary Webb, who occupied a cubicle just a few feet from mine in 2004, during the last year of his life, took a lot of grief from big press outlets over his amazing work tracking drug sales in South Central Los Angeles back to the CIA, but ultimately, he was right—as noted in a condolence message sent to this paper by Sen. John Kerry.
A new anthology of some of Gary’s other, lesser-known work—including two stories he wrote for SN&R—serves as a big reminder of just how good he was at what he did. “The Killing Game”: Selected Writings by the Author of Dark Alliance demonstrates that what he did, all the time, was investigative reporting. He did it like other people walk or breathe. Gary corralled facts, sniffed out leads, tracked down documents and then put them into a story that wasn’t just coherent, it was interesting and important.
That started with his first job in 1978, at The Kentucky Post, where he teamed up with another 20-something guy to write a 17-part story (yeah, 17 parts! Newspapers did that in those days) exposing corruption in the coal industry.
He did it over and over again. He reported on surrogate parenting, dangerously inept doctors who were still allowed to practice, the safety problems with elevated freeways—and the way Caltrans had ignored them, with disastrous results during 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake. He reported on police misconduct, racial profiling, Internet porn, violent video games and “those damned red-light cameras.” That’s what he called them. Injustices, big and small, are, well, unjust.
It’s best to say that Gary “reported,” although he wrote very, very well. But what’s noteworthy about these stories is that he did the legwork. He didn’t just work the phones, he worked the archives and the courts and the streets. He rifled through documents and talked to people.
The incredible work on “The Coal Connection,” which he wrote 1980 with Thomas Scheffey, should have gotten a lot more attention. In it, they document the relationships between criminals, coal magnates and politicians, and how coal mines that weren’t even producing any coal still managed to produce mountains of cash. In fact, it would be fertile to go through this story carefully, and then take a good, long look at the current moves to increase our reliance on coal as an energy source, just to see if some of the same tactics are still being used to rip off the public. All the stories that Gary wrote are still timely, even those damned red-light cameras.
As the daily papers die around us, we need people like Gary more than we ever did—people who know who to call, where to find those sources if they won’t pick up their phones, which documents to ask for and where they’re located. We need reporters who will work as hard as Gary worked.
Here at SN&R, we didn’t get to know Gary as well as we’d have liked, and we certainly didn’t get to learn all we needed to about his skills. Still, it’s easy to recognize him in the notes that his editors and colleagues provide for this anthology.
One notes his willingness to file a lawsuit to get information, which is an immediate reminder of the first words he ever uttered at an SN&R editorial meeting. Another writer was talking about an agency’s refusal to release some information.
“So let’s sue ’em,” growled Gary.
“The Killing Game” is another reminder of just how good a reporter he was, and of how much we lost when his life ended.
Because Gary Webb was right about a lot of things.