The day the writing died

Mourners say goodbye to Gary Webb and the courageous brand of journalism he represented

Reporter Gary Webb, seen in this 1997 photo, will be remembered for his “Dark Alliance” series, first published in the San Jose Mercury News.

Reporter Gary Webb, seen in this 1997 photo, will be remembered for his “Dark Alliance” series, first published in the San Jose Mercury News.

Photo By Noel Neuburger

“Gary Webb had the courage to investigate connections between elements of the U.S. government and Central American drug traffickers in the 1980s when it was political quicksand. Because of his work, the CIA launched an Inspector General’s investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn’t have happened if Gary Webb hadn’t been willing to stand up and risk it all. I hope he finds the peace that eluded him in this life.”
—Senator John Kerry

Senator Kerry’s condolences, referencing the series “Dark Alliance,” arrived at SN&R by e-mail in response to the death of the paper’s newest but most well-known writer. Before coming to SN&R, Webb was a thorough and aggressive investigator, not only as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News but also as a consultant to the California Legislature’s Task Force on Government Oversight.

On Friday, December 10, Webb was found dead in his Carmichael home. The Sacramento County coroner found no sign of forced entry or struggle, and soon, hand-signed letters from Webb to family members arrived by mail. The coroner’s office concluded that Webb had committed suicide—though that conclusion has troubled fans and admirers. Internet debate continues, but during a well-attended and emotional memorial held on the Saturday before Christmas, colleagues, friends and family preferred to concentrate on how Webb lived rather than on how he died.

At Sacramento’s Doubletree Hotel, approximately 250 people had filled a downstairs conference room by 2 p.m. They filed past photo collages: Webb outdoors with his children or seated on his red, white and blue motorcycle—or brooding and powerful in an image from Esquire magazine. On a table near the door, among a variety of journalism awards, was the Pulitzer that Webb received as part of a team of reporters covering the Loma Prieta earthquake for the San Jose Mercury News.

Motorcycle riders in their leather gear, holding their helmets before them, were some of the last to file in. They stood against the walls. There were no more empty chairs.

“I do not want to politicize his life here,” said Webb’s brother, Kurt. He reminded the audience that Webb was a father to three children; a son; a brother; and a longtime husband to his ex-wife, Susan Bell. But politics inevitably emerged in statements made by friends and colleagues; politics had shaped Webb’s career.

Though Webb had been a journalist for 19 years, he was best known for a series of articles and a nonfiction book about the U.S. government’s support of contra rebels bringing crack cocaine into the United States. The family avoided politics, but Kurt did criticize obituaries, like that of the Los Angeles Times, that focused mostly on the discrediting of Webb’s best-known work by the major media: The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Through comments and stories, it was clear that many in the room believed Webb was betrayed by media giants who questioned his facts, relied on unnamed sources from the CIA to counter his claims and then ignored evidence that confirmed his main assertions. A number of other investigators who’d followed the contra story gave Webb credit for bringing to light a segment of American history that never would have been told without his thorough reporting.

“Gary loved to be a writer,” said Kurt. “He wanted to write for one of the big three. That’s the nirvana. That’s what he strived for. Unfortunately, the big three turned. Unfortunately, in the area of journalism, a new era is about to fall, it seems. … The state of investigative journalism today is not what Gary wanted.”

Throughout the service, a few themes emerged over and over again, including the idea that investigative journalism, as practiced by reporters like Webb, is a dying art.

Kurt provided an oft-paraphrased statement from the retiring Bill Moyers: “I’m going out accounting what is the biggest story of our time: The vigilant independent press interested in serving the American people is gone. It has been replaced by ideological media, mostly from the right, and by mainstream media interested only in the bottom line.”

Others echoed the theme, including Michael Ruppert, publisher of From the Wilderness, who read a number of statements from Webb’s “compañeros.” One, from Narco News Bulletin Publisher Al Giordano, called Webb “the last North American career journalist. … He presided over a transitional era, and his death marks the end of that era.”

Other friends and colleagues focused on Webb’s integrity as an independent journalist and on the inspiration his example should provide to future journalists. A statement from Congresswoman Maxine Waters referred to him as “one of the finest investigative journalists our country has ever seen” and said, “I can only hope that rather than silencing, we as a country will cultivate and encourage courageous, truth-seeking journalists like Gary Webb.” Robert Parry, who also had written about the contras, sent a statement calling Webb “an American hero. … In fact, Gary Webb’s death reminds us of another important truth: that information is not a birthright. Just like anything precious to mankind, it must be fought for and sacrificed for.”

While colleagues told stories about how Webb had helped them in their own investigations of government corruption, Bell concentrated on Webb’s personal life and his history with depression.

“After the loss of his journalism career and his marriage, he lost his will to live,” she told the room.

In separate interviews, Bell said that Webb’s letters to family members confirmed that he’d wanted to take his own life. He wanted people to know, said Bell, that “he’d loved being a journalist and didn’t regret a thing he wrote.” But Webb was finding it increasingly difficult to meet his financial obligations, she said, and had wrestled with depression for many years.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Bell added. “We’re not in the mind-set he was in.”

In the last couple of months, she said, he’d seemed better and was spending more time with his children. At the same time, he purchased cremation services and put his bank account in Bell’s name.

Although the original media reports of multiple gunshot wounds were confusing, the coroner’s public-information officer, Ed Smith, since has explained that a single shot is not always fatal. Since 1995, said Smith, Sacramento County has had 13 such suicides.

Although much of Webb’s memorial focused on his past successes as a courageous and independent journalist, Kurt paraphrased Webb himself on the subject of journalism: “I strive for 100-percent accuracy, always. But when you’re fighting people who want to keep secrets, grab what secret information you can, and from there, grab the next piece of information. … You’re fighting hard to find the truth, and you have somebody trying to prevent you from getting the truth. It’s a hard job.”