What killed Gary?

Gary Webb and I had perhaps two-dozen conversations in the four months prior to his death that we spent in adjoining cubicles. Most of them were about petty things (where to find more legal pads and pens worth chewing on), interesting things (why hockey was the greatest game ever invented), and business (how to retrieve voice mail).

On a Friday morning in December of 2004, his distraught oldest son called to tell me that Gary had taken his own life, and I was the one that told our editors. A few days later, I went through Gary’s cubicle, packing up his framed awards and covers from magazines, his Red Wings pennant, notes for stories he never got around to writing. And the photos: of his motorcycle and his kids, the things he loved best.

I never talked to Gary about the CIA or drug dealing.

But like everyone else in the prairie-dog town we call a newsroom, I knew about Gary’s “big story”: the “Dark Alliance” series he’d written for the San Jose Mercury News, then turned into a book, of the same title, about how the CIA aided and abetted dealers with ties to the Nicaraguan contras.

Of course, I’d actually read the stories, so I knew he’d never done what the “master narrative”—constructed by both major newspapers, like the L.A. Times, and conspiracy theorists—accused him of: claiming that the CIA deliberately caused the epidemic of crack cocaine in the black community.

I also knew that the CIA itself had later acknowledged the truth of Gary’s reporting, and that the fact that he got it right didn’t matter to the master narrative—he was still a “discredited” journalist to the people who wrote his obit in the major papers.

Nick Schou, a staff writer with another California alternative paper, outlines Gary’s stories—both the one he wrote and the one that was written about him—in his new book, Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. Schou has experience reporting on the world of drug dealing, and he followed up on one of Gary’s leads for his own series about an L.A. cop Gary had named in “Dark Alliance.

The main point of Kill the Messenger—and it’s an important one—is the way that Gary’s story was co-opted by both the established media, which propagated the myth that the story was false, and by left-wing conspiracy theorists, who propagated the myth that Gary had proven the CIA guilty of things that he’d never claimed his story proved.

These competing myths caught Gary, literally, between a rock and a hard place. They ruined his career in daily-newspaper reporting, and Schou ascribes a great deal of the responsibility for Gary’s personal difficulties—his divorce, his depression and his ultimate suicide—to the pressure caused by these two competing myths.

What Schou’s done best is construct a short biography of a complex man. He spoke with Gary’s family members, friends, colleagues and editors (including his last boss, former SN&R Editor Tom Walsh). The resulting picture is one of a dedicated journalist and a fun-loving guy with an occasional attitude problem. Schou details how the “Dark Alliance” story was reported, edited and received, as well as the various failures, small and large—not all of them Gary’s—that led to the controversy that ultimately claimed Gary’s career in the big dailies.

Schou also does an excellent job of outlining the competing myths—how they developed, and how completely they are still embraced by some people, especially those who misuse Gary’s detailed, deliberate work to promote their own theories.

But Schou doesn’t make clear that what killed Gary wasn’t the story or the responses to it. What killed Gary was a disease—depression, a serious illness that ends in death for all too many people. Yes, Gary was caught between a rock and a hard place. But that happens to a lot of people who don’t take their own lives. What killed Gary was trying to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of mainstream disapproval and conspiracy-theorist hijacking of his story—a situation Schou describes well—while weighted down by depression.

Schou is right on the money about the pugnacious attitude Gary took to anyone who got in the way of getting the story out.

For example, when a local law-enforcement agency refused to release documents that Gary needed for an SN&R story, his immediate response was, “Let’s sue ’em.”

He died before we got the chance.