TEN YEARS AGO today, one of the most controversial news articles of the 1990s quietly appeared on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News. Titled "Dark Alliance," the headline ran beneath the provocative image of a man smoking crack -- superimposed on the official seal of the CIA.
The three-part series by reporter Gary Webb linked the CIA and Nicaragua's Contras to the crack cocaine epidemic that ripped through South Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Most of the nation's elite newspapers at first ignored the story. A public uproar, especially among urban African Americans, forced them to respond. What followed was one of the most bizarre, unseemly and ultimately tragic scandals in the annals of American journalism, one in which top news organizations closed ranks to debunk claims Webb never made, ridicule assertions that turned out to be true and ignore corroborating evidence when it came to light. The whole shameful cycle was repeated when Webb committed suicide in December 2004.
Many reporters besides Webb had sought to uncover the rumored connection between the CIA's anti-communism efforts in Central America and drug trafficking. "Dark Alliance" documented the first solid link between the agency and drug deals inside the U.S. by profiling the relationship between two Nicaraguan Contra sympathizers and narcotics suppliers, Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses, and L.A.'s biggest crack dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross.
Two years before Webb's series, the Los Angeles Times estimated that at its peak, Ross' "coast-to-coast conglomerate" was selling half a million crack rocks per day. "[I]f there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine," the article stated, "his name was 'Freeway' Rick."
But after Webb's reporting tied Ross to the Nicaraguans and showed that they had CIA connections, The Times downgraded Ross' role to that of one "dominant figure" among many. It dedicated 17 reporters and 20,000 words to a three-day rebuttal to "Dark Alliance" that also included a lengthy musing on whether African Americans disproportionately believe in conspiracy theories.
All three major U.S. dailies, The Times included, debunked a claim that Webb actually never made -- that the CIA deliberately unleashed the crack epidemic on black America. The controversy over this non-assertion obscured Webb's substantive points about the CIA knowingly doing business south of the border with Nicaraguans involved in the drug trade up north.
The Washington Post titled one of its stories "Conspiracy Theories Can Often Ring True; History Feeds Blacks' Mistrust." The New York Times chipped in with a scathing critique of Webb's entire career, suggesting that he was a reckless reporter prone to getting his facts wrong.
"That article included virtually none of the good things Gary did," said Webb's former Cleveland Plain Dealer colleague, Walt Bogdanich, now a New York Times editor. "It didn't include the success he achieved or the wrongs he righted -- and they were considerable. It wasn't fair, and it made him out to be a freak."
There is no denying that the papers were right on one serious count -- "Dark Alliance" contained major flaws of hyperbole that were both encouraged and ignored by his editors, who saw the story as a chance to win a Pulitzer Prize, according to Mercury News staffers I interviewed.
Webb asserted, improbably, that the Blandon-Meneses-Ross drug ring opened "the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles," helping to "spark a crack explosion in urban America." The story offered no evidence to support such sweeping conclusions, a fatal error that would ultimately destroy Webb, if not his editors.
At first, the Mercury News defended the series, but after nine months, Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a half-apologetic letter to readers that defended "Dark Alliance" while acknowledging obvious mistakes. Webb privately (and accurately) predicted the mea culpa would universally be misperceived as a total retraction, and he publicly accused the paper of cowardice. In return, he was banished to a remote bureau in Cupertino, Calif.; he resigned a few months later.
Meanwhile, spurred on by Webb's story, the CIA conducted an internal investigation that acknowledged in March 1998 that the agency had covered up Contra drug trafficking for more than a decade. Although the Washington Post and New York Times covered the report -- which confirmed key chunks of Webb's allegations -- the L.A. Times ignored it for four months, and largely portrayed it as disproving the "Dark Alliance" series. "We dropped the ball on that story," said Doyle McManus, the paper's Washington bureau chief, who helped supervise its response to "Dark Alliance."
Unable to find suitable employment, a bewildered Webb left journalism, endured a difficult divorce and battled growing depression and financial despair. But even his suicide failed to dull the media's contempt for "Dark Alliance." The L.A. Times and the New York Times published brief obituaries dismissing Webb as the author of "discredited" stories linking the CIA to Southern California drug sales.
Unlike the media pariahs who came after "Dark Alliance" -- most notably fabulists Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Jayson Blair of the New York Times -- Webb didn't invent facts. Contrary to the wholly discredited reporting on Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, Webb was the only victim of his mistakes. Nobody else died because of his work, and no one, either at the CIA or the Mercury News, is known to have lost so much as a paycheck. The editors involved with the story, including Managing Editor David Yarnold, survived the scandal to receive generous promotions.
History will tell if Webb receives the credit he's due for prodding the CIA to acknowledge its shameful collaboration with drug dealers. Meanwhile, the journalistic establishment is only beginning to recognize that the controversy over "Dark Alliance" had more to do with poor editing than bad reporting.
"In some ways, Gary got too much blame," said L.A. Times Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky. "He did exactly what you expect from a great investigative reporter."