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USA Today Still Not Too Late to Attack Gary Webb

Alex Constantine - November 1, 2014

The chatter around Kill the Messenger, the film based on the life of investigative reporter Gary Webb, has mostly faded. But this week USA Today ran a column that mangled the basic facts of Webb's reporting.

In her op-ed (10/28/14), Susan Paterno of Chapman University approvingly cites the Washington Post's recent smear of Webb (FAIR Blog10/21/14), then notes that she has some experience in the subject, having written a piece for the American Journalism Review

dissecting Webb's "Dark Alliance," a 1996 San Jose Mercury News series accusing the CIA of selling cocaine in South Los Angeles to support the Reagan administration's efforts to overthrow the socialist government of Nicaragua. Much of what Webb wrote was accurate, but he pushed the story's thesis far beyond what the facts could support, producing what became one of the most notorious sagas in American journalism.

Right from the start, alert readers know that Paterno does not appear to have read "Dark Alliance" all that closely. Webb did not write a "series accusing the CIA of selling cocaine." He wrote a series documenting how drug dealers linked to the CIA's Contra army in Nicaragua sold cocaine and delivered the profits to those forces, with what at times appeared like at least tacit approval of the agency.

All of which is true.

And by the way, if you go read Paterno's American Journalism Review piece (6-7/05), she admits she couldn't follow Webb's reporting. After the first few graphs, she explained,

the story gets complicated and hard to follow; it features a cast of characters large enough for a Russian novel, with events spanning a decade in a chronology so confusing it demands rereading, rereading and rereading again. To his credit, Webb provided links to the documents he cited, but by the fourth page of the online version of "Dark Alliance," you feel as though you've dropped down Alice's rabbit hole, with the story shifting, changing and contradicting itself as each new fact is added to the litany that came before.

Paterno's column isn't in the same league as the Post's smear, but it's worth mentioning one aspect of her AJR article:

The story included no CIA response; Webb said his editors never asked for one.

You see that in a lot of commentary about Webb. The suggestion that critics would have been more comfortable if the piece included a pro forma denial from the covert agency seems absurd, but anyone who reads the first installment of "Dark Alliance" can see that Webb did in fact go to every relevant agency for input of one form or another:

None of the government agencies known to have been involved with Meneses and Blandon over the years would provide the Mercury News with any information about them.

A Freedom of Information Act request filed with the CIA was denied on national security grounds. FOIA requests filed with the DEA were denied on privacy grounds. Requests filed months ago with the FBI, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have produced nothing so far.

None of the DEA officials known to have worked with the two men would talk to a reporter. Questions submitted to the DEA's public affairs office in Washington were never answered, despite repeated requests.

Paterno notes in USA Today that Webb

clung desperately to the belief that individual journalists have the power and obligation to right the world's wrongs. His editors, seeing in Webb a vehicle for their own success, poorly supervised "Dark Alliance" and abandoned him when it became apparent they had mismanaged the story.

The idea that his Mercury News editors abandoned Webb to hide their own mistakes is an appealing one. But all indications are that what really happened was that they backed away from the story not because Webb had done too many things wrong, but because he got the story right.