Reporter’s Notebook: Looking back at Gary Webb

Gary Webb. (Photo: Fairness and Accuracy in Media)

I rarely dwell on the past – a good thing, too – but I can’t help thinking now about Gary Webb, the journalist who killed himself in Sacramento 10 years ago in the aftermath of a story on the CIA and crack cocaine trafficking that brought him fame, and then humiliation, on a national scale. But surely my memories of Gary are as valid as anything contained in “Kill The Messenger,” Hollywood’s version of his life and work.

At the time, in the 1980s and 1990s, I worked at the AP bureau on the third floor of the Park Executive building in Sacramento down the hall from the office of the San Jose Mercury News, Gary’s employer. The floor was a hive of offices for newspapers that had bureaus covering the state Capitol.

I found Gary charming, inquisitive and balanced. Some who knew him better – and worked with him – saw a different side.

We met when he came into my office to pick up a schedule; we talked and became friends. We drank beer. We gossiped. He often helped me work on my desktop computer – a lightning-fast 286. We talked auto mechanics, which I liked, and motorcycles, which I didn’t. When it came to cars, he knew what he was talking about: He once pulled up to my house in a gleaming white, stylish BMW 633 that he purchased at a salvage yard and restored. I’ve always liked people who know how to work on machinery.

We talked conspiracies, which we both liked, and we talked cover-ups, which we liked even more. I found them entertaining and intriguing. He said he saw them as gateways to truth. His office was adorned with a ZZ Top poster and a mug shot of a fierce-looking politician who was jailed because of Webb’s reporting at an earlier paper.

I found Gary charming, inquisitive and balanced – more so, in fact, than many journalists I’ve known. I saw him as a reporter’s reporter. Some who knew him better – and worked with him – saw a different side.

Before “Dark Alliance,” Gary did other investigative work at the Mercury News, most notably his reporting on a computer meltdown at the Department of Motor Vehicles, that people talk about to this day. His story spawned a spate of coverage at other news outlets – including my own – on the state’s technology mistakes. But it was “Dark Alliance,” which his paper unveiled in 1996 amid much hoopla that brought him fame and ruin.

The series was hyped and overheated – and oddly disconnected. There was a lack of rigor in the editing. The comments from Mercury News people that I spoke with were that Webb intimidated and “rolled” his editors, and the copy reflected that. The presentation on the web was dramatic and breathless. The story came under attack almost immediately.

But whatever Webb’s shortcomings, the role of his own paper also was suspect.

An editor there who had worked with Webb, Scott Herhold, wrote that the series “marked an institutional failure by a newspaper eager for its own prizes and stature. By then, most of us understood Webb needed very capable editing. Our best editor, sadly, was not part of that project. No one raised enough questions about the thesis. The original story didn’t even have a comment from the CIA.”

The Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times all wrote stories attacking the series, properly pointing out flaws and problems, not only in “Dark Alliance” but in earlier work by Webb. But at times, those stories seemed as excessive, flawed and unbalanced as the series they attacked.

Webb had really struck a nerve. But was his own narrative true, that he was deliberately punished and exiled because he told the truth about powerful forces?

No. He was just a reporter who needed good editing.

After he left the Mercury News, I saw Webb frequently. When he went to work in the Capitol as an investigative aide, he gave me story tips, some of which I pursued, but when he was at the News & Review I barely saw him at all. His memorial service in Sacramento was painful.

I’ve always felt that if Gary had been able to hang on a while longer, he wouldn’t have needed to work at a mainstream news organization to validate his journalistic worth. Ironically, the same online devices that launched “Dark Alliance” could have provided him with a haven for his investigative work, stature and, eventually, an income.

If anybody could pull that off, Gary could. All he needed was time.

Ed’s Note: John Howard is the editor of Capitol Weekly.

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