My friend Gary Webb loved fast cars. In fact, judging by the number of speeding tickets he accumulated during his tragically short life, it’s fair to say he loved fast cars a bit too much.
He loved rock music. He named his first born son Ian after Ian Hunter, front man for a pretty good 70s glam-rock band called Mott the Hoople. At least that’s what he told me. On the wall in front of the unspeakably messy desk he cultivated during his reporting days at the late, lamented The Kentucky Post was a publicity photo of Andy Mackay, the reed player with the art-rock band Roxy Music. And he was always the first, during excruciating morning deadlines, to yell out “Air Guitars!’’ – requiring all of us to put wordsmithing temporarily aside to engage in ludicrous imitations of Pete Townsend.
And he loved ice hockey. The last time I saw Gary he was visiting Washington, D.C., as part of a tour promoting his book, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion. His immediate concern after the event was finding a bar where we could watch the Stanley Cup finals between the Dallas Stars and the Buffalo Sabers.
But the thing Gary loved above all else, with the obvious exception of his three kids and ex-wife Sue, was being a newspaperman, specifically being an investigative reporter. And he was one of the best — fearless as members of that class generally are, dogged to a fault and unimpeachably honest. He also was brash, dismissive of criticism – be it deserved or undeserved – uncompromising, and woe to any editor who dared to get between him and his target.
In other words, he was a handful. It’s what made him great. And in the end it’s probably what killed him.
Gary’s story is recounted in an engrossing new Hollywood production, Kill the Messenger, headed for theaters this Friday, Oct. 10, with Jeremy Renner, of The Hurt Locker and other first-class films, in the starring role. I can highly recommend it as a cautionary tale about what happens when one brave individual confronts a venal system. For Gary, it was ostracism from one of the things that made him whole – journalism. Bereft of the profession to which he devoted his life, Gary ultimately was unable to accept his fate. It led to his suicide in 2004 at age 49.
I first met Gary in January 1979 when I joined what was the wild, wild west of newspaperdom, The Kentucky Post, led by Vance Trimble, whose very name when mentioned still sends shivers down the spines of former staffers, sending some into convulsions.
Gary then was far from the star he was soon to become. His primary job was to travel on a daily basis into the region, the rural areas beyond Kenton, Campbell and Boone counties, picking up the Town Crier — listings of items like marriage licenses and real estate transactions at the county courthouses.
Up to then his claim to fame, characterized by our mutual friend, Tom Loftus, now the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, as in reality a “claim to shame,’’ was a series of articles on Major the Dog, the victim of an unobservant motorist who underwent a surgical procedure to save his life.
But Gary was always hunting bigger game. Working on his own time, he and another excellent reporter, Tom Scheffey, documented “The Coal Connection,’’ a story of corruption and death in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields that fully displayed his hidden talent for research and unmatched determination.
After “The Coal Connection’’ appeared, we regularly began referring to him as Webbstein, corrupting his name with Carl Bernstein’s, the famous investigative reporter who blew the lid off of the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward in the early 70s.
Gary and I worked on several stories together, including a series of reports about the crash of Comair flight 444 in October 1979 at Greater Cincinnati Airport, resulting in the deaths of seven passengers and the pilot. We unearthed information establishing that the pilot left his previous flying job because he was incapable of flying Piper Navajos, the very plane involved in the crash.
But most of all we were friends. Good friends, with the Webb, Loftus and Straub families regularly getting together on Friday or Saturday nights, taking a vacation to the Outer Banks, hitting the bars after covering Friday night football games. And that’s the thing about Gary – he was a lot of fun to be around.
Before long he was off to The Plain-Dealer in Cleveland and finally the San Jose Mercury News, where he meticulously pieced together “Dark Alliance,’’ a three-part series published in August 1996 that revealed Nicaraguan drug traffickers sold crack cocaine on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s and used the profits to fund the Contras, a band of rebels supported by the Central Intelligence Agency looking to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government in Managua.
Gary never alleged that the CIA was directly involved in any cocaine for the Contras operation. But he was able to establish through the gritty investigative work he was renowned for that the agency knew what was going on and decided not to get in the way.
It was a reputation-making story. And it ruined a good man’s life.
Newspapers that missed the story devoted teams of reporters and hundreds of column inches to discredit the series, going so far as to smear Gary by belittling claims he never made. The Los Angeles Times, sore because it got beat terribly on a story occurring in its own backyard, proved particularly detestable in a manic effort to camouflage its own failings. The Washington Post, basically the house organ for the CIA, and The New York Times also engaged in unsparing attacks even though the proved unable to dismiss his central thesis.
Regardless, the situation quickly turned ugly as major newspapers, in what today remains a shameful journalistic felony, set out to destroy his reputation. Rather than support his reporter, then-Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos, in what can only be described as an act of cowardice, threw Gary under the bus, running a public apology for printing much of the series, thus essentially ruining the career of a great reporter.
Gary later wrote, “If there was ever a chance of getting to the bottom of the CIA’s involvement with drug traffickers, it died on that day.” Sometime later, the CIA’s own internal investigation confirmed most of his findings, reporting that at least 50 Contra rebels participated in the drug trade, some of them high-level officers. What’s more, the agency was aware from the outset that the Contras were dealing drugs to fund their operations.
Then-Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, now the secretary of state, led an investigation into the Contra drug trade. Kerry told PBS, “There’s no question in my mind that people affiliated with or on the payroll of the CIA were involved in drug trafficking while in support of the Contras.”
The confirmations didn’t matter. His career in tatters, Gary was ineloquently transferred to the Mercury News’ bureau in Cupertino – journalistic Siberia. He eventually resigned and never worked for a daily newspaper again.
Ultimately, Gary’s crime was telling the truth, which placed him at odds with a number of powerful interests. Beset by personal setbacks, unable to pay his bills, he killed himself.
In his wonderful memoir, A Drinking Life, Pete Hamill – third member of the legendary New York newspaper Holy Trinity with Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton that I grew up reading back in the day – recalled his exuberance when the infamous 1963 printers’ strike finally ended, permitting the great city’s newspapers to publish anew.
In a celebratory mood, Hamill met up with long-time New York Post executive editor Paul Sann at a local watering hole, reveling in his return to the business of journalism.
Hamill takes it from there:
“Don’t get too used to being happy, you Irish bum, Paul Sann said when I took him for a quick drink after work. No matter what happens, he said, newspapers will always break your (bleeping) heart.’’
It’s a fact my friend, Gary Webb, learned all too well.
KyForward Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. He currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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