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Commentary :: Media Criticism

We have met the enemy, and it is US (corporate media)

On December 18, I attended Gary Webb’s memorial service in Sacramento, along with about 250 other people.
In 1996, Webb wrote a series of articles (“Dark Alliance?) for the San Jose Mercury News reporting that, in the 1980s, “a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to…street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to an arm of the contra guerrillas of Nicaragua run by the Central Intelligence Agency? and the “cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America…?

The “contra guerrillas,? of course, were the Reagan administration CIA-nurtured darlings who sought to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.

The story, obviously, was huge. Too huge, as it turns out, for certain powerful sensibilities. The disinformation machine soon was cranked up full tilt, and shortly after the series’ publication, the Big Three in American newspapers -- the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post -- shamefully dedicated time and column inches attacking the veracity of Webb’s assertions instead of pursuing the story. His professional coup de grace was administered by his own editor, Jerry Ceppos, who journalistically ran for cover and left the Pulitzer-winning reporter twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.

Webb eventually left the paper and later wrote a book (Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion) expounding on his series, an effort that, naturally, received little mainstream media attention. On December 10, 2004, he was found dead in his home in Carmichael, a community just east of Sacramento.

The Sacramento County Coroner reported Webb committed suicide with a revolver. Though two shots were fired, there is scant doubt it was, in fact, a suicide.

I didn’t know Gary Webb, but his story, for me, is a too-real reminder of the sometimes deadly nexus between the American corporate media and our government, and how the Fourth Estate has willingly become a third arm of the very institution it is charged with watching.

Webb did his job while embodying an honorable principle: telling the truth, simply because that’s what journalists are supposed to do. Unremittingly, Gary Webb did himself, and real journalists everywhere, proud.

And for that, the powers that be did him in.

Webb’s series, besides acting like fly paper for the Big Three’s disgraceful, inimical tsk tsks, triggered a 1998 CIA inspector general two-part report (“Volume I: The California Story? and “Volume II: The Contra Story?); a hastily-convened March 1998 House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) hearing at which CIA Inspector General Frederick R. Hitz appeared after the release of Volume I’s unclassified version (in January 1998); and a report from the HPSCI in May 2000.

If the suddenness with which Committee Chairman and (then) ex-CIA man Porter Goss (R-FL) called the March ‘98 hearing was in fact a guise to try to bury the whole seedy affair without further fanfare, it didn’t work. First, Hitz skewered the credibility of his own Volume I (which had gone to contorted lengths to try to exonerate the CIA from, specifically, culpability in the crack epidemic, and, generally, connections to narcotics trafficking) by stating:

“Let me be frank. There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug-trafficking activity or take action to resolve the allegations.?

But the real bombshell, as recounted in the same article from which Hitz’s above comments were culled, came when he testified “that under an agreement in 1982 between then-Attorney General William French Smith and the CIA, agency officers were not required to report allegations of drug trafficking involving non-employees, which was defined as meaning paid and non-paid ‘assets [meaning agents], pilots who ferried supplies to the contras, as well as contra officials and others.’? (This agreement lasted until August 3, 1995, according to Volume II’s “Introduction,? paragraph 24.)

Well, how about them rotten apples? Not only had the CIA, in fact, knowingly worked with suspected drug dealers who were “supporting the contra program,? but then it had sought, and received, “legal? cover from the U.S. Justice Department from having to report to it, or to Congress -- or to anyone, for that matter -- such information.

And from what paper was Hitz’s confessional testimony gleaned? Lo(wly) and behold: the Washington Post (in a March 1998 piece by Walter Pincus, identified by Martha Honey in her 1998 In These Times article as “a leading critic of the Mercury News series.?)

I looked but didn’t see an apology to Gary Webb.

The unclassified version of Volume II was released on October 8, 1998. It’s truly a fascinating work of spook double-speak as it madly tries to paint the agency with a “Who, us?? brush while at the same time being crammed with I’ll-be-damneds. Two examples of the latter:

From “Introduction,? paragraph 15: “…[Contra] officials agreed to use [Contra] operational facilities in Costa Rica and Nicaragua to facilitate transportation of narcotics...After undergoing flight training, the [Contra] pilots…would…fly narcotics shipments from South America to sites in Costa Rica and Nicaragua for later transport to the United States.?

From Volume II’s “Pilots, companies,…,? paragraph 1084: “On April 6, 1986, a Memorandum entitled ‘Contra Involvement in Drug Trafficking’ was prepared by CIA at the request of Vice President [H. W.] Bush. The Memorandum provided…information…regarding the alleged agreement between Southern Front Contra leader Eden Pastora's associates and Miami-based drug trafficker Jorge Morales. Morales reportedly had offered financial and aircraft support for the Contras in exchange for [Contra] pilots to ‘transship’ Colombian cocaine to the United States. CIA disseminated this memorandum only to the Vice President.?

The follow-up sentence: “The…analyst who drafted the Memorandum says that there was no follow-up.?

It’s time now for yet another corporate media moment as Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn offer their view of how New York Times writer James Risen (whom they call “the Slut of Langley?) covers Volume II’s revelations on October 10, 1998:

“Probably out of embarrassment Risen postponed till his fourteenth paragraph the information from Hitz's explosive report that should rightly have been the lead to a story that should rightly have been on the front page: ‘In September, 1982, as a small group of rebels was being formed from former soldiers in the National Guard of the deposed Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a CIA informant reported that the leadership of the fledgling group had decided to smuggle drugs to the United States to support its operation.’?

“Thus does Risen put the lie to all past reports on this topic in the New York Times and his own previous story in the Los Angeles Times parroting CIA and Justice Department press releases to the effect that vigorous internal investigations had entirely exonerated the Agency.?

I found no apology to Gary Webb from Risen, either.

In May 2000, the HPSCI, which is charged with overlooking -- sorry, “overseeing? -- CIA activities, released its own “report? (assumedly bedecked with a delicate whitewash-tinged motif).* The theme? Just think “CIA rubber stamp? and you get the general idea. Even so, some of the ink was unmistakably smudged.

David Corn, in a June 2000 piece for The Nation, writes: “The bulk of the report is directed at disputing the crack [epidemic] allegations. But toward the end there is understated recognition that scandalous CIA activity did happen: ‘As described in Volume II of the CIA IG report, under various circumstances, the CIA made use of or maintained relationships with a number of individuals associated with the Contras or the Contra-supply effort about whom the CIA had knowledge of information or allegations indicating the individuals had been involved in drug trafficking.’?

Corn says later “the committee interviewed several senior CIA managers, and these people insisted they could only recall only one single report of contra-related drug-dealing. But with the CIA inspector general having determined there had been many such instances, it's plausible (make that, likely) that these CIA officials did not speak truthfully to the committee…?

Yep, there’s nothing quite like interviewing the fox when the chickens go missing. It’s the same journalistic “technique? employed by corporate media reporters when Webb’s series debuted, about which Webb comments during his January 1999 talk to a Eugene, Oregon gathering (as reported by ParaScope):

“But the Times and the Post all uncritically reported [the CIA’s] claims that the CIA didn't know what was going on, and that it would never permit its hirelings to do anything like that, as unseemly as drug trafficking. You know, assassinations and bombings and that sort of thing, yeah, they'll admit to right up front, but drug dealing, no, no, they don't do that kind of stuff.?

Normally, we would discuss here what HPSCI’s Volume II hearing revealed. But we can’t, since, according to, it was held in secret on May 25, 1999. I guess we, the peons -- er, the people -- are not on a “need-to-know? basis. After all, it’s only, you know, our government we’re talkin’ about here.

A Justice Department “investigation? was thrown into the fix mix along the way, too (released in December 1997, followed by an “Epilogue? in July 1998), with a tired refrain: The CIA, even though it knew it was working with drug traffickers, still was responsible in no way shape or form for the crack explosion in L.A. or elsewhere because, yes, even though “It is clear that certain of the individuals discussed in [Webb’s] articles…were significant drug traffickers who also supported, to some extent, the Contras...? and shipped cocaine into the U.S., well, all that coke must have ended up in, uh, we don’t exactly know really but most likely Wyoming or Boise or somewhere or maybe, just maybe, it was even just thrown away but it most certainly did not end up as crack in Southern California (of all places!) oh my oh heavens oh of course not, no. (Quote is from the investigation’s “Executive Summary, Introduction,? paragraph 10.)

Of all the garbage thrown Webb’s way, the most outrageous, by far, was that he’d claimed, insinuated, or even hinted that the CIA had conspired to get African-American neighborhoods hooked on crack.

Bull tripe. Here’s Webb in Eugene:

“I do not believe -- and I have never believed -- that the crack cocaine explosion was a conscious CIA conspiracy, or anybody’s conspiracy, to decimate black America. I’ve never believed that South Central Los Angeles was targeted by the U.S. government to become the crack capitol of the world. But that isn’t to say that the CIA’s hands or the U.S. government’s hands are clean in this matter. Actually, far from it. After spending three years of my life looking into this, I am more convinced than ever that the U.S. government’s responsibility for the drug problems in South Central Los Angeles and other inner cities is greater than I ever wrote in the newspaper.?

Webb had simply nailed the story and characteristically possessed the goods to prove it, as he recounts in the book Into the Buzzsaw (edited by Kristina Borjesson): “We had photos, undercover tape recordings, and federal grand jury testimony. In addition, we had interviews with guerrilla leaders, tape-recorded courtroom testimony, confidential FBI and DEA reports, Nicaraguan Supreme Court files, Congressional records, and long-secret documents unearthed during the Iran-Contra investigation.?

What did his critics have? Not a damn thing, save for petty professional protectionism (partly) and pipelined propaganda (primarily), comprising a double-bladed guillotine dropped full-force onto a sterling journalistic career and, ultimately, one man’s will to live.

At the service, as I listened to grieved and sometimes outraged witness from relatives, friends, and colleagues about a great American journalist shat upon by his own profession for the sin of doing his job, it finally crystallized for me: Those of us who look for the media to report the truth must do it ourselves.

A friend who has published a fine online journal for several years had sent me an email just a couple of days earlier in which she mentions those “who keep asking, ‘Why haven't the 'mainstream' media picked up on [fill in the blank]?’ or ‘When is the 'mainstream' media going to pick up on [fill in the blank]?’ I guess we're the chopped liver media, eh??

Her point echoes my better-late-than-never epiphany at Webb’s service: that the so-called mainstream media will never “pick up? on the stuff that really matters. The Woodward and Bernstein era is no longer, and likely saw its last day when Gary Webb lived his. No matter how much we badger the Big Three or smaller rags or TV networks or radio stations, they will never properly investigate and report on 9/11 or phony war justifications or fixed elections or poisonous depleted uranium blanketing Iraq or the fourteen permanent U.S. military bases being constructed there or the Project for the New American Century or White House-condoned torture or the Social-Security-is-going-under scam or government “regulatory? agencies that are just taxpayer-subsidized divisions of the industries they oversee or the blackout on photos showing what war really does to humans with its spattered brains and char-broiled babies and dog-eaten corpses or the media’s own disingenuous “oh-my-isn’t-this-horrible? editorials that only serve to cover their compromised asses while they go about their real business of selling the most advertising possible instead of doing what they should be doing: opening up with all journalistic barrels on the most vile, dangerous, brutal, unprincipled, narcissistic, insane administration in American history.

No, what we get instead is Scott Peterson or Martha Stewart or Virgin Mary cheese sandwiches or other such slop, and sloppily done, at that, a choice, then, between chopped liver media or corporate media, or, as how a frozen-haired, lacquered-smiled anchorman(nequin) would no doubt groaningly frame it, the choppies vs. the sloppies.

A few real journalists still exist (Seymour Hersh comes to mind). I’m sure there are also still some mainstream reporters who have what Webb possessed (in spades): integrity, and an obsessive need to ferret out the truth and then report it. But, as his terrible tale amply demonstrates, anything deemed too hot is going nowhere. At some level, when names are named, the story will be quashed.

American mainstream media as government watchdog is a dead hound. Done and gone. Don’t even hold out false hope that somehow it will be revived; this time, Jim, Spock really is dead.

So, it’s up to us -- all of us -- to “be the media.? It’s us, or nobody. But how do we do it?

Well, our most powerful tool, besides uncovering and speaking the truth, is, of course, the Internet. As so often happens, we’re brought full circle here, for it was the Internet that helped fire interest in Webb’s articles and, ultimately, lead to his demise.

The CIA-Contra-narcotics connection had actually been reported on, and investigated, years before. In the mid-1980s, Associated Press reporters Robert Parry and Brian Barger wrote articles about “Contra-cocaine evidence? that caught the attention of a freshman senator, John Kerry (D-MA), who launched a Senate investigation.

Parry writes, “[The Kerry investigation’s] stunning conclusion: ‘On the basis of the evidence, it is clear that individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking, the supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers. In each case, one or another agency of the U.S. government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.’?

Parry again: “Instead of front-page treatment, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all wrote brief accounts and stuck them deep inside their papers.?

Pre-Internet, it was no sweat for the Big Three to bury a story. But “Dark Alliance? was different because, as Webb tells Borjesson, it was “the first interactive online exposé in the history of American journalism…Almost from the moment the series appeared, the Web page was deluged with visitors from all over the world…One day we had more than 1.3 million hits.?

The Internet had changed the battlefield on which the established media had always fought. They and their government string-pullers needed new tactics to retain their power; hence, the direct frontal assaults on Webb and his credibility. For his destroyers, speaking the truth was never part of the plan.

The mantle of press as government watchdog is ours, and ours alone, to don. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Submit it to online publications, post it to open publishing sites, blog it, whatever; just get it out there on the ‘Net.

Uncomfortable moment time: Although we have truth on our side, we must still widely distribute it, or our efforts are for naught. And to do that, nasty old money -- lots of it -- is needed.

We are woefully outnumbered in the simoleon department. We generated about 300 quadrillion dollars or so for the Democrats, that, in hindsight, because the election was fixed (as I see it), turned out to be a colossal waste of money. With rigged balloting firmly in place, spending mucho dinero (along with time and energy) to promote voting in this current system is like giving CPR to a dead man: It may help you feel like you’re being responsible, but it’s decidedly pointless. It also serves to perpetuate as a populace controlling mechanism the illusion that voting can actually effect real political change.

New approaches to successfully challenging and changing America’s new system of government -- fascism -- are needed. To formulate, disseminate, and then activate our solutions, we must quickly build and expand our communications network.

So…let’s pony up.

Donate early and often to the online media outlet(s) of your choice. Contribute content, too, and strongly encourage others to follow suit. If you’re new to this, great! You’re especially needed; more credible voices is one of the main things we’re after. Use reliable sources, cite them, check them, and check them again. Provide links whenever possible.

Dig out stories, the very ones the corporate media won’t touch. Consult true experts if need be to verify your information, line up your sources, and then report away.

Bear in mind this is not kids’ stuff we’re talking about. There will be real casualties; I attended the service of one the other day. But if you believe that the administration and attendant government underlings do not represent your interests, could not care less about your family’s well-being, have no intentions of ever relinquishing power, and view the Constitution as only a yappy, nippy dog to be kicked off to the side as they pursue their pestilent agenda, and you can also no longer abide the corporate media’s overt or covert complicity in all of this, then you are more than welcome to join us in the battle.

What happens if the government shuts down the Internet to silence us while our work is in progress? Well, that certainly would be a problem, but I doubt it will happen, and here’s why: Those in charge are single-mindedly driven in their pursuit of power and money. They are addicts, which means no amount is ever enough and they always gotta have more.

The Internet is an integral part of the greedheads’ moneymaking machine and they are constitutionally incapable of doing anything to deliberately stanch the flow of their drug of choice.

It is their Achilles heel, and we can take full advantage of it.

Lest this all sound a tad over-the-top-ish regarding the state of the state and its media minions, I shall leave you with words from a much wiser and vastly more experienced journalist than I:

“Do we have a free press today? Sure we do. It’s free to report all the sex scandals it wants, all the stock market news we can handle, every new health fad that comes down the pike, and every celebrity marriage or divorce that happens. But when it comes to the real down and dirty stuff -- stories like Tailwind, the October Surprise, the El Mozote massacre, corporate corruption, or CIA involvement in drug trafficking -- that’s where we begin to see the limits of our freedoms. In today’s media environment, sadly, such stories are not even open for discussion.?

“Back in 1938, when fascism was sweeping Europe, legendary investigative reporter George Seldes observed (in his book, The Lords of the Press) that ‘it is possible to fool all the people all the time -- when government and press cooperate.’ Unfortunately, we have reached that point.?

Those are Gary Webb’s words, from Into the Buzzsaw.

Peace to you, Gary Webb. We’re going to one day nail the bastards, and when we do, the first one’s for you.

Copyright © 2004 Mark Drolette. All rights reserved.

Published originally in Online Journal (slightly revised).

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