Kill the Messenger

The tragic death of Gary Webb, one of America's most important investigative journalists

Webb spent two decades uncovering corruption at all levels of power, at the hands of public officials representing all ideological facets of the political spectrum. Indeed, his very fearlessness in taking on powerful institutions and officials was an ultimately fatal character trait that nonetheless embodies the very sort of journalistic ethic that should be rewarded and celebrated in any healthy democratic society. In 2002, Webb reflected on his fall from grace in the book Into the Buzzsaw, a compendium of first-person accounts by journalists whose controversial stories ultimately pushed them from their chosen profession. His words are worth remembering now more than ever.

photo: Brad Wilson

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Editor's note: A college dropout with twenty years of reporting experience and a Pulitzer Prize on his resume, Gary Webb broke the biggest story of his career in August 1996, when he published "Dark Alliance," a three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News that linked the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to America's crack-cocaine explosion via the Nicaraguan contras, a right-wing army that aimed to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government during the 1980s.

Many reporters had written about the CIA's collusion with contra drug smugglers, but nobody had ever discovered where those drugs ended up once they reached American soil. "Dark Alliance" provided the first dramatic answer to that mystery. But in the months following its publication, the story was subjected to ferocious attacks by the nation's biggest newspapers-the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times-and soon Webb found himself out of a job. After being assigned to a tiny regional bureau, Webb quit the paper and never worked in daily journalism again.

Nick Schou's new book, Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Gary Webb, examines the tragic unraveling of one of America's most talented yet enigmatic investigative journalists. This excerpt is being printed with the permission of Nation Books. All rights are reserved.

"If we had met five years ago, you wouldn't have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me," Webb concluded. "And then I wrote some stories that made me realize how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job . . . The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written anything important enough to suppress."

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