The Use of the Web in
Investigative Reporting: A Case Study
Gary Webb's 'Dark Alliance' Series and the Future of Journalism
By BRIAN COVERT and SCOTT GORMAN
Gary Webb may someday be chiefly remembered for helping to radically change our understanding of the ground rules and delivery systems of investigative journalism -- an early seer of what is shaping up as the inevitable democratization of journalism due to widespread use of the untamed beast known as the Internet.
Webb started a huge controversy in August 1996 with the publication of his "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News. People and institutions quickly took sides over the series, which detailed an alleged US government connection to the crack cocaine epidemic in America's cities.
Webb was either a courageous investigative reporter or an irresponsible scandal monger, according to those who read the series. There were few whose opinions fell in between those stratified poles.
The story caused a particular uproar in the African-American community. To many there, it seemed to confirm their worst suspicions -- that there was essentially a government conspiracy to introduce crack in the nation's inner cities. There were many reasons cited for this alleged conspiracy, from an attempt at economic control to an actual campaign to decimate the population. US Representative Maxine Waters, who represents a largely African-American district in Southern California, was particularly outraged about the implications of what Webb had written.
So were certain elements of the mainstream press, but for another reason. Webb had overstepped the bounds of responsible journalism, they said -- actually, many of them had known the basic facts of his story but had chosen not to report them. Webb should have done the same, they said
Lost in all this was the fact that Webb had made no claims of conspiracy, nor of direct involvement by the CIA. He had simply reported evidence he had uncovered in the course of an intensive investigation, guided by sources close to the story or people involved in it.
Webb faced his critics squarely. He had a secret weapon -- the World Wide Web.
All those who had been denied a chance to read about the story due to the generalized embargo in other publications were invited to view it on the Internet, and make up their own minds. Even more revolutionary, Webb actually posted documents, even audio tapes, for everyone to see and hear. So if they doubted his conclusions, readers could review Web's original material, and come to their own.
As strange as it may seem, that means that the original story, as important and startling as it is, may well eventually be eclipsed by the story about the story -- and it's implications for the future of journalism.
What follows is in three parts:
1) An interview with Gary Webb conducted in mid-February 1997 at his office in the Sacramento bureau of the San Jose Mercury News.
2) A brief synopsis of the series itself.
3) An analysis
of the series.
Plus an added statement from Gary Webb and Georg Hodel, journalist, Managua, Nicaragua.
Excerpts From an
Interview With Gary Webb
By Scott Gorman
REALNews Managing Editor
(Editor's Note: This exclusive interview was conducted in the Sacramento, California office of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in mid-February, 1997. It concerned his controversial story series "Dark Alliance." A synopsis of the series and an analysis follows).
SG: (Mainstream national media) embargoed reprinting it and criticized you. It's very unlikely, I think, that many people would know about this story. Is that correct?
GW: Yeah, right.
SG: Well then, what's the difference now?
GW: The difference now is that we have this amazing medium called the Internet, and we put our story on the World Wide Web. See, our newspaper is in the Silicon Valley, and we sort pride ourselves on using computers and being really up on the latest. I'm not saying we always are [laughs], but at least we pride ourselves on that.
And we had started an on-line edition of the Mercury News called "Mercury Center," which we were very eager to sort of show off. And when we sat down and looked at this story, this was, I thought, something that I had wanted to do as an investigative reporter for all my career -- to be able to show people what I got. Part of the pride in your work is knowing when you got something nailed down, and it was always very frustrating to be looking at government documents and having to write two sentences about them. And people would have to take your word for it. Well, this was a perfect story to do it: People didn't have to take our word for it. They could look it up themselves.
SG: And a perfect story in a sense that many people would go, again, "Aw, come on, Gary...."
SG: So literally, if they go to your Web site -- and we'll give that site -- what will they see?
GW: Well, they'll not only see stuff -- they'll hear stuff. We've got undercover DEA tapes that we digitized and put on the Web. We've got Danilo Blandon's testimony in federal court that was tape-recorded; we digitized it and put bits and pieces of it on the Web. You know, the important stuff that we quoted him as saying. They'll see DEA records. They will see records that we got declassified from the National Archives ... that had the FBI reports. We got records from the Iran-Contra investigation that have never been published before; we had gotten a hold of them through the Freedom of Information Act and put them on the Web.
So you'll be able to see the building blocks of the story. You'll be able to hear these guys testifying in their own words. And that, to me, was the reason that people weren't so easily dissuaded that there's nothing to it -- because if they've read it and they've looked at the documents, they KNOW there's something to it.
SG: Can you talk to us briefly about the implications for journalism of just that sort of event, of this type of thing happening?
GW: Well, I had thought that doing something like this would really raise the standards for reporters, especially investigative reporters, where you have to rely sometimes on unknown sources: to be able to show people what you have and prove what you're writing -- and let people make up their own minds. One of the beauties of this story was the way we presented it: People didn't have to believe us. And the other thing it did, is when I was on radio talk shows and I was on television telling people about this story, I could say, "Look, go to your computer, call it up, read it yourself, and make up your own mind." And people did that. A LOT of people did that.
SG: Ten thousand, 20,000?
GW: Hundreds of thousands. We had one day where we had 1.3 million hits on the Web.
SG: Pardon me, 1.3 million?
GW: Yeah. It started out at like 600,000, 800,000 a day, and it just sort of climbed up from there. So clearly, a lot of people were reading this and using the Internet who had never really used it for reading news before. There was a lot of Web traffic, a lot of Internet traffic, about it. But I was getting it from Japan, I got it from Bosnia. I got a LOT of e-mail from Colombia, Venezuela. This is a pretty big story down in Latin America. Actually, parts of it were reprinted in "La Prensa," the Nicaraguan press.
SG: What is the website URL?
SG: What's next?
GW: We're doing another two parts because there's a LOT more information about it...
SG: Can you share in any sense, just a general sense, of what those will be?
GW: It's mostly about who
else in the United States government knew about what these guys
were doing, how they managed to release the case of the raid and
all that, how they managed to avoid prosecution.
The Gary Webb Series At A Glance
The present-day crack cocaine epidemic started out more like a textbook case of politico-economic supply vs. demand than as some kind of evil conspiracy to destroy the fabric of American society, according to the "Dark Alliance" series by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb.
Flashback to 1979: The Cuban-assisted Sandinista revolutionary army of Nicaragua had overthrown the US-backed government of dictator Anastasio Somoza. Followers and sympathizers of Somoza were forced to run for their lives; and many such Nicaraguan nationals found safe political haven on US shores.
Danilo Blandon -- a minor member of the Somoza government, son of a wealthy Nicaraguan slumlord, and holder of degree in marketing -- was one of them.
Norwin Meneses, long known to US intelligence agencies as a major drug trafficker in South America, was another. Blandon settled in East Los Angeles, Meneses in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What eventually brought these two exiles together for the first time in California was a common desire to crush the new Sandinista government back home by supporting an army of their own.
The CIA then had a strong hand in organizing just such an army in Nicaragua, as it had in other nations around the world for decades. This particular one became known as the "Contras."
Meneses reportedly used his existing vast network to funnel illicit drug money to the Contra forces. He soon taught the trade to Blandon, who in turn targeted what was viewed as an untapped market: areas of Los Angeles, particularly Black neighborhoods like South Central.
Enter the third pillar of this trio: African-American Rick Ross, a former up-and-coming tennis player in South Central L.A. who had since dropped out of high school and turned to local drug dealing of his own.
Ross crossed paths with Blandon. Blandon diverted the profits from their dealings to the Contra cause, for which Blandon and Meneses were serving as civilian leaders in California.
Ross was getting into this business around the time that dealers were searching for ways to bring down the sky-high street cost of powdered cocaine. By the time the less expensive dried, compacted form of cocaine called "crack" hit the L.A. streets hard around 1983, Ross's local network was already secure.
"Freeway" Rick Ross, as he came to be known, sometimes sold millions of dollars worth of crack in a day. By the time Ross, the leading L.A. crack dealer, was busted some years later and his empire folded, the crack trade had spread like wildfire throughout the US
Now in prison in California, Ross is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He is appealing his case in the courts.
Danilo Blandon served 28 months in prison on drug-related charges, and has become a highly paid informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. He was instrumental in putting Rick Ross behind bars for good. Blandon resides in Managua, and is said to be traveling freely between his native Nicaragua and the US
And Norwin Meneses? His organization has reportedly sold tons of cocaine in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Black neighborhoods of L.A. since 1981. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1991 in Nicaragua in connection with a major drug trafficking bust.
ANALYSIS: THE '3C'
CONTROVERSY STRIKES A NERVE
By BRIAN COVERT
If the Watergate story inspired a generation of youth in the 1970s to start working as journalists, the controversial "3C" (crack-contra-CIA) story broken by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb may inspire a new generation to get busy and start NETWORKING as journalists.
The value of using the electronic medium known as the Internet -- and as a tool to democratize the sharing of information -- toward that end must not be underestimated.
Here was a story of almost unbelievable proportions, with plenty of US government documentation and some tape recordings as back-up, plus statements from a few law enforcement workers and other witnesses who were willing to talk. There was an abundance of circumstantial evidence -- but no smoking gun -- to suggest CIA and Drug Enforcement Agency complicity and condoning of illegal international drug operations.
As shocking as Webb's three-part "Dark Alliance" series was, it seemed destined to die a quiet death soon after being published in the pages of the Mercury News in August 1996. (Reporters from three other major US newspapers reportedly knew of the story at the same time as Webb, but they chose to ignore it).
What ensured that Webb's story would live on indefinitely, however, was putting the news on the Net -- along with all the evidence accumulated in the course of his year-long investigation. As Webb says, it was then up to Internet readers to decide for themselves whether or not to believe all the evidence.
Keep in mind that most of the documentation cited as evidence in Webb's "Dark Alliance" series originated inside government circles and were never meant for public eyes. If it is to be believed, then people at the highest levels of our government agencies are guilty of helping to condemn generations of youth to ill health, desperation, even death -- both on American streets through the spread of crack cocaine and in the burgeoning of the prison "industry" that has resulted.
Recall, also, that the events as outlined in Webb's investigation were taking place at a time in our nation's history when then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was reassuring us the "war on drugs" could be won if we would "just say no." This at a time when, according to evidence presented in "Dark Alliance," tons of cocaine were being smuggled into US cities, with at least the foreknowledge (and perhaps more) of people at the highest levels in our intelligence agencies. Yet nothing was stopped.
The fact that the CIA and the DEA, among other government agencies, would be involved in such a scandal is no surprise. We have seen decades of documentation supporting our intelligence agencies' "complicity" in the international drug trade (for example, CIA involvement in maintaining the drug trade in Southeast Asia's "Golden Triangle" in exchange for political and financial cooperation). So why was this time so different? Because in this case the evidence clearly showed that the emperor had no clothes -- that the war on drugs is a sham and perhaps always was a sham. That is something our government apparently is not ready for the American people as a whole to see or hear yet.
It has become clear in the 1990s that serious news coverage and substantive discussion of the "war on drugs" -- in any country -- can no longer happen without considering some degree of government complicity. That's how deep and dirty the problem is worldwide.
But even more importantly, it has become abundantly evident that as journalists we can no longer realistically expect either the "mainstream" mass media or our respective governments to tell the whole truth about what drugs like crack cocaine can do to people's lives and to a nation's soul. We seek that truth ourselves. To do that, we need the power of the word, backed by the power of modern global technology.
We need the Internet.
The wrap-up: For any story
of this magnitude, amidst potential for cover-ups either deliberate
or inadvertently created by an unhealthy journalistic atmosphere,
no journalist should expect or can reasonably ask people to take
her/his word for ANY story. We need to show them the evidence,
if at all possible, and to show it to as many people as possible.
"Let the People Decide" should be posted on every desk
of every journalist in the world. The power of the Internet is
helping us make that a realistic goal, in the most literal sense.
About the Authors
Brian Covert is an independent journalist living in the Kansai region of Japan's Honshu Island. He has reported from Africa, filed from Asia for a major wire service and served as a staff member of virtually all of Japan's nationwide English-language dailies. We look forward in the future to his reports from Japan and elsewhere for REALNews
Scott Gorman is
Managing Editor for REALNews. Primarily a columnist, critic and
editor for a number of publications, he has written for the Boston
Globe, Seattle Times, Florida Times-Union and other publications.
While a member of the staff of the Everett Herald, he was honored
for environmental investigative reporting by the Society of Professional
Alliance' Coverage: An Update
By SCOTT GORMAN
REALNews Managing Editor
The fallout from Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News continues to generate news and heated comment.
REALNews is not so much interested in the facts of the original story, which detailed activities surrounding the marketing of crack cocaine on the streets of America to finance activities of the Contras, who were seeking in the 70s and 80s to overthrow the leftist (and freely elected) Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Instead, we are watching with intense fascination the impact the World Wide Web has had on this controversial story and the implications for the future of journalism.
Recently, Mercury-News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos, after first vigorously defending Webb and his series against attacks from establishment newspapers, published a mea culpa acknowledging "mistakes" made in the presentation of the story. That had led to two things: A crowing among its critics, and an angry response from Gary Webb, who stands by his story in every aspect.
Webb has maintained all along that anyone who doubts his story can review documents and even oral testimony on the Internet. Now, because he feels undercut by his editors, who apparently will not print his current point of view, he and a Nicaraguan reporter with whom he worked have issued the statement that follows for free electronic distribution.
The move shows once again the power of the Internet in modern journalism. In another day, Webb would have been effectively silenced; now, without the benefit of the backing of his newspaper, he can still be heard.
REALNews welcomes your comments on this story, our coverage, and any thoughts on how it impacts the art, craft and science of journalism.
The statement, in its entirety:
The only "shortcoming" in our Dark Alliance series is that it didn't go far enough.
What Mr. Ceppos' column fails to mention is that, as a result of our continuing investigation, we DO have evidence of direct CIA involvement with this Contra drug operation. We have evidence that at least one top CIA official in Washington was aware of the drug ring's activities in El Salvador. We also know that these traffickers were more deeply involved with the US intelligence community than we reported last year. Perhaps one day Mr. Ceppos will allow us to share this information with the public.
Despite the efforts of the biggest newspapers in the country to discredit our work, our central findings remain unchallenged: After being instructed by a CIA agent to raise money in California for the Contras, two Contra drug dealers began selling vast amounts of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles, primarily to the Crips and Bloods. Some of the profits went to pay for the CIA's covert war against the Sandinistas. We wrote last year that the amounts were in the millions and we stand by that statement. We have confirmation from an eyewitness that our figure is accurate. The drug ring's main customers, the LA gangs, introduced crack to more than 110 cities across the US by the end of the 1980s according to federal reports. Only a fool could argue that this wasn't a critical factor in the spread of crack from South Central to the rest of the country.
If we as journalists have to take a beating for publicly exposing these truths, so be it. We believe it is a beating worth taking.
Gary Webb, reporter, San Jose Mercury News
Georg Hodel, journalist, Managua, Nicaragua
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