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Issue 33

Investigate This ... If They Let You
By  Andrew Stelzer

I’ve been lucky.  I have a full-time job, delivering news every day about things that matter.  No car crashes, no fires, no sex scandals, no celebrities.  But issues that really affect people and communities, like the lack of affordable healthcare, the effects of environmental polluters, and the continuing struggle for equality and civil rights.

But I found out recently that what I do is called “feeding the beast,” mass-media insider talk to describe churning out one, two, even several stories each and every day. It’s a grind, and often I feel as if I’m not doing what I should be — going deeper into stories, uncovering hidden secrets buried inside the machinery of government and corporations, and holding the powerful accountable for wrongs against society.

The opposite of feeding the beast is the time-honored tradition of muckraking.  Investigative journalists are the superstars of integrity in the world of journalism, the people who turn society upside down by exposing Watergate, the Iran-contra scandal, or whatever dastardly deeds the current government of power in your home country is doing under the radar.  Although former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman said, “investigative reporting is just good reporting,” there is an important distinction between a reporter who does an exorbitant amount of work to uncover new information and those who spread and add to the initial story once it has seen the light of day.

While many reporters would love to go beyond the limitations of filing daily stories, becoming an investigative journalist is another story. News organizations don’t seem to advertise for these jobs in the classifieds. Maybe it’s like being a spy: somehow you gradually disappear into the shadows of society and find you have become one of these people, with an insatiable thirst for the truth that lies in the file cabinet just behind that guy in the fine tailored suit with the really nice teeth.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Many of these issues have become more prominent since the death of reporter Gary Webb in December 2004.  Webb dug up the dirt on how CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contra rebels were financing their war against the Sandinista government by selling large amounts of crack cocaine to drug dealers operating in poor African-American communities in Los Angeles.  In 1996, Webb’s story, “Dark Alliance: The Story Behind The Crack Explosion,” was published in the San Jose Mercury News, and it was arguably the first exposure of U.S. government impropriety to receive mass attention through the Internet. 

The story was any investigative journalist’s dream, filled with government corruption, international intrigue, institutionalized racism, lies, and hypocrisy.  It validated what many people believed, but what was missing from the national dialogue: that the U.S. government’s involvement in the drug war was about money and maintaining political control in other countries, and that poor people, especially brown and black, are considered expendable. Veteran journalist Robert Parry, who first reported on the same issues 11 year earlier, credits Webb for bringing long-overdue scrutiny to this dark chapter of history. However, Parry notes in an essay written after Webb’s death, “When black leaders began demanding a full investigation of these charges, the Washington media joined the political Establishment in circling the wagons.”

 In a textbook example of what can happen to a renegade reporter when the U.S. government and the corporate media form a collaborative-spin machine, Webb’s work was torn apart. The CIA denied the charges, and the three most powerful U.S. newspapers effectively discredited Webb’s reporting and his credibility. “The CIA and Crack: Evidence Is Lacking Of Alleged Plot,” read one Washington Post headline. The New York Times followed with: “Though Evidence Is Thin, Tale Of CIA and Drugs has Life of its Own.” One L.A.Times reporter said he had been assigned to the “Get Gary Webb team.” And Webb himself wrote, “At one point I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about.”

In November, three months after “Dark Alliance” was published, Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser wrote that the three newspapers “showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in Webb’s stories than furthering the investigation of U.S. government relations with drug smuggling.” Journalists ignored a 1988 report from the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, which stated that there were “serious questions as to whether or not U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war effort against Nicaragua.” Later, there was practically no coverage of a 1998 internal CIA investigation, which found Webb’s charges about the contra-cocaine scandal to be true. 

Journalist Alexander Cockburn calls this the CIA’s “uncover-up” strategy in which “the agency first denies with passion, then later concedes in muffled tones, the charges leveled against it.” The uncover-up worked.  Most of Webb’s obituaries failed to acknowledge the CIA investigation that two years later had validated his work.

But two years was too late. Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of The Mercury, had refused to back up his reporter. Instead, he issued a retraction stating that Webb’s work fell short of the paper’s standards, and Webb was forced out of his job. After being fired, Webb bounced around from job to job, but never recovered from the betrayal of The Mercury. He and his wife divorced, and he had trouble getting hired to do what he loved. On December 10, 2004, Webb was found dead at his home in Sacramento, from a gunshot wound to the head, an apparent suicide.

When Webb died, the uncover-up became personal for me.  In 2003, I spent several weeks with Webb, and a few dozen other journalists in Mexico.  Since then, we had formed a loosely knit electronic community centered around the Narco News website, and the spin-off Narcosphere blog.  Immediately, the Narcosphere became the place reflect on Webb’s life and work.

“I still have, stashed in a corner of my house in Mexico, a few issues of the Mercury, containing your stories that are still fresh, still true. An old friend of mine in 1996 remembered my love for the Sandinista Revolution and was nice enough to send me those papers…with a note of hope — not the hope of earning or getting anything, but that once, just once, the truth about these rotten people would be known.”

--Luis Gomez, Bolivian Journalist

If you think that his suicide did not send as powerful a message as the stories he investigated and penned in life, think again: Gary was The Last North American Career Journalist. He presided over a transitional era and his death marks the end of that era. Fellow and sister journalists: The canary has died in the coal mine. Run out of that mine now, and seek alternate routes to truth-telling. There is no longer room for us inside the corporate machine.

-Al Giordano, journalist and Narco News founder

It was Al’s comments that led me to question how the cozy relationship between the government and the owners of the major media corporations affects investigative journalism. What about the news organizations which aren’t owned by plutocrats?  Are they so scared of losing access that they’ll back down and refuse to defend their reporters, even on a really, really great story?

To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features, please pick up a copy of the new issue, or subscribe now.

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