Freedom of the Press, US style: How to drive a colleague to his grave and sleep easy at night

On the collaboration of American monopoly journalists. “The fact that the Contras were the CIA’s army, and not, say, the Bolivian secret service’s army, was crucial to understanding the story – and therefore Webb’s attackers did everything they could to obscure this point.” JIM NAURECKAS*


Gary Webb

Ryan Grim’s 2009 book This Is Your Country on Drugs–recently excerpted in the Huffington Post (10/10/14)–sheds light on the establishment media’s 1996 effort to discredit Gary Webb’s Contra crack revelations (“Dark Alliance,”San Jose Mercury News, 8/18-20/96) by talking to some of the key players. As depicted in the new biopic Kill the Messenger, other journalists’ attacks on Webb cost him his job, and after being run out of the profession he loved, in 2004 he apparently took his own life. But the people who wrote those attacks sleep very well, they want you to know–it’s an object lesson in how to do bad without feeling bad.

Howard Kurtz (cc photo: David Shankbone)

Howard Kurtz: “I wasn’t going out on a limb” | David Shankbone

Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post‘s media reporter at the time, helped lead the mockery of Webb with quips like “Oliver Stone, check your voicemail” (10/28/96).  “I wasn’t an expert on drug trafficking or South America,” Kurtz told Grim, so he

looked up what had been reported in the past, and my recollection is I found a number of stories about drug trafficking and Nicaraguan rebels. So the question is, How much of that did the Washington Post and other big papers report? I don’t know; I’d have to look into it.

As Grim notes, it wouldn’t have taken Kurtz long to look into it, because the big papers reported hardly any of it. The Post ignored Robert Parry and Brian Barger’s groundbreaking AP article (12/20/85), which first revealed the involvement of Contras in drug-running, and then failed to follow up as smaller papers reported on Contra-related cocaine traffic in their backyards (In These Times, 8/5/87). In 1989, the Post (4/14/89) did run a piece by Michael Isikoff on then-Sen. John Kerry’s investigation into Contras and the cocaine trade–buried on page A20–which insisted that reports of involvement by high-level Contras “could not be substantiated.”

Kurtz told Grim he was motivated by a desire to defend the media: “In the pre-blogging age, it was this surreal environment in which the mainstream media were being accused by critics of covering up or ignoring allegations involving the CIA that weren’t actually made by the San Jose Mercury News.” Given the fact that the Post did, in fact, spend years ignoring allegations about Contra drug-smuggling that were later confirmed by the CIA, that doesn’t actually seem so surreal.

Kurtz “initially got into this because black radio hosts and others were seizing on the Gary Webb series and making claims that went far beyond what he had actually reported,” he told Grim. “And the person who agreed with me on that was Gary Webb…. He considered me always to be fair to him.”

Top Contra leader Adolfo Calero (center) meeting with supporters, including Norwin Meneses, known as the "King of Drugs."

Top Contra leader Adolfo Calero (center) meeting with supporters, including Norwin Meneses, known as the “King of Drugs.”

If that were actually the case, that would be a rare lapse of judgment on Webb’s part; Kurtz’s treatment of him was conspicuously unfair.  Kurtz (10/2/96) complained, for example, that “Webb’s repeated use of the phrase ‘the CIA’s army’…clearly suggests that the agency was involved.”

Putting aside the fact that the CIA was involved–the agency was told as early as September 1981 that a major branch of the Contra “leadership had made a decision to engage in drug smuggling to the United States in order to finance its anti-Sandinista operations,” according to the CIA Inspector general’s report (10/8/98)–the whole reason the Contra crack connection was a major story was that drugs were being sold in the United States to raise money for a rebel movement set up by the United States’ own spy agency. The fact that the Contras were the CIA’s army, and not, say, the Bolivian secret service’s army, was crucial to understanding the story–and therefore Webb’s attackers did everything they could to obscure this point (Extra!, 1-2/97).

Talking to Grim, though, Kurtz comes across as less interested in the facts than in whether Webb was with the in-crowd or the out-group. Writes Grim:

Kurtz mentioned several times to me that when Webb’s own paper stood down from the story, it ended the debate over which parts of “Dark Alliance” were factual and which were conjecture. “The Mercury News looked into its own work and concluded that the series had fallen short,” he said. “So now…instead of having Gary Webb versus the critics, you had Gary Webb versus his own editors.”

As Webb recounted in his book–also called Dark Alliance (excerpted in Extra!3/05)–this was exactly how he predicted Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos’ pusillanimous climbdown would be used:

At a final meeting before the column ran, I predicted that the mainstream press would read the column as a retraction, one that covered everything the series had revealed. “You run this, and all we’ll hear is, ‘The Mercury News has admitted it isn’t true! The Contras weren’t dealing cocaine! The CIA had nothing to do with it!’ And you know as well as I do, that’s not true.”

Kurtz, as always, takes comfort in being part of the team–unlike Webb:  “Of course it’s very sad what happened to him in the end, but I just did some basic reporting on him,” he said. “I wasn’t going out on a limb.” No, no one expected that you were going to.

Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus: “It’s probably a question of how long you cover these things”

Walter Pincus, the Washington Post‘s long-time CIA correspondent–he makes it clear to Grim that he doesn’t appreciate it when people refer to him as a “CIA stooge”–knows quite a bit more about drug-trafficking and Latin America, enough that he knows how to greet charges that CIA assets were running drugs–not with denial, but with a blithe shrug:

Pincus said that Webb’s core story about the Contras and cocaine didn’t resonate not because it didn’t have any truth to it, but because it was obviously true. “This is a problem that came up–it’s probably a question of how long you cover these things,” he said. “It came up during the Vietnam War, where the US was dealing with the Hmong tribes in Laos and some of the people that were flying airplanes that the agency was using were also [running] drugs.”

Webb’s mistake, then, was not in connecting the CIA to drugs, but in being so naive as to think that connection was a big deal. The sophisticated thing to do when you hear about such issues is to ignore them, as Pincus and the Post did for years. There’s a fascinating back-and-forth in Grim’s book where formerPost Central America correspondent Douglas Farah says he found corroboration for Webb’s story when he looked into it from his end–while Poststaffers in Washington, including Pincus, successfully thwarted him from reporting that. Pincus says he doesn’t remember that happening.

But Pincus does provide valuable insight into how one can participate in a corrupt institution–whether it’s the Contras, the CIA or the Washington Post–without your conscience bothering you: simply pretend that there is no institution, just a bunch of random individuals doing their thing:

Pincus told me that trying to draw lessons about the media from the Webb saga is pointless, just as it was to try to ascribe motives to the entire band of Contras. “This is sort of like saying the media is liberal,” he said. “The media is made up of–what?–5,000 different people, and some of them are far-left and some of them are conservative, but that doesn’t stop some people from making generalities. And when you say ‘the Contras,’ you’re talking about a whole bunch of different leaders, some of whom were good, some of whom were bad.”

It’s as if the Contras didn’t have a military hierarchy, and media outlets don’t have owners–like the Washington Post‘s Katharine Graham, who said in a speech at the CIA in 1988 (Extra!, 1-2/90): “We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn’t.” It’s obvious that her employees got the message that the role of the CIA’s army in running drugs was one of those dirty things.

* * *

CORRECTION: The original version of this post described Ryan Grim’s This Is Your Country on Drugs, released in 2009, as a new book.

*Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR’s monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America.

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