The Use of the Web in Investigative Reporting: A Case Study [part 1] 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 U.S. 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. U.S. 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 Webb’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 its 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.
(1) 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 follow.)
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 online 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 website — 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 Blandón’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 ahold 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 [to] 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.
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 [Nicaraguan] guys were doing, how they managed to release the case of the raid and all that, how they managed to avoid prosecution. (2) SYNOPSIS: 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 U.S.-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 U.S. shores.
Danilo Blandón — a minor member of the Somoza government, son of a wealthy Nicaraguan slumlord, and holder of a degree in marketing — was one of them.
Norwin Meneses, long known to U.S. intelligence agencies as a major drug trafficker in South America, was another. Blandón 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 Blandón, 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 Blandón. Blandón diverted the profits from their dealings to the Contra cause, for which Blandón 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 U.S.
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 Blandón served 28 months in prison on drug-related charges, and has become a highly paid informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was instrumental in putting Rick Ross behind bars for good. Blandón resides in Managua, and is said to be traveling freely between his native Nicaragua and the U.S.
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. —B.C.