Nine years after investigative reporter Gary Webb committed suicide, Jesse Katz, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who played a leading role in ruining the controversial journalist's career, has publicly apologized — just weeks before shooting begins in Atlanta on Kill the Messenger, a film expected to reinstate Webb's reputation as an award-winning journalist dragged through the mud by disdainful, competing media outlets.
Webb made history, then quickly fell from grace, with his 20,000-word 1996 investigation, “Dark Alliance,” in which the San Jose Mercury News reported that crack cocaine was being peddled in L.A.'s black ghettos to fund a CIA-backed proxy war carried out by contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Kill the Messenger is based on Webb's 1998 book, Dark Alliance, in which he attempted to rebuild his ruined reputation, as well as my 2004 biography of Webb, Kill the Messenger, which shares the movie's title. (I worked as a consultant on the script.)
The movie will portray Webb as a courageous reporter whose career and life were cut short when the nation's three most powerful newspapers piled on to attack Webb and his three-part Mercury News series on the CIA's crack-cocaine connection.
The New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times each obscured basic truths of Webb's “Dark Alliance” series. But no newspaper tried harder than the L.A. Times, where editors were said to have been appalled that a distant San Jose daily had published a blockbuster about America's most powerful spy agency and its possible role in allowing drug dealers to flood South L.A. with crack.
Much of the Times' attack was clever misdirection, but it ruined Webb's reputation: In particular, the L.A. Times attacked a claim that Webb never made: that the CIA had intentionally addicted African-Americans to crack.
Webb, who eventually could find only part-time work at a small weekly paper, committed suicide.
No journalist played a more central role in the effort to obscure the facts Webb reported than former L.A. Times reporter Katz. But on May 22, Katz, who has penned a Los Angeles magazine story hitting newsstands now that resurfaces the Gary Webb episode, essentially apologized, on KPCC-FM 89.3's AirTalk With Larry Mantle.
Katz was discussing “Freeway Rick Is Dreaming” in the July 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine, in which he profiles Ricky Ross, the notorious crack-cocaine dealer with whom Katz has a long, tortured relationship. In 1994, shortly after Ross got out of prison for coke trafficking, Katz wrote that Ross was the mastermind of America's crack-cocaine epidemic, at his peak pushing half a million rocks a day.
“[I]f there was one outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles' streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was 'Freeway' Rick,” Katz's 1994 L.A. Times article claimed. “Ross did more than anyone else to democratize it, boosting volume, slashing prices and spreading disease on a scale never before conceived.”
But Webb's 1996 Mercury News series exposed a startling fact: Ross' mentor and chief supplier, who helped him climb to the top of the crack trade, was Nicaraguan exile Oscar Danilo Blandón Reyes. Blandón belonged to one of Nicaragua's most prominent political families and was a major backer of the “contras” — a rebel movement secretly created by the CIA to overthrow the leftist Sandinista rebels.
While Blandón supplied Ricky Ross with coke, the Mercury News revealed, Blandón and others in his politically connected drug cartel, which supplied Ross, were using drug profits to arm the contras.
“Dark Alliance” blew the lid off the CIA's ties to America's crack market by showing for the first time not just the agency's role in turning a blind eye to Nicaraguan contras smuggling cocaine to the United States but also vividly illustrating the role of that cocaine in the spread — via marketers like Ross — of crack in America's inner cities.
Katz' rather embarrassed employer, the L.A. Times — caught off-guard by Webb's reporting in its own backyard — yanked Katz all the way from Texas to re-evaluate Ricky Ross' role in the crack epidemic.
Katz recast Ross as a much less central player in the crack plague, thus helping dilute the effect of “Dark Alliance,” which had caused a firestorm of outrage, particularly in black communities.
“The story of crack's genesis and evolution,” Katz newly wrote, “is filled with a cast of interchangeable characters, from ruthless billionaires to strung-out curb dealers, none of whom is central to the drama.”
In researching the scandal over “Dark Alliance” for my book, I interviewed Katz about the stark disconnect between his two stories about Ross, and he struggled to answer. “I'm not sure I can answer that in a wholly satisfying way,” he mused.
In his new Los Angeles magazine story, Katz buries and downplays his role in the debacle. Katz says he was just one of many reporters who ganged up on Webb. He apologizes only for bloating Ross' importance in his first Times piece on the dealer.
Contacted days ago, Katz said my interview of him for Kill the Messenger — “questions I didn't really have good answers for” in part inspired the new magazine article, but he had to edit out some of his self-reflection because the story ran too long.
He mostly focuses on Ross' near-miraculous early release from a life prison sentence, his hair-weave business schemes, his name-rights lawsuit against Florida rapper Rick Ross and a floundering movie deal. However, on AirTalk, when Mantle noted that many listeners were calling in with questions about “Dark Alliance,” Katz made his confession.
“As an L.A. Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder[ed] how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope,” Katz explained. “And we did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the L.A. Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”
Katz stated there were “some flaws” in Webb's stories, and the L.A. Times “pointed all those out.”
Katz seems to be referring to the fact that Times editor Shelby Coffey assigned a staggering 17 reporters to exploit any error in Webb's reporting, including the most minute. The newspaper's response to “Dark Alliance” was longer than Webb's series. It was replete with quotes from anonymous CIA sources who denied the CIA was connected to contra-backing coke peddlers in the ghettos. Eventually, Webb's unnerved editors in San Jose withdrew their support for his story.
L.A.'s alternative papers, New Times L.A. and L.A. Weekly, not only covered the media controversy but also advanced Webb's reporting. In my case, working for both L.A. Weekly and OC Weekly, I revealed that a central character in the Mercury News' series — a security consultant, former cop and partner of Blandón's, named Ronald Lister — gave Blandón weapons, which he sold to Ross, and helped the drug ring launder cash and evade police detection.
While Lister was laundering cash, he was staging “business meetings” with death-squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson in El Salvador, as well as “retired” CIA agents in California.
Webb was vindicated by a 1998 CIA Inspector General report, which revealed that for more than a decade the agency had covered up a business relationship it had with Nicaraguan drug dealers like Blandón.
The L.A. Times, New York Times and Washington Post buried the IG's report; under L.A. Times editor Michael Parks, the paper didn't acknowledge its release for months.
The L.A. Times' smears against Webb continued after his death. After Webb committed suicide in a suburb of Sacramento in December 2004 — the same day he was to vacate his just-sold home and move in with his mother — a damning L.A. Times obituary described the coverage by the three papers as “discrediting” Webb.
As Katz admitted to Mantle, “We really didn't do anything to advance his work or illuminate much to the story, and it was a really kind of tawdry exercise. … And it ruined that reporter's career.”
Under editor Dean Baquet, the L.A. Times did publish a commentary I wrote on the 10-year anniversary of Webb's Mercury News series. In it, I lambasted the paper for its unfair treatment of Webb.
The L.A. Times has never apologized for its attacks on a reporter who took his own life after being hounded out of mainstream journalism. A few months before Webb died, he landed a part-time gig at the alt-weekly newspaper Sacramento News & Review, thanks to its sympathetic editor, Tom Walsh.
The brilliant, award-winning reporter wrote about library funding and traffic-ticket shakedowns. But the pay couldn't cover his mortgage and Webb had reached the end of his dwindling psychological resources.
Sadly, because Webb shot himself in the head twice — the first bullet simply went through his cheek — many falsely believe the CIA killed him. As Katz, if not the rest of the Times crew, knows, it wasn't the CIA that helped load the gun that killed Gary Webb.