Gary Webb drew blood

It's funny how things come back to you when you lose a friend.

As I was smoking a cigarette on my patio the other night, thinking about Gary Webb and how everything I stood for in journalism was now quaking under my feet, I recalled that Gary told me there was one person, in particular, that he trusted completely: journalist Chuck Bowden.

Gary had once told me that he would “trust Chuck Bowden with his life.”

So in the wake of Gary’s recent death, I decided to look up Bowden and give him a call. Bowden is the author of some 15 books, including  Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family. Bowden also penned an article for Esquire magazine in 1998 that backed up the findings of Gary’s 1996 San Jose Mercury News expose on the CIA/Nicaraguan Contra crack connection. That meant Bowden was one of the few journalists in Gary’s corner when he fell victim to the media-jackal feeding frenzy that enveloped him in the wake of his investigative series.

Bowden’s 1998 Esquire article starts with the following lead in:

Two years ago, Gary Webb wrote a series of articles that said some bad things about the CIA and drug traffickers. The CIA denied the charges, and every major newspaper in the country took the agency's word for it. Gary Webb was ruined. Which is a shame, because he was right.

When I got Bowden on the phone this week in Tucson, where he lives, it was clear he was upset over Gary’s death. Bowden, 59, said he believed Gary took his own life, despite the two gunshot wounds involved.

“The two-bullet thing does happen,” he said.

“I'm at the age now where I have people dying all around me,” Bowden added. “But Gary was one of those guys, where as long as I knew he was out there in the tall grass, I felt I wasn't alone."

Bowden understood what Gary had gone through, how his life’s work had been ripped away from him.

“All he wanted to do was write for a newspaper,” Bowden said.

Bowden recalled that he first met Gary in a hotel bar in April 1998 while doing the research for the Esquire story. He had already fact checked Gary’s Mercury News series and it was all panning out. So he flew out to Sacramento to interview Gary for Esquire.

“He (Gary) was drinking Maker’s Mark whiskey,” Bowden recalled, “and I remember he slapped his hand down on the table and said, ‘I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. I believe in conspiracies.’

“I thought, ‘I like this guy.’  He believed in facts, not theories. In other words, this is.”

Unfortunately, the newspaper industry chose not to believe in Gary.

Bowden said after the Esquire piece came out, he spent a long time trying to help Gary get a foot in the door at a newspaper. He did manage to hook Gary up to write an article for Esquire. But Bowden said it soon became clear to him that the gates of the media industry had closed on Gary.

"I have been telling people for years that it was a disgrace that Webb was not employed," Bowden said.

And it wasn’t only the mainstream daily newspaper world that had turned its back on Gary. Bowden said he even approached an alternative paper about hiring him. It was the perfect platform for Gary, Bowden reasoned.

But even the alternative weekly didn't come through for Gary.

Bowden added that over the past year, Gary made yet another push to land a job at a major daily. Again, he struck out.

So when Bowden heard that Gary had recently begun writing for the weekly Sacramento News & Review, he thought maybe it was a sign of things turning around for him.

But it was too little, too late. This past weekend, Gary decided to kick the closed door down and move on.

“In a daily newspaper sense, Gary was the best investigative reporter in the country,” Bowden said. “And he was unemployable.

“That tells me all I need to know about this business I’m in. You can get a paycheck every two weeks, as long as you don’t draw blood.”

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