By now, the list of reporters who have thought they've landed the next Watergate is long enough to wallpaper Ben Bradlee's summer house. A lot of those stories have fizzled; just as many have gone unnoticed. But no investigative reporter in recent memory has been quite so publicly and loudly discredited as Gary Webb. That dubious honor already cost him his reputation. Now it could make him a best-selling author.
Webb, you may recall, was the reporter behind a three-part series of articles that appeared two years ago in the San Jose Mercury News. Titled "Dark Alliance," the series alleged that a "cocaine-for-weapons trade supported U.S. policy and undermined black America" and that California cocaine dealers took "millions in drug profits" from sales of crack and gave it to CIA-backed rebels in Central America. Webb also strongly implied that the CIA knew of and condoned the drug trafficking.
On the Internet, the articles' conclusions were distorted into a full-blown conspiracy theory, in which the U.S. government was directly responsible for the spread of crack. Responding to the public outcry that ensued, the CIA launched an internal investigation. But shortly thereafter the author came up against an unlikely detractor: Jerry Ceppos, the executive editor of the Mercury News, announced that the articles were oversimplified and failed to meet the paper's standards. Numerous critics voiced their agreement. The CIA swiftly announced that it had turned up nothing to substantiate the allegations. Webb, facing a sea of suspicion, left the paper and was "too disillusioned" by the backlash to look for another reporting job.
Still, as Dick Morris and Mark Fuhrman can attest, a soiled reputation can often lead to a high-profile publishing deal. Webb, however, had a hard time finding takers for a book version of his newspaper series. "I got something like25 rejections," Webb says. "No one wanted to touch this."
An editor at a large publishing house says that though discredited politicians or entertainers might be book-worthy, discredited writers are, by definition, not: "Would you want Mark Fuhrman investigating a crime at your house? Or Dick Morris to be your political adviser? Then why would you want a potentially shady journalist to write you a book?"
Seven Stories Press, a small, independent house that usually publishes left-leaning essayists, saw it differently. Publisher Daniel Simon says he bought the manuscript for "a mid-five-figure" advance, one of the highest in the company's history, and scheduled an initial print run of 50,000 copies -- "huge for us." Copies of Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion hit the stores this week. "This isn't a question of publishers' thinking this is untrue," says Simon. "It was a question of them being uncomfortable with the possibility of this being true," he insists, adding that Webb's claims "were never disproven."
Mainstream book publishers beg to differ. "That's like saying it's never been 'disproven' that Clinton is actually gay and Monica's just a beard. It's easy to speak in double negatives," says another editor at a major house. "This is a guy who was totally humiliated, and he still thinks he's both Woodward and Bernstein."
Whatever his reputation among his colleagues, however, Webb has counted among his supporters Jesse Jackson and Los Angeles congresswoman Maxine Waters, who wrote the book's foreword. Now working as a government consultant in California, the 42-year-old Webb believes he was victimized by the practices of the newspaper business. "The critics looked for things that were omitted or cut for space reasons and assumed they didn't exist," he says. "In actuality, we were trying to fit stuff in between the bra ads." Now Webb has 540 pages all to himself (no bra ads). "This is history we're talking about," he says. "I'm not trying to put any spin on it."
Even if Dark Alliance isn't taken seriously in journalism schools, there's always Hollywood. "Nonfiction has to have an impeccable provenance, or it's a tough sell," says film producer Scott Rudin. "But given that Monica's makeover is on the cover of the Daily News these days, who's to say there's anything the public isn't interested in?"