When "Dark Alliance" was published on August 18 of that year, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. That's because it was one of the first stories to go globally viral online on the paper's then state-of-the-art website. It was 1996; the series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.
"Gary's story was the first Internet-age big journalism exposé," said Nich Schou, who wrote the book Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is partially based, along with Webb's own book version of the series, "Dark Alliance." "If the series had happened a year earlier it, 'Dark Alliance' just would have come and gone," said Schou.
As word of the story spread, black communities across America—especially in South Central—grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole, fueling an epidemic of addiction and crime. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles' urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.
But after a six-week honeymoon period for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted. The attacks began.
On October 4, The Washington Post stunned the Mercury News by publishing five articles assaulting the veracity of Webb's story, leading the package from page one. A few weeks later, The New York Times joined with similar intent.
The ultimate injury came when the L.A. Times unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists (known internally as the "Get Gary Webb Team") on the case, writing a three-part series demolishing "Dark Alliance." The L.A. paper—which appeared to onlookers to have missed a giant story in its own backyard—was exhaustive in its deconstruction, claiming the series "was vague" and overreached. "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail," summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.
Now, even some of Webb's supporters admitted that his series could have benefited from more judicious editing. But why were the "big three" so intent on tearing down Webb's work rather than attempting to further the story, as competing papers had done back in the day when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?
Some say it was the long arm of then President Ronald Reagan and his team's ability to manipulate the gatekeepers of old media to its purposes. (Reagan had, after all, publicly compared the Contras to "our Founding Fathers" and supported the CIA-led attempt to topple the Sandinista government.)
Others say that editors at the "big three" were simply affronted to have a midsize paper like the Mercury News beat them on such a big story. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review claimed some L.A. Times reporters bragged in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer.
One of their big criticisms was that the story didn't include a comment from the CIA. When reporters at the big three asked the agency if Webb's story was true, they were told no. The denial was printed in the mainstream media as if it were golden truth.
Other issues fueled controversy around Webb's story. For example: It was falsely reported in some media outlets—and proclaimed by many activists in the black community—that Webb had proven the CIA was directly involved in drug trafficking that targeted blacks. He simply did not make this claim.
In some ways, Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.
After triumphing in the early success of the series, Webb's editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Jerry Ceppos, the paper's executive editor, published an unprecedented column on May 11, 1997, that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it "fell short" in editing and execution.
When contacted by SN&R, Ceppos, now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said he was only barely aware of the film coming out and wasn't familiar with the acting career of Oliver Platt, who plays him in the movie. "I'm the wrong person to ask about popular culture," he said.
Asked if he would do anything differently today regarding Gary Webb's series, Ceppos, whose apologia did partially defend the series, responded with an unambiguous "no."
"It seems to me, 18 years later, that everything still holds up. ... Everything is not black and white. If you portrayed it that way, then you need to set the record straight.
"I'm very proud that we were willing to do that."