How racism drove the backlash against Gary Webb

by Greg Grandin

After the death a few weeks ago of the legendary editor of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee, most obituaries celebrated his willingness to go after Richard Nixon. Charles Pierce at Esquire writes that Bradlee “rode the Watergate story when nobody else wanted it. It’s hard now even to imagine how very far out on the limb Bradlee went on that story.” But Pierce is largely alone in also noting that the Post under Bradlee “ultimately took a dive on Iran-Contra.” Bradlee himself described what he called a “return to deference” on the part of the press corps that took place under Ronald Reagan, saying that his colleagues were responding to a perceived public fatigue with journalists “trying to make a Watergate out of everything.” “We did ease off,” he said.

The Post did more than “ease off.” After Bradlee’s retirement, it went on the offensive, especially in its discrediting of Gary Webb’s reporting, for supposedly overstating the case that the CIA knowingly helped flood Central Los Angeles with cocaine, as part of its illegal support of the anti-Sandinista Contras. And it hasn’t let up. In response to Kill the Messenger, the movie based on Webb’s life and work, the Post published yet another deceptive.

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