Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (1)
It was late in the afternoon on a September day in 1996, when my wife and I and our young son, then just a couple years old, visited a small retail store in West Los Angeles that U.S. filmmaker Spike Lee had recently opened to promote merchandise from his various films. Being a fan of Lee’s work at the time, I knew his store, “Spike’s West”, was one of the places we had to visit during our brief vacation in L.A. before we returned home to Japan.
As we walked into the store that late afternoon, my eye caught a set of free newspapers sitting on a small vertical rack on the sidewalk just outside the shop. I paused to browse through them. They were local African American community newspapers, and a front-page story on one of them immediately pulled me in.
It was a story about a recently held town hall meeting organized in Los Angeles by Ms. Maxine Waters, a representative of the U.S. Congress whose district covered this part of the city. She had brought a special guest to speak directly to her constituency: a reporter I had never heard of, Gary Webb, who worked for a newspaper I knew well, the San Jose Mercury News of northern California.
I read on, literally glued to the spot, and waved my wife and son on into the store ahead of me. As I stood in front of the store reading the article, everything around me was tuned out, even the noise of traffic on busy Melrose Avenue and passersby on the sidewalk. The newspaper article reported about how the journalist, Gary Webb, had published just the month before a three-part series in the Mercury News that linked the crack cocaine outbreak in the United States with the contras, a right-wing paramilitary force in Nicaragua sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1980s, back when actor-in-chief Ronald Reagan was president of the USA.
The CIA and crack cocaine? How come I never heard of this? I wondered. I had left the corporate newspaper business in Japan for good the previous year in 1995 and was admittedly out of the loop on things, but this seemed like a major issue. Why hadn’t I ever heard anything about it in the Japanese press — or even in the American press, for that matter?
Before I realized it, the sun was slowing sinking and lights were starting to come on. I put the newspaper back in the rack and made a mental note to myself to pick it up again when we left the store. And that’s just what I did. Later that evening, when I had time to sit down and read through the whole story, the sense of shock sank in even more deeply.
It was shock not so much at the thought of the CIA being linked to drugs — there was a documented history of that, after all — but more like shock over a U.S. government connection to a major social problem that had literally devastated Black communities all across America, as the outbreak of crack cocaine use and abuse had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the powerful truth was finally starting to come out.
And that’s how I first encountered “Dark Alliance”, one of the most important news stories in decades: not from the big U.S. corporate press companies (which were mostly ignoring the story at that early stage), but by Black news media across the U.S., which were all over “Dark Alliance” from the beginning. It was really due to them that I had come across this story at all.
Today, 18 August, and the next two days, arrive exactly 20 years on the calendar since Gary Webb’s three-part “Dark Alliance” series was published in the San Jose Mercury News, leaving its indelible mark on the world. Many things have happened since then, and at this point in time it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on all the events of two decades ago, and to share a few insights from my own humble place in the broader “Dark Alliance” saga.
I’ve gone on to write quite a lot about “Dark Alliance” and Gary Webb over the years, but this time, in commemorating both the story and the journalist at the 20-year mark, I’d like do something I’ve never done before and write about it more from the personal side: the impressions, thoughts, feelings I had about covering “the story about the story”, what it all meant to me personally and professionally, and why it remains so relevant to me and a lot of other people all these years later.
Getting on the Case
Once my family and I returned from our vacation to Japan later in September 1996, I kept my eye out for any word in the news about that story, “Dark Alliance”, and its author, Gary Webb. Not a thing about it appeared in the press here in Japan.
Then, a couple of months or so after we got back home, a door opened. I was asked by a Japanese photojournalist friend of mine, who was then working for a television production company in Tokyo, to join in the making of a planned TV documentary about the “drug scourge” in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. The documentary was to be broadcast on TV Tokyo, one of the major television networks in Japan, during prime time. I jumped at the chance, and knew right away what story I would push for as part of that documentary: the “Dark Alliance” investigation that I remembered reading about in front of Spike Lee’s store back in L.A only a few months earlier.
I then contacted Scott Gorman, an independent journalist based in Anacortes, Washington state, to be the Man Friday — the person on the ground back in the U.S. who would help us put it all together. I had recalled briefly meeting Gorman a couple years earlier in Osaka, Japan, when he was visiting on some kind of foundation-sponsored trip, and sent him an e-mail. In my pitch to him about the planned Japanese TV documentary project, I wrote:
One off-the-wall idea…is interviewing Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News, the intrepid reporter who recently exposed the CIA-contra-crack connection, to get his version of the sordid tale. My reasoning is that since politics and narcotics are so hard to separate these days, it is essential for a serious documentary on drugs to cover a government’s role in such a mess.
Luckily, Gorman took the bait, and we now had a team — and a lot of work to be done under demanding conditions. I thought of it as one of those situations that was almost destined to happen. The stars seemed perfectly aligned. All the connections and chance occurrences of the past few months and years seemed to be falling right into place. After 10 years of working for newspapers in the U.S. and Japan, I had recently quit the corporate news business and was now ready to prove myself as a journalistic free agent. The Japanese TV documentary project came along at the best possible moment, and I was passionate from the outset about getting coverage of “Dark Alliance” into our video report.
So, we started the gears moving on the project and soon were ready to begin our 10 days of traveling and filming in several U.S. cities, both on the east and west coasts, in early February 1997. The night before I was to catch my flight from Tokyo to New York, I got my first-ever view of something called a “website” on the computer of my Japanese photojournalist friend, the only person I knew in Japan who even owned a personal computer equipped with such high-tech functions at the time.
I gave him a website address I had jotted down, and soon saw for the first time what it was that had been causing all the uproar over the CIA and crack cocaine back in the USA. Slowly, as the image rolled down the pitch-black screen from top to bottom, there in all its glory was the stark image of a man smoking crack cocaine behind the official seal of the CIA. “Dark Alliance — The Story Behind the Crack Explosion” read the dark-red letters in typewriter font. And there was the reporter’s name, Gary Webb, the guy I had read about in that newspaper article in front of that store in L.A. some months before.
I sat there in front of the computer transfixed, as much by the advanced technology of these new things called the “World Wide Web” and the “Internet” as by the realization that I was witnessing the future of journalism right before my eyes. And all the way on the flight from Tokyo to New York, all I could think about was us getting to California in a few more days to interview that newspaper reporter and get his “Dark Alliance” story on tape so that TV audiences in Japan too could be exposed to the latest U.S. government connections to the underworld of international drug trafficking. I took it as something of a personal mission of mine to help get the “Dark Alliance” story out to the Japanese public.
But if I had bothered to look out at the vast night sky on that long overseas flight, I might have noticed just one or two stars that were not quite aligned. Fate, as they say, sometimes makes its own calls despite the best of well-laid plans.
(continued in part 2)