AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1997

A Hard-Charging Reporter   

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

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   » The Web that Gary Spun

Gary Webb, 41, is the kind of reporter who likes to push a story to the limit and doesn't mind the heat.

"Gary is a guy who made a career out of sticking sticks in people's eyes for all the right reasons," says former colleague Bill Sloat, an investigative reporter for Cleveland's Plain Dealer, where Webb worked before joining the San Jose Mercury News in 1988. "He does journalism the way Pete Rose plays baseball. He's aggressive and he'll play the game at the edge."

"Dark Alliance," Webb's latest attention-getting series about possible CIA involvement in perpetuating the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, has engendered harsh criticism.

But controversy is nothing new for Webb who, along with the Plain Dealer, lost a libel suit in 1990 in which a jury awarded $13.6 million to two promoters of Cleveland's Grand Prix. The newspaper appealed the decision and eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Webb is not one to avoid confrontation. In May 1983, he shot a Covington, Kentucky man with a .22 caliber rifle after finding the man breaking into his Triumph sports car in an attempt to steal a $135 tape deck. According to the Kentucky Post, where Webb worked at the time, Webb fired two warning shots before shooting the man in his buttocks.

In fact, Webb appears to thrive on controversy. While some journalists might cower if their reporting were attacked by the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Webb reacts with unflappable confidence. "I'm used to it," he says.

Says Mary Anne Sharkey, who was Webb's bureau chief when he worked in the Plain Dealer's Columbus bureau, "If the Washington Post took on one of your stories, you'd be devastated. Gary's not like that. He doesn't care. That's part of what makes him a damn good reporter."

Webb, says Sharkey, was known as "the carpenter" at the Plain Dealer "because he had everything nailed down." She adds, "Gary's documentation is awesome and his work ethic is unbelievable."

Webb, who has won numerous awards for his reporting, now stands accused of overreaching in his series, although he categorically denies the allegation. Yet criticism of his work caused enough concern that Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos assigned another reporter to check out Webb's story, an uncommon journalistic practice. But it's not the first time another Mercury News reporter has been asked to scrutinize Webb's reporting.

In 1994 that task was handed to Mercury News reporter Lee Gomes. He was asked to look into claims by Tandem Computers Inc. that there were inaccuracies in Webb's stories about the San Jose-area firm's $44 million contract to develop a computer database system for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The system didn't work, and Webb laid part of the blame on Tandem. AJR obtained a copy of a five-page memo Gomes, now a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, wrote on August 2, 1994, after looking into one of Webb's stories on Tandem before it ran.

"Having read all the material cited in our story as well as all of the other relevant material I could obtain, and having done my own reporting," wrote Gomes, "I believe that our story is, in all its major elements, incorrect." He wrote that Webb had taken quotations out of context, didn't cite evidence that contradicted his thesis and read an "ambiguous contract, from July 1, in a way that served its conclusion, ignoring not only all other readings of the same document, but the bulk of the rest of the other evidence...."

The paper made some minor changes based on Gomes' assessment and ran the story on August 14 – almost two years before "Dark Alliance" appeared. The latest series has been criticized on grounds strikingly similar to those cited by Gomes.