The San Jose Mercury News’ location in Silicon Valley is not the first reason it should have become the newspaper of record in the Internet age. Reading about this year’s round of layoffs and cutbacks, I think about the journalist the Mercury News cut off twelve years ago during boom times.

In 1996, a series of articles by Gary Webb showed the Central Intelligence Agency’s complicity in bringing crack cocaine into Los Angeles. Profits from the new, highly addictive, and illegal drug supported the U.S.-backed Contras’ war of terror against the people of Nicaragua during the 1980s.

In those first days of the World Wide Web, the Mercury News supported and promoted Webb’s investigative series with a full web site and CD-ROMs with confirming documents. This digital savvy helped the story gain a far wider readership and influence than it would have otherwise. And the newspaper threw it all away. Bowing to a campaign against the articles led by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times – even though the facts reported were never credibly challenged – the San Jose Mercury News took down the web site and destroyed CD-ROMs. Later, an internal CIA investigation confirmed key conclusions of the wide-ranging series of three articles. The CIA’s 1998 revelations, natural opportunities to build on the investigative work Webb began, received very little media attention.

You can see the original web site here, now hosted by the Narco News Bulletin with introduction. (Disclosure: I volunteer for the Fund for Authentic Journalism which financially supports this work.)

Dan Feder wrote that Webb

provided extensively documented evidence that while poor communities in L.A. paid the price of the crack explosion – from rampant addiction in their neighborhoods to oppressive law enforcement and jailing with Reagan’s stepped-up “war on drugs” – the United States government protected the men moving a great deal of the drugs coming into the city. Local dealers faced life sentences while the bigtime narcos from Washington to Managua went free.

Stories like these risk a radicalizing effect on people who may decide that the people running things should not be running anything any more.

Online media innovators do a lot of work to lead newspaper horses to water and duct tape digital hoses in their mouths. If all the code and culture of conversation and community we can provide still leaves unaccountable gatekeepers, I don’t want any part of it. The discussion about democracy that many Knight grantees return to here on Idealab is a critical part of forging public interest journalism worth saving.

Unable to get work as an investigative journalist in a major U.S. newspaper, Pulitzer-winning reporter Gary Webb took his own life in December of 2004.