I Donít Want to Talk About It  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2005

I Donít Want to Talk About It   

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

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Dawn Garcia was Gary Webb's immediate editor on the "Dark Alliance" series. They spoke daily during the months he reported and wrote the story, says Webb's former wife, Susan Bell; Webb discusses Garcia extensively in his book. After I left 11 e-mails and phone messages for Garcia, she agreed to an interview, then cancelled it with the following response: "Since you'd rather not go off the record--I thought it might be helpful for your background if you had questions about the series--perhaps it would be better if I gave you an on-the-record comment now.

"Gary was a determined reporter who cared deeply about his journalism. His suicide was tragic and a stunning loss to those who knew him. We don't need to talk on Thursday... The comment above is what I'd like to say."

In 2000, Garcia was named deputy director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford University.

Along with Garcia, David Yarnold, managing editor when Webb reported and wrote "Dark Alliance," was the editor most involved in the story, according to Webb. After I left him numerous e-mails and phone messages, Yarnold sent me an e-mail asking for "a sense of what you'd like to talk about. I've mostly declined interviews about Gary." I responded, but I never heard from him again. In all, I left him 15 e-mail and phone messages at work and on his cell phone and repeatedly spoke to his secretary. A few years after the Mercury News published "Dark Alliance," Yarnold was promoted to executive editor, then editor for the editorial and opinion pages. He left the paper in April to become an executive with Environmental Defense, an advocacy group in New York.

Paul Van Slambrouck replaced Yarnold on the series when Yarnold left the Mercury News briefly in 1996 to take a job with the paper's corporate parent, Knight Ridder. Van Slambrouck, until recently editor of the Christian Science Monitor, did the final editing of "Dark Alliance" and guided the series into the paper, according to Webb. After I left Van Slambrouck nine phone and e-mail messages requesting an interview, his assistant called back with the following response: "Paul asked me to call you. He has decided not to participate in the story."

Jerry Ceppos, executive editor of the Mercury News at the time the paper published "Dark Alliance" and now vice president for news at Knight Ridder, immediately returned my call. He declined to comment, citing the May 11, 1997, retraction he wrote as his response. "My column really still speaks for how I feel," he said. "I'm going to leave it at that."

In his retraction, Ceppos wrote: "I believe that we fell short at every step of our process--in the writing, editing and production of our work. Several people here share that burden. We have learned from the experience and are changing the way we handle major investigations. But ultimately, the responsibility was, and is, mine."

A few days after Webb's suicide in December, Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold, Webb's editor for a year in the late 1980s, published his thoughts on the reporter: "Part of what made [Webb] great destroyed him. He was an immensely talented reporter, a good writer and a sometimes difficult human being.

"Once convinced he was right, Webb didn't budge... His lack of doubt demanded a firm editor to challenge him." "Dark Alliance," Herhold wrote, "was as much an institutional failure as it was a personal one. Yet Webb bore the chief consequences."

A former Mercury News staff member told me an editor had removed from Herhold's column his observation that the "Dark Alliance" editors were later promoted. Since Herhold and I had talked about the editors' promotions, I called him for his thoughts. He had no comment and referred me to the paper's executive editor, Susan Goldberg, who said, "I won't discuss internal editing matters."

-- Susan Paterno



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