The Internet on trial (continued)
McLish, Hernández’s lawyer, is part of a firm whose partners include Democratic grandees Vernon Jordan and Robert Strauss. And for good measure, Menéndez is being defended by First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus, whose client list includes Lenny Bruce and Timothy Leary.
The case also involves some vital free-speech issues. With the mainstream media increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer corporate owners, the Internet is a crucial outlet for independent media projects such as Narco News. But Giordano’s very independence makes him vulnerable to the wealth of a banker such as Hernández and a law firm such as Akin, Gump.
“Even if the charges are preposterous, the fact that he has to divert resources, time, and energy — it deflects you from your work, and it displaces you from your energy, time, and effort,” says Danny Schechter, an old friend of Giordano’s who is executive editor of the Media Channel, a progressive nonprofit watchdog site (www.mediachannel.org). “It becomes a noose around your neck. It makes it harder to do your work, and it makes it harder to find allies.”
Adds Schechter, best known in Boston for his years as the “News Dissector” on the old WBCN Radio in the 1970s: “I admire Al. He’s one guy taking on the whole drug war.”
Trouble is, it’s a lot easier for the likes of Roberto Hernández to crush one guy than it would be to take on a major media organization. Just ask Matt Drudge, whose online Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com) several years ago slimed then–White House aide Sidney Blumenthal with a false story that Blumenthal had physically abused his wife. Drudge pulled the story and apologized almost immediately, but Blumenthal has continued to push a $30 million libel suit against Drudge, which critics charge is motivated more by his desire to harass a persistent Clinton enemy than to clear his name. (Yet another disclosure: the Washington Post reported last November that my name was on a list of witnesses whom Blumenthal intended to depose in an effort to track down Drudge’s sources. To date I have not been contacted by any of the parties in the suit.)
Another relevant example is that of Brock Meeks, whose pioneering CyberWire Dispatch (www.cyberwerks.com/cyberwire) was sued by a telemarketing firm in 1994 after Meeks claimed the firm was engaged in a “scam.” Meeks ended up settling without admitting any liability or falsehoods, and paid for his legal representation through an on online defense fund that raised some $10,000 to $15,000.
“The thing that I learned is that if you’re going to be a cowboy, you have to be really prepared to endure all that comes with that,” says Meeks, now the chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC.com. “The frightening thing is when you learn just how alone you are. It’s very tough unless you’ve got a deep-pockets publisher behind you.”
The issues in Hernández’s suit against Al Giordano, Mario Menéndez, and Narco News are complicated, and involve Menéndez and his newspaper, Por Esto!, more directly than they do Giordano. In a series of articles, Por Esto! reported that coastal properties purchased by Hernández in the late ’80s and early ’90s were used to deliver large volumes of Colombian cocaine; from there, the drugs were allegedly flown into the United States from Hernández’s private airfield. Por Esto! also reported that Hernández used resorts he owned to launder drug money. Although Giordano reports that he’s done some checking of his own, his involvement was largely limited to repeating Por Esto!’s charges in interviews, at the Columbia University appearance, and in the Narco News Bulletin.
The truth of Por Esto!’s reporting will be determined in court — assuming the case ever gets far enough to go to trial, a process that Tom Lesser estimates could take several years.
But to the extent that Giordano’s own reputation is at issue, one indication of his reliability may be gleaned from a piece Narco News published last October. According to Narco News, Associated Press reporter Peter McFarren had lobbied the Bolivian Senate on behalf of a $78 million water project from which he would have indirectly benefited. Not long after Giordano’s story was published, McFarren resigned.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz, who reported on McFarren and on Giordano’s role, told me, “Giordano’s reporting on the serious conflicts of an AP reporter in Bolivia was right on the mark and well documented in my view. The AP was slow to acknowledge Giordano’s basic point — that its reporter could not lobby the Bolivian legislature and continue to function as a journalist — but the wire service ultimately distanced itself from its former correspondent, thus underscoring that Giordano hit the bull’s-eye.”
Among Giordano’s supporters is Gary Webb, whose “Dark Alliance” series for the San Jose Mercury News several years ago — reporting that the CIA looked the other way while its right-wing clients in Nicaragua raised money by selling cocaine that helped touch off the US crack epidemic — created a national sensation.
Webb’s experience shows what Giordano may be up against. After the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times all published long series suggesting that Webb may have overreached, the Mercury apologized, leading to Webb’s departure from the paper. He later expanded on his story and wrote about his own experience in Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories, 1998).
In a letter posted on Narco News, Webb compares his situation to Giordano’s, saying, “Make no mistake. This court fight isn’t about any particular story Narco News has done. It’s about ALL of them, and all of the ones yet to come. And it’s a battle over the continued independence of Internet journalism as well.”
THERE’S GOING to be a celebration next Wednesday, April 18. It’s the first anniversary of the Narco News Bulletin, and Giordano has scheduled an event that will take place in New York City at 8:30 p.m., at 538 West 40th Street. The MC will be humorist and social activist Barry Crimmins, whose Web site (www.barrycrimmins.com) runs an amusing parody called “Where’s Al?”, about Giordano’s efforts to avoid having papers served on him in the Hernández lawsuit.
“The thing that I think Al and I really have in common, and what I think his friend Abbie Hoffman probably spotted as well, is that Al has always understood that you have to have fun,” Crimmins says. Not that Crimmins doesn’t see the seriousness in Giordano’s situation. “If they can get Al, they can get the rest of us,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of this one. This is a great one.”
Giordano says it’s not quite accurate for Crimmins to suggest that he tried to prevent Hernández’s lawyers from serving papers on him. “I never intended to evade service. I’ve never run from a fight in my life,” he says, offering as proof the fact that he did, after several months, step forward and accept his role as a party to the suit. But, he adds, “The law doesn’t require me to stop what I’m doing to facilitate anyone serving me papers. I’m not going to march to their rhythm, their drums, and their case.”
Giordano is trying to move forward. These days he’s focusing considerable attention on the Peruvian election. Narco News has reported that the United States withdrew its support for the previous dictatorial president, Alberto Fujimori, because Fujimori opposed US intervention in Colombia. Now it appears that Alan Garcia, a progressive who also opposes Plan Colombia, may win back the presidency he once held. On Tuesday of this week, the Bulletin published photos purporting to show US Marines in Peru above the headline will washington accept democracy in perú?
At the same time, however, Giordano acknowledges that the lawsuit could wear him down and interfere seriously with his mission.
“It is possible that Narco News ceases publication of new stories because I am converted into a full-time pro se defendant,” he told me in an email exchange. “But what is already published on Narco News will remain on the Internet. That is my vow. If it has to go to a thousand mirror sites, or reconstitute itself in anothernews.com from an offshore server, well, the Internet also provides those options.”
You don’t have to form an opinion about the Banamex lawsuit to see the Narco News Bulletin for what it is: a passionate, occasionally funny, and important extension of Al Giordano himself, a passionate, occasionally funny activist who has important things to say.
It would be a damn shame if legal woes end up silencing Narco News. But I suspect that silencing Giordano himself would be an utter impossibility.
Read Dan Kennedy's interview with Al Giordano at: www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/dont_quote_me/documents/01285285.htm
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com.
© 2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group