Killing the Messenger

I first came across the name Gary Webb some years ago, when I was researching a section about the Reagan administration’s first ‘war on terror’ in the 1980s for my book on terrorism.   Webb was a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, who stumbled on a story that the CIA-supported Contras were funding their war against the Sandinista in Nicaragua by selling Colombian cocaine in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and that the drug dealers responsible for this were receiving specially lenient treatment from the US Justice Department.

This was not the first time that CIA had been linked to the drugs trade.  Alfred McCoy had once made similar allegations regarding CIA complicity in heroin trafficking during the Vietnam War.  Bob Parry touched on the Contra/Cocaine links in his Contragate investigations during the 1980s.   In 1989 the Senate subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International operations chaired by Senator John Kerry published a report Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy, which  concluded that ‘individuals who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking…and elements of the Contras themselves knowingly received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.’

These conclusions received little coverage in the US media, which has a long history of ignoring what it doesn’t want to hear, or what the government doesn’t want it to hear. Webb’s story produced a very different reaction.  A talented and dogged investigative reporter, Webb linked the Contra/Columbia/CIA pipeline directly to the crack cocaine epidemic in Californian cities during the 1980s.  Though he didn’t argue that the CIA intentionally set out to produce this outcome, he did argue that it turned a blind eye to the drug trade or directly colluded with it, and helped ensure legal leniency or protection for some of those responsible.

In August 1996 Webb published the first of a three-part series entitled ‘Dark Alliance’, which eventually became a book with the same title.  Partly as a result of the paper’s ground-breaking simultaneous publication in print and on the Internet, his journalistic scoop caused an instant sensation, and Webb briefly became something of a media star.   But instead of following up his investigations, some of the most powerful newspapers in the United States began to attack the series and Webb himself.   They claimed that his sources were unreliable and thin; that he was a fantasist who had exaggerated his story and even made things up.

This campaign was directed primarily by the Washington Post – the same newspaper which broke Watergate, and it succeeded to the point when Webb’s own newspaper  apologized for its editorial errors and effectively undermined its own reporter.

Why did this happen?  Journalistic jealousy may have been a factor, from newspapers that resented the fact that a maverick journalist from a minor provincial paper had uncovered a story of such magnitude.  There was also the US media’s generally deferential and credulous attitude towards its government, particularly when issues of ‘national security’ are converned.  Last but not least, there is also the possibility that the CIA used its own considerable powers to silence Webb by disgracing him.

This is what Webb himself believed.  Whether this campaign was driven by malice and cowardice, it managed to cast sufficient doubt on Webb’s investigation and his own reputation as a reporter, to the point when he was sidelined by his own newspaper and eventually left it.   He was subsequently unable to find  work as a fulltime journalist and unable to support himself.  On December 10 2004 he shot himself.

Inevitably, this death has prompted suggestions that it was actually an execution,  but it is difficult to see who had any interest in killing him, given the comprehensive damage that had already been done to his reputation and his livelihood. Webb’s story touches on  many crucial issues which still remain with us; the secret and unaccountable machinery of covert operations; drugs and foreign policy; the failed and hypocritical drugs war and the mass incarceration of Afro-Americans that has become a consequence of it; the staggering deference of the corporate media.

All these issues are revisited recounted in Michael Cuesta’s excellent film Kill the Messenger, which I saw yesterday in a nearly empty cinema.  It’s a powerful piece of work, driven by a superb performance from Jeremy Renner.  The film references some of the conspiracy movies of the 70s such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, in the paranoid and menacing world of unspoken and all-powerful government conspiracies, but it’s an angrier and far more polemical movie.

This is first of all a film about Webb, which upholds Webb’s own belief that the government set out to discredit him, with the compliance of the mainstream press.  Like All the President’s Men, it’s also a film about journalism and the media.  But whereas that film told the story of intrepid and fearless investigation of government malfeasance, Kill the Messenger tells the tragic story of media cowardice, laziness and failure that, as the title suggests, preferred to turn against the man who brought the bad news, rather than consider the alarming implications of what he tried to tell them.

There is nothing to suggest that much has changed in that respect.  Today the mainstream media remains generally as credulous and deferential as it was then, and not only in the US, and bringers of unwelcome news are still liable to be ignored or personally vilified.

This important and courageous film reminds us of the kind of journalists we ought to have and too often don’t, and it is a worthy and moving tribute to a man who, as American heroes go, is far more worthy of admiration than the homicidal sniper whose exploits have broken all box office records.

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