Film review: Kill the Messenger and the Contra-cocaine-CIA scandal

I saw this yesterday and it was excellent. The filmmakers wisely decided to make the entire film cover the two year period 1996-1997 which saw Gary Webb break the series of stories titled Dark Alliance for the San Jose Mercury News that exposed the shady links between the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua, the CIA, and the drug dealers who were ravaging the black communities in the inner cities of the US by flooding them with crack cocaine. (See my earlier posts on this story and film here and here.)

The film is basically a political thriller that has as its first half how Webb stumbled upon the story, getting a tip from an informant about a drug dealer who was secretly working for the government. Reporters get tips all the time but this was different in that it took the form of a written transcript of secret grand jury testimony in the case of ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross, a major drug dealer in the Los Angeles, that first revealed the government-drug connection. It is written documentation that is the most powerful evidence because, unlike oral testimony, it is incontrovertible. Many people still do not appreciate that this was the significant factor about Edward Snowden’s revelations, that it was the documents he produced. If he had simply told reporters all that he knew, his story would have gone nowhere.

The second half of the film tells the betrayal of Webb by his journalistic colleagues at the major newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and the New York Times who, working with their CIA sources, played their usual role of providing cover for the government’s most egregious abuses. While these newspapers are willing to explore sexual and other personal corruption by people in government, they shy away from anything that would seriously tarnish the major agencies of the national security state. By their vicious attacks on Webb, they managed to cow his own editors to back away from him.

The film is undoubtedly sympathetic to Webb’s case and ruthless in exposing the awful behavior of the other newspapers so I was curious to see how those three newspapers would review the way they were portrayed and whether they would take the occasion to issue a mea culpa, especially since the CIA later confirmed in a report that the links Webb showed did exist and his story was substantially true. The CIA released the report at the height of the Monica Lewinsky story and you can guess which one dominated the coverage. Ryan Deveraux writes about how the CIA managed its campaign against Webb using the other media.

Here is film critic Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, who comes the closest to admitting his newspaper’s culpability in covering up one of the biggest stories.

When the Mercury News publishes the “Dark Alliance” story in August 1996, it explodes like the bombshell that journalists like Webb hope for their entire lives. But in this case, the explosion damaged Webb more than anyone else.

For what no one counted on was that the journalistic establishment — including elite newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times — would attempt to discredit Webb’s reporting.

The other newspapers questioned the shakier parts of his story and proving the truth of what one of Webb’s sources tells him: “You get the most flak when you’re right above the target.” As then-Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser wrote at the time, her newspaper had “shown more passion for sniffing out the flaws in the Mercury News’ answer than sniffing out a better answer themselves.”

In over his head in ways he never anticipated, Webb became a journalistic pariah for telling the story he so believed in. As its title indicates, “Kill the Messenger” is a cautionary tale, but for crusading journalists, keeping themselves safe from Gary Webb’s fate may be easier said than done.

The review by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times pretty much ignores its own shameful role, which is par for the course for that paper, given its repeated acts of carrying water for the government.

The review in the Washington Post by Michael O’Sullivan skips over the major charge in the film that that paper’s editors were completely in the camp of the CIA, saying only this about its role.

The film presents the reporter (played with roguish intensity by Jeremy Renner) as a misunderstood crusader whose reporting, while arguably flawed, was unfairly maligned by larger newspapers, The Washington Post among them. (Writing in response to The Post’s critical coverage of the “Dark Alliance” series, the paper’s then-ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, wrote in November 1996 that the newspaper “showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves.”)

The paper also regurgitated the old arguments against the CIA-drugs connection with a hatchet job masquerading as an opinion piece by its assistant managing editor for investigations Jeff Leen who was on the same story back in the 90s but was scooped by Webb and still seems resentful. The piece is worth reading, if only to understand the establishment mindset of some reporters. But make sure you also read veteran investigative reporter Robert Parry’s brutal takedown of Leen’s shameful piece showing him to be, at best, a hack. Parry was one of the earliest reporters, even before Webb, to explore the Contra-drugs link.

Webb’s series was one of the first stories to exploit the qualities of the then-new internet. It was published online with links to documents and other supporting material, a novelty at that time. But that same openness enabled the establishment press to pick holes here and there and thus by innuendo try and discredit the whole story.

Ryan Grim, Matt Sledge, and Matt Ferner in a long piece look at all the new evidence that has emerged since Webb’s work appeared and that many f the shadowy figures who were the sources for Webb’s story are now coming forward into the open. A new documentary titled Freeway: Crack in the System on that was released on Friday will I hope re-open this sordid story.

If Webb had published his story now, the establishment press would have reacted the same way but he would have had more allies as well in the new media ventures that have been started and he would likely have found a more comfortable home in which to continue his work and support for it.

He was just a little to far ahead of his time.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    Gary Webb break the series of stories titled Dark Alliance for the San Jose Mercury Times

    Actually, it’s the San Jose Mercury News

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Parry was one of the earliest reporters, even before Webb, to explore the Contra-drugs link.

    An impertinence which eventually blacklisted him from corporate journalism, but he carries on, with his sons and others, at Consortium News. They recently provided excellent Ukraine reportage, and useful historical context (do a search for Colin Powell) all around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *