Hollywood’s Gary Webb Movie and the Message that Big Media Couldn’t Kill
By Al Giordano
Gary Webb reached out to me in 2001 at a time when lesser lights were ready and willing to see me thrown under a bus.
I had been sued for libel by a billionaire narco-banker in the New York Supreme Court, threatened by a New York Times bureau chief that he’d ruin me over the same story, and told by Manhattan attorneys that I had to come up with a $50,000 down payment to defend Narco News and me when I didn’t have the $100 I would need for my next rent payment in Mexico. This online newspaper was less than a year old. Its top donor had gotten spooked by the lawsuit and, like some other colleagues, slipped into the shadows. My world was suddenly dark and the walls seemed to close in all around me.
Gary’s email arrived quite by surprise. I knew about his Dark Alliance series, five years prior, documenting the CIA’s trafficking of cocaine to fund paramilitary squads in Central America. I also knew he had been pummeled by corporate media and had lost his job over it. “They’re trying to turn you into me,” he said, “but you can win because you don’t have a boss who can sell you out.” Gary mentioned that he was negotiating a movie deal for the Dark Alliance book – and a major motion picture titled Kill the Messenger is coming out, finally, next month, ten years after Gary’s death – and offered to donate to our defense once he inked the contract. He then penned a letter to our readers that brought an immediate $10,000 into that defense fund.
Gary gave me, on that day, something far more important than money.
Gary gave me hope. And hope kills fear.
The short version of this tale is that with Gary’s help we beat the narco-censors in court, humiliated the New York Times in its own front yard, and much to the chagrin of corporate media the case established press freedom for the Internet under US law. Gary and I and others then teamed up to found the School of Authentic Journalism, now in its eleventh year.
Kill the Messenger will hit the cinemas one month from today and tell the true story of Gary Webb’s saga that others tried so hard to make disappear. There is Oscar buzz over Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of Webb (Renner, 43, has twice been nominated by the Academy: best supporting actor for Our Town in 2010, and best actor for The Hurt Locker in 2008; and through the Avengers, Mission Impossible and Bourne franchises, Renner is one of the world’s biggest box office draws.) Kill the Messenger is based on the book by the same name by Nicholas Schou and on Webb’s own book, Dark Alliance. Michael Cuesta (Homeland, Dexter) is the director. Investigative journalist Peter Landesman is the screenwriter.
This is no boring documentary. It’s an action-packed full-scale Hollywood epic with a star-studded supporting cast: Michael Sheen, Paz Vega, Andy Garcia, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ray Liotta, Oliver Platt and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, among others, join Renner in the ensemble.
As the October 10 premier draws near, Narco News will tell more of these stories, and publish never-seen videos of Gary in his own words, but let’s talk about the movie and the story it retells because it’s a BFD (a big fucking deal) that is about to bring Gary the vindication he did not live to see, and that will deliver overdue justice to the big media bullies – yes, the movie mentions some of the worst offenders by name – who betrayed Gary, the First Amendment, and the tenets of basic human decency along with him.
* * *
When in the summer of 1996 the San Jose Mercury News published Gary’s investigative series on CIA cocaine trafficking, I had previous knowledge that it was all true but honestly thought that it was old news. Ten years prior, first-term US Senator John Kerry had held hearings and issued a 1,100-page report that had reached the same conclusion. The nation’s major news outlets gave the Kerry Committee Report scant attention, but the record had been established. It was an airtight case. The Central Intelligence Agency had broken US law by brokering planeloads of cocaine into the United States, and millions of dollars in those drug profits were used to fund the Contra army seeking the violent overthrow of the Nicaraguan government. The CIA did so to get around the US Congress, which had voted to ban US funds going to that terrorist organization. The Reagan administration, even as it ramped up the “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign at home, entered the cocaine business through private contractors coordinated by the CIA.
Webb came across the other end of that officially-sanctioned cocaine trail while reporting on a drug case in California, and followed the trail in reverse: from the crack-plagued neighborhoods of Los Angeles to the federal courtroom where lower level traffickers were prosecuted, to a Nicaraguan prison to interview the Contra army’s banker, to the real drug kingpins behind it all: decision makers in Washington DC. Webb documented what had happened to that cocaine when it entered California. Cocaine had previously been the hundred-dollars-a-gram drug of choice of yuppie bankers and lawyers. But when dealers figured out how to convert it to crack, teenagers, poor and working folks could afford it at five or ten bucks a pop. Then the problems compounded when they kept needing more of an addictive and prohibited substance.
The major narco-traffickers at the top of that food chain were given protection and immunity by US government agencies as reward for their participation in the scheme. Meanwhile prosecutors offered up small timers as scapegoats for the crack invasion in the inner cities of America. Pulling that thread, Webb’s reporting deepened the Kerry Committee conclusions with more evidence of CIA involvement. Yet the real marvel of his masterpiece of investigative journalism was that it exposed the street level end of the pipeline that harmed so many lives. It was authentic journalism: tough, gritty, scrupulously documented and sourced at a time when the news industry was running away from that practice.
Webb’s Dark Alliance series was also the first-of-a-kind in that the Mercury News posted it on the Internet, along with the supporting documents, interviews and the reporter's notes. Talk radio and alternative newsweeklies spread the word about the website, and suddenly the gatekeepers of the national media could not control the story in the same way they had the previous decade when ignoring the Kerry Committee Report. Everything that is great and powerful about Internet journalism today began with that series. For the first time, New Media had beaten Old Media.
And Old Media flew into a rage.
The gatekeepers of the national news media first tried to ignore and wish the story away. But the impact at the grassroots level grew and grew over the next three months to the point where if pretending the CIA-drugs nexus never happened wasn’t working, Plan B was to practice overkill to try and discredit it. What I didn’t realize at the time was the swift and effective reaction that would come from the African-American community on the West Coast, whose neighborhoods bore the brunt of the crack invasion. Or that such a powerful din would be created that would embarrass the national media for having not reported the story for the previous decade. Or that the three national “papers of record” – the New York Times, the Washington Post and especially the Los Angeles Times, having lost face in its own territory by Gary’s superior reporting in the smaller Mercury News – would instead of correcting their failures spend obscene manpower and resources looking for dirt on Gary Webb and seeking to discredit him and his story. A lone journalist’s investigative reports were sailing towards the Pulitzer Prize, so he had to be stopped by the big boys by any means necessary.
The big three American newspapers were, then as now, run by white folks, and imbued their response to the Dark Alliance series with an ugly racism that suggested that the story was only a big deal because black folks were somehow more susceptible to “conspiracy theories.” Yes, this was less than twenty years ago, but one need only look at this particularly nasty bit in the New York Times of October 21, 1996 to see just how extreme things got.
“Though Evidence Is Thin, Tale of C.I.A. and Drugs Has a Life of Its Own,” blazed the headline that day, in a long hatchet job signed by Timesman Tim Golden.
“While the (Dark Alliance) assertions might owe their widest dissemination to the World Wide Web,” wrote Golden, “they owe much of their power to the longstanding network of newspapers, radio stations and word of mouth that informs and connects blacks in the United States.”
“At Styles, a New York City hair salon catering to an African-American and Hispanic clientele,” gasped Golden on behalf of the NYT, “a printout of the series sits in the magazine rack, alongside copies of Ebony and Essence magazines.”
Imagine that! Black folks reading the news alongside Ebony and Essence! The smears against Webb – beyond the bigoted implication that doing reporting that African-Americans found important made him some kind of race traitor – included an attack on Gary’s (completely legitimate, and, indeed, clever) newsgathering tactic of feeding questions to a defense attorney who then asked them to a protected government witness during trial. In response, the witness – which federal prosecutors had prevented from giving interviews to the press – spilled the beans under oath about government participation in cocaine trafficking. Golden and the Times used that courtroom story – which is portrayed quite brilliantly in a script for Kill the Messenger – to imply that Webb was too close to a defense attorney that represented a defendant along the CIA cocaine trail. The smear is utter rubbish. That kind of creativity by a reporter deserves awards and promotions, not baseless innuendo hurled against him. There was nothing untoward about it at all. The big media attackers knew it, but they found little else to throw at Webb in their desperation to discredit him.
Alexander Cockburn would later write: “Few spectacles in journalism in the mid-1990s were more disgusting than the slagging of Gary Webb in the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Squadrons of hacks, some of them with career-long ties to the CIA, sprayed thousands of words of vitriol over Webb and his paper.”
The attacks by the big three newspapers had a secondary effect on B-list journalists all over the country; those whose dream was to step their careers up the ladder to be able to work at one of those institutions. It sent a loud and clear message that they could curry favor with the Washington, New York and Los Angeles dailies by joining in the witch-hunt, and likewise risk their wrath if they dared to praise or defend Webb’s series.
The deepest cut perhaps was closest to home. The editor of Webb’s newspaper, Jerry Ceppos of the Mercury News, reacted to the October blitzkrieg by the bigger papers by publishing an editorial backpedaling from the Webb series. The Mercury News eventually removed the Dark Alliance series, and its supporting documentation, from its website, and Gary Webb was shipped off to a small town bureau which might as well have been in Siberia. The Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist was then relegated to reporting on the local police blotter and human-interest stories about pets and farm animals.
Gary soon after resigned from the newspaper and published the book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (1999, Seven Stories Press), which won some awards and kept the facts alive even after the Mercury News tried to sweep them back under the rug. The US government eventually issued its own report admitting that everything Gary reported was true.
Gary wanted so much to return to his work as an investigative reporter for a daily newspaper. His kids helped him address scores of envelopes and sent his resume to every major daily in the United States. Not a single US daily called him in for an interview. Gary paid the bills for a while by working as an investigator for the California state legislature, but that gig ran out, too.
When in December of 2004 his house was sold and he had nowhere to live at the age of 49 other than to move in with his mother, Gary wrote a suicide note and killed himself with a pistol. There are still many who don’t believe it, who prefer to think the same CIA assassinated him. But Gary had called friends in the days before his death telling them he had bought the gun and was going to do it. And then he was gone.
* * *
Had Gary not gone through that hell, I might very well have been next. He shared our victory in December of 2001 when the New York State Supreme Court dismissed the National Bank of Mexico’s lawsuit against us out of court and wrote case law establishing that Internet journalists now enjoy the same First Amendment protections as the New York Times.
When, then, my inbox filled with hundreds of emails from young journalists and journalism students asking if they could come work as unpaid interns for Narco News, expressing their dissatisfaction with what had happened to the news industry and what they were taught in its university mills, I contacted Gary with an idea: Let’s start a school for these young people. Gary signed on and came to Mexico in February 2003 to teach at the first School of Authentic Journalism. After Narco News won the lawsuit, some of our old funders returned and we were able to offer 25 scholarships that year.
Gary may be the most beloved professor to have ever taught at the school. The scholars nicknamed him “The Marlboro Man” for his rugged handsome cowboy look and his penchant for filtered cigarettes. When Gary spoke of his experiences, everyone gave their full attention. The Old Media may have declared him a pariah, but a new generation that no longer views the pinnacle of the profession as getting a job at a disgraced national daily saw Gary as a role model and leader.
The world can also plainly see what has happened to a daily newspaper industry that abandoned its muckraking roots as dailies have downsized and gone out of business. The New York Times and the others have lost their previous luster and now only attract B-list writers and editor-bureaucrats into their ranks. The same Internet that Gary Webb pioneered is now the preferred source for news everywhere on earth.
After Gary’s death, we got a copy of the CD-Rom of his series and with his family’s blessing we published Dark Alliance on Narco News, uncensored. It remains today among the most sought-after pages in our fourteen years of archives.
When word began to spread that Hollywood would take Gary’s story to the silver screen, a new panic began to ensue in the Old Media circles that had so maliciously destroyed his career.
Sensing the prick of the humungous needle from Hollywood about to stick him and the rest of the bullies who hounded Gary until his death, Mercury News editor Scott Herhold, who claims to have been Gary’s “first editor” at the paper, fired off a preemptive shot last year that sought to, in his own words, “salt the Renner version with skepticism.” Herhold labeled the late Gary Webb as “a man of passion, not of fairness. When facts didn’t fit his theory, he tended to shove them to the sidelines.” Herhold offers no facts himself to back up that claim, other than that Webb had written a memo about his shitty editing to their bosses and that Herhold is still butthurt about it: “If he could do that to me,” Herhold complained, “he could easily do that to his stories.” In other words, he offers a hypothetical extraction from an inter-office memo Webb wrote about Herhold to smear Webb’s published journalism.
We should never confuse “New Media” as that which is on the Internet and “Old Media” as that which is in print: These terms have to do with a mindset, not the medium upon which one types. Some of the stalest journalism now lurks the halls of the Internet and some of the sharpest New Media journalists have old school tendencies dating back to when American newspapers were relevant in all the ways they have ceased to be. Internet news aggregator James Romenesko – who years ago had become the house cheerleader for B-list American journalists (the kind that sees every story as an audition to get a job at the New York Times) at the website of the Poynter Institute – now has his own blog, and dutifully linked to Herhold’s column. (Romenesko may dress himself as “New Media” but when the New York Times asks him to censor a link to a story it does not like, he slavishly obeys; and, if he'd like to deny that he's that kind of obsequious industry suck-up, let's rumble anew.)
In the coming weeks we can expect more such panicked response to the Kill the Messenger movie from the same career apparatchiks that smeared Gary Webb to begin with, doubling down on their worn and rusted hatchets.
Like Wile E. Coyote, they’ll hoist the piano over their heads one last time, and predictably the piano will fall back down upon them. With the release of the movie, they’ll not only be reminding all journalists and readers of conscience of what industry tools they are, but will also be up against an entertainment media that has long been sensitized to McCarthyism in all its forms.
Kill the Messenger represents nothing less than Hollywood’s recognition that the new McCarthyism has more often than not come wrapped in a war on drugs. And those that attacked Gary Webb will be cast into the same dustbin of disgrace in which the blacklist proponents of the Red Scare are now buried.
Yet there is another possible response from the 1990s cowards who gambled that by smearing Gary they would promote – or at least protect – their own sinecures in the dying corporate news industry. It is that offered last year by former LA Times reporter Jesse Katz as Kill the Messenger was about to begin shooting. In a LA Weekly interview with Nick Schou, Katz recanted and apologized for his behavior as one of 17 Los Angeles Times reporters assigned by editors Shelby Coffey and Leo Wolinsky to try and discredit Webb’s Dark Alliance reports:
“As an LA Times reporter, we saw this series in the San Jose Mercury News and kind of wonder(ed) how legit it was and kind of put it under a microscope… And we did it in a way that most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill. We had this huge team of people at the LA Times and kind of piled on to one lone muckraker up in Northern California.”
What Katz has done is simply what journalism requires of each and every one of us who claim to be part of it: If you find you have made an error in your reporting, you issue a correction. Failure to do so is malpractice, plain and simple. That Katz is the only member of the media ranks who has expressed regret so far at his role in the knowingly false attacks on Webb speaks volumes about how far the rest of them have strayed from the practice of real journalism.
A paradox is that many of the generation of media pundits and editors who attacked Webb in the nineties got into journalism inspired by the Watergate era reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, and the 1976 motion picture about them, All the Presidents Men, portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, from a time when the major daily newspapers could at least sometimes be watchdogs instead of lapdogs. Thirty-eight years later, the movie that will define the current sad chapter of the news industry tells the story of how the same Washington Post participated in the US government cover-up of its agency’s cocaine trafficking and went so far as to besmirch the reporter out in the field who did the job that the newspaper’s reputation was built upon, that of investigative journalism.
Where is the apology and correction from Walter Pincus, the Washington Post CIA beat reporter who curried favor with the agency by attacking Webb? Where are his beltway colleagues Robert Suro and Jackson Diehl who joined in the malicious bullying of a man who was twice the journalist any of them will ever be? Where is the Mea Culpa from the NY Timesmen Tim Golden and James Risen, who did the dirty work for that newspaper in the witch hunt? What about you Shelby Coffey? No longer at the LA Times, Coffey is now a PR flack for APCO and graces the boards of the Newseum and the Council on Foreign Relations. Such are the rewards for being a spineless toady for those in power. And you, Leo Wolinsky? Where is the correction you owe your readers? How about your LA Times colleague Doyle McManus? And you, Ralph Frammolino? Are you enjoying the public relations industry now that you’re washed up in journalism? Where are the corrections, bitches? No Hollywood star is ever going to portray any of you in a movie (unless it is as villain, as Jerry Ceppos is about to see when he is portrayed by Oliver Platt). When, if ever, do you wash the stain off your hands from the atrocity of journalism that is one and only thing any of you ever did in this business that will cause you to be remembered by future generations?
You have become, each and every one of you, nothing but a dirty and shamed footnote to the story of an immortal hero, Gary Webb.
You see, gentlemen: You made the same mistake that despots and their lackeys have made throughout human history. You thought that by killing the messenger you could kill the message.
Even in a worst-case scenario for the movie, Kill the Messenger, if it were a box office bust, it will still appear, again and again, on cable movie channels for generations to come, correcting the record and naming names on the real offenders. Your children and grandchildren will see it. There is also the possibility that the movie might stall at the box office but then be given new life by this year’s Oscar nominations, and soar back into public view. And with a cast, subject and script as exciting as this one, there is also the chance that it comes out roaring to public attendance and acclaim. Tell us, please, gentlemen: Is there any one of these scenarios in which you come out on top? No, Sirs, there is not! Not unless and until you do the right thing and issue the same kind of correction that Jesse Katz has offered.
Beyond the culprits at the three national dailies, there is long line of second-string mynah bird repeaters of their “conventional wisdom” against Webb and his reporting, of varying degrees of embarrassment to those writers. Should any of them pop their heads up in the coming weeks to repeat their libels, they can expect the archives of their own shoddy work to be rolled up and swatted back upon their puppy dog noses. They are from an era of corporate journalism when the motivating force was no longer truth or justice or any kind of idealism, when the motor of career journalism became fear and only fear. Some were poseurs of alternative media, from David Corn at The Nation to Glenn Garvin at Reason magazine (who moved on to join another US daily wallowing in decay, the Miami Herald), whose noses were stuck so far up power’s ass in the 1990s that they still can’t get the brown off. They considered the CIA-cocaine connection to be their story, and were envious that an unknown gumshoe reporter out in the hinterlands had stepped onto "their" turf to cause a greater impact than they ever had.
Gary Webb’s reports were that powerful that they made careerist journalists tremble and lash out and dutifully show that era’s media bosses that they had done their bidding. And then there were others who tried to be fairer to Webb but still feared the big media lords so much that they colored their defenses of the essential truth of the Dark Alliance series with sprinkled disclaimers that he had made errors or wasn’t a saint. You know, the false dichotomy of "telling both sides" of a story that does not have two sides that is formula for corporate media. Eighteen years later, the record reflects that Webb's reporting was spot on and that those unnecessary disclaimers revealed more about the fear by other writers of offending the powerful than they did about Webb’s good works.
There were courageous, real journalists who stood up tall to critique Webb’s attackers and set the record straight on the stunning accuracy of his work. Most of them paid a price in their careers but kept their souls intact. Making a list of each and every one of them would surely risk leaving some out in error. But I do wish to mention three that are, like Gary, no longer with us: The aforementioned Alex Cockburn, the late WBAI New York broadcaster Robert Knight, and one very dear colleague who died this only month, Chuck Bowden, who in 1998 when Gary had already been cast out by the news industry, wrote the definitive story, titled The Pariah, for Esquire magazine, setting the record straight.
They’ve moved on, perhaps to join Gary in a better newsroom in the great beyond.
Meanwhile, here on earth, new generations are up and coming that understand perfectly well that the present and future of journalism is not entered by landing a byline at the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times, but in the trenches pioneered by Gary Webb.
What Readers Can Do
Now is the time - the October 10 release of Kill the Messenger creates new opportunity - for all good people to join forces to correct the terrible injustice that was done to the messenger.
We can start by reading the Dark Alliance series and its supporting documents, so that when Kill the Messenger generates discussion and questions more of us will be ready to answer them.
We can be supportive of Gary’s family who will have to relive these horrible events in the coming weeks but who have the inner fortitude and commitment to justice to be willing to do so. They’ve just opened a Facebook page in Gary Webb’s name. We can all join it at this link.
We can listen to Gary in his own words. Doing so is always a worthwhile experience. One can hear him on various videos and audio files posted around the Internet. Whether it was 5 a.m. in California as he did a phone interview with C-Span on the East Coast or his appearance on rough and tumble talk radio shows, Gary’s demeanor was always calm, confident and willing to let the facts speak for themselves. This was a journalist who trusted the readers to figure things out. There was no similarity at all between Gary and today’s shrieking carnival barkers on cable television.
Here are some excerpts of Gary speaking at the 2003 School of Authentic Journalism:
We have recently taken inventory of the Narco News and School of Authentic Journalism archives and found more video of Gary in his own words. In the coming weeks Narco News TV will release eight more videos that feature him, so that at his posthumous hour of global attention, Gary can still speak for himself.
Over the next month, we, the friends and colleagues of Gary Webb (1955-2004), will announce other steps to be taken to bring more attention to his message, including grassroots organizing and actions that can be taken at the most local level involving your local cinema and your local media organizations.
Gary Webb - the messenger - will not be with us to see this movie about him.
Gary’s message, however, is here to stay.