“Kill the Messenger,” a film about former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, opens Friday. Webb wrote a series in 1995 and 1996 called “Dark Alliance,” which plumbed a relationship between the CIA and Nicaraguan contras who brought cocaine into the U.S.
- Webb was basically right: His reporting built on a 1985 AP report by Robert Parry and Brian Barger and a 1989 U.S. Senate report that made it clear U.S. officials were aware the contras were financing their operations in part with drug smuggling. But Webb’s pieces, Ryan Devereaux writes in The Intercept, connected “an issue that seemed distant to many U.S. readers — drug trafficking in Central America — to a deeply-felt domestic story, the impact of crack cocaine in California’s urban, African American communities.”
- Webb’s series spread via the Web, a novelty at the time: “The wildfire-like sweep of ‘Dark Alliance’ was all the more remarkable because it took place without the tinder of the mainstream press,” Peter Kornbluh wrote in CJR in 1997. “Instead, the story roared through the new communications media of the Intemet and black talk radio–two distinct, but in this case somewhat symbiotic, information channels.” It “was accompanied by a digital library of source documents, a timeline of events and a list of characters, among other web-only features that have now become commonplace,” David Carr writes in The New York Times. “It was, by most accounts, the first newspaper series to go viral before there were even words to describe the phenomenon.”
- His series had some flaws: Webb “wrote past what he knew,” Carr writes, and the series’ packaging was “lurid and overheated.” Kornbluh wrote that the “articles did not even address the likelihood that CIA officials in charge would have known about these drug operations” and ID’d the “overarching problem in the series” as its reliance on the testimony of drug dealer Oscar Danilo Blandón Reyes, which was inconsistent and had timeline problems.
- The U.S. news media helped the CIA by trying to knock the story down: At an “establishment paper” like The Washington Post, former Post reporter Douglas Farah tells Ryan Grim, “If you were going to be directly rubbing up against the government, they wanted it more solid than it could probably ever be done.” The Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times worked diligently to try to discredit Webb’s story. The L.A. Times “assigned no fewer than 17 reporters to pick apart Webb’s reporting,” Devereaux writes, saying an internal CIA report boasted “that the agency effectively departed from its own longstanding policies in order to discredit the series.” Former L.A. Times reporter Jesse Katz called the paper’s effort a “kind of tawdry exercise” that “ruined that reporter’s career,” Nick Schou, who consulted on the movie, wrote last year in LA Weekly. “The Post (among others) showed more energy for protecting the CIA from someone else’s journalistic excesses,” Geneva Overholser, then the Post’s ombudsman, wrote in 1996.
- The Mercury News eventually distanced itself from the story: “I would do exactly the same thing 18 years later that I did then, and that is to say that I think we overreached,” former Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos told Carr.
- Webb killed himself: He was 49. “Mr. Webb, who was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for coverage of the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, continued to maintain that his reporting was accurate,” a New York Times obituary said.
Here’s a trailer for the film: