“Kill The Messenger” And The CIA Crack Story Ethics Train Wreck

I finally saw the 2014 docudrama “Kill the Messenger,” which completed—I hope—the passenger list for a 30-year-old Ethics Train Wreck.

The film purports to be the true story of Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who wrote the sensational “Dark Alliance” series of investigative reports in 1996. The series attributed the inner city crack cocaine explosion in part to Nicaraguan anti-government Contra rebels in  the 1980s funding their efforts by drug smuggling and sales, all with the knowledge and assistance of the  CIA. The agency, the series claimed, was acting to support the Contras despite Congress rejecting the Reagan administration’s request for aid. Like most Hollywood accounts of anything, the film distorts and misrepresents facts to make a better story. Unfortunately, Webb’s story is made more dramatic by making him out to be a tragic hero and victim of a sinister alliance between the mainstream media and the U.S. Government. That’s not exactly true, fair or accurate, and in this matter, affirmatively harmful.

The fastest way to survey this particular Ethics Train Wreck is to list the distinguished passengers, more or less in order of boarding:

  • President Ronald Reagan, who was openly supportive of the Contras and managed to sufficiently communicate his desires that various individuals under his charge took initiative and sought to defy Congress by finding creative, as in illegal, ways to support them, most infamously the Iran-Contra scheme. Even taking his word that he was not directly involved and did not explicitly authorize these activities, they resulted from his tacit attitudes and lack of responsible oversight. (This is essentially the same sequence as Barack Obama’s IRS scandal, except that Reagan’s scandal was vigorously investigated by the news media, and he did not have his Justice Department actively blocking efforts to find out what occurred.)
  • The CIA, which was aware of the illegal drug smuggling activities of some of their Contra-supporting contacts, and which probably took some shady measures to discredit Webb’s story, other than to deny it.
  • Webb, whose accusations and assertions went well beyond what he could prove and what his facts could support. As the Washington Post’s Jeff Lean wrote about the whole fiasco when the movie came out, Webb violated the journalism maxim that “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof,” and he didn’t have it. Rather than retrench, admit he had made some serious mistakes, engaged in unwarranted assumptions and create wrong impressions, and set out to fix his story, Webb dug in, blamed others, and eventually shot himself. (Typical of the movie, it hints that his suicide may have been something more sinister.)
  • The Mercury News management, including his editors Jerry Ceppos and Anna Simons, who allowed Webb’s flawed reports to be published in a sort of reverse-negative of the way the Post’s Ben Bradley demanded proof and precision from Woodward and Bernstein.
  • The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which teamed up to deconstruct Webb’s story, motivated in part by their embarrassment that they may have been scooped by a small regional paper. Might the results of their inquiries have been different if they were more determined to prove Webb right than wrong?
  • Reporters for other outlets, which made Webb’s story sound even more sensational than it was by reporting that his series accused the CIA of intentionally sending crack into black neighborhoods.
  • Professional race-baiters and racial grievance mongers like Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, and Rep. Maxine Waters, who seized on Webb’s report to further the narrative that white forces within the government inflicted the scourge of crack on inner city blacks.
  • Members of the black community and allied activists and journalists, who employed the narrative to deflect any responsibility black communities have for their members illegal drug use.
  • President Bill Clinton, whose juicy sex scandal and all consuming defense of his participation in it managed to bury the CIA’s eventual admission that Webb wasn’t entirely wrong, which occurred while the news was All Monica All The Time. This explains, in part, why you may not have ever heard of Webb. The 1998 report by CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz  found no CIA relationship with the drug ring Webb had written about, and no evidence  of any conspiracy by CIA or its employees to bring drugs into the United States. It did uncover  instances where CIA did not cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity or take action to stop them. That is bad; it is still considerably less damning than the innuendos left by Webb’s reporting, which included passages like this one:

“Thousands of young black men are serving long prison sentences for selling cocaine — a drug that was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA’s army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices.”

Finally, as the last passenger on the train wreck, we have “Kill the Messenger.”

Leen does a good job explaining why the film misrepresents the facts, but the issue isn’t misrepresentation. The issue, as with Oliver Stone’s “JFK,”  “American Sniper” and other films that present themselves as factual, is making the public believe what isn’t true. This is reckless and irresponsible. If “Kill the Messenger” were presented as a fictional account based on Webb’s travails, calling him by another name and making it clear that this wasn’t “the truth,” then no one could criticize it. (It’s a well made, well acted movie.) As it was, the film bolstered the persistent belief, promoted by both racist black activists and cynical ones who know otherwise, that the crack epidemic was an evil plot by the CIA to destroy black lives and communities.

If you have wondered why race relations in the U.S. have unraveled so quickly in recent years, this horrible tragedy of ethics errors provides some valuable perspective.


Sources: Washington Post 1, 2; “Kill The Messinger”

31 thoughts on ““Kill The Messenger” And The CIA Crack Story Ethics Train Wreck

  1. Jack,
    I’m on board with all except your last point. Whatever the filmmakers may claim about the historical authenticity of their work, they’re nevertheless released as works of fiction. The public itself is the true ethics corrupter if they choose to believe anything fed to them as a dramatic interpretation. No work, however faithful, can ever be entirely true to events, since the people involved are portrayed by actors who only bear a passing (if at all) resemblance to the real people, remembered conversations are paraphrased, and the timelines are often misrepresented or truncated for the sake of running time.

    Glory wasn’t a true story. Apollo 13 wasn’t a true story. Not even the Titanic (even if one ignores the fictional main characters) isn’t a true story. Thus, calling the filmmaker an unethical liar is completely fair game, but criticizing the work itself based on anything other than its merits seems misplaced. Or am I missing something?


    • “Docudrama” implies fact, not fiction. The Post’s editor goes so far as to say the account is complete fiction. There is still a CIA, and living people are impugned by the movie’s excesses. It’s irresponsible to tell a story as history and misrepresent it, especially for a political agenda, which this film has. Both Glory and Apollo 13 were factual in the areas that mattered, nobody was slandered, no material facts were changed. I’d put the Perfect Storm in the same category—fictionalized, but not misleading. Titanic, on the other hand, crossed the line by impugning named Titanic officers who were, as far as we know, heroes. Nobody was shot, no officer shot himself, nobody took bribes. License is one thing, intentionally misleading the audience, as with JFK, is another..using art as propaganda, and to lie.

          • Except that “A Night to Remember” got a number of things wrong as well. Ismay didn’t sheepishly board a boat at the last minute, the boat broke in 1/2 before sinking (though, in fairness to Lord, he couldn’t have known that definitively at the time), and the last song to play was not “Nearer My God to Thee” (though again, it was based on bad information). The point is, no drama-anything is every going to be factually correct all the time. Stating the key points were portrayed faithfully is an obfuscation — like those who differentiate “white lies.”

            I’m not suggesting historical dramas don’t have merit, only that ANYONE who looks to them as learning tools is a bigger fool than the filmmaker who assumes he has wisdom to impart.

            Again, making the argument that Stone is a liar is fair, but JFK itself is just a movie, and sucks for reasons that have nothing to do with how much of a phony Jim Garrison was.

            • As I wrote in an earlier post, Titanic was wrong about the ship splitting above water. You can’t hold ANTR responsible for showing the events as eye witnesses recounted them. The splitting wasn’t confirmed until they found the site. Since none of the orchestra survived, it was also unsettled which hymn was played last. That’s not an intentional misrepresentation. As for Ismay, how he boarded the boat is trivia—the fact that he boarded it at all is the point.

              “Just a movie” is a rationalization: I may even add it to the list. “Birth of a Nation” was “just a movie.” Movie’s change minds, alter perceptions and serve as propaganda.

              • Jack,
                I know all about the initial controversy regarding the splitting of the ship and the band’s swan song. In fact, I made specific reference to it in my post because I knew you would be itching to explain — which you did anyway. Keep in mind, I was raised by someone who forgot more about that ship than you’ll ever know.

                My only point is that even the best dramatic attempts at representing history have flaws (intentional or not) and sitting in judgement of ones you don’t like and calling them “substantial” while others are “trivial” is a way of drawing a distinction that doesn’t exist. Mistakes are mistakes and it doesn’t make on film more ethical than another because they didn’t alter the message. Especially considering that history itself is ultimately a narrative. How events happened can be known to a reasonable certainty, but they why is always a guessing game. Thus, there’s no such thing as the “right” or “wrong” message when it comes to fiction (I know the filmmakers claim it isn’t, but it is and anyone who thinks otherwise deserves to be fooled).

                My ONLY point is that filmmakers can be unethical, but not the films themselves. Dramatic works aren’t real (No JFKs were assassinated in the making of this film) — I don’t care what they call themselves. Either it’s a good movie or it isn’t, should be the only consideration. If you


                • Well, if that’s your technical point, I won’t quibble. People have ethics, art doesn’t but art is a tool and a forme of communication: messages are sent from someone, and those messengers can be unethical. JFK smeared the reputation and good name of LBJ, with no evidence whatsoever. Kill the Messenger reinforced the conviction of many in the black community that their own government intentionally exploited their vulnerabilities to hook them on crack. Artists still are accountable for their art. If we can fairly praise Harriet Beecher Stowe for her art, we can certainly condemn an artist for being misleading and irresponsible as well.


                  • Jack,
                    The movie can only reinforce said message if the audience is gullible enough to allow it to. Again, anyone stepping into a theater to see a movie featuring actors instead of the actual people involved should understand that what they’re about see are interpretations of events, not the events themselves. Any lessons they take away after are on them.

                    I don’t mean to excuse filmmakers, only suggest that their audiences bear more of the blame than they do.


                • No, you did not specifically reference the Titanic splitting in two. You specifically referenced the boat splitting in two. Until I read the follow up comments, I thought you were claiming that, well, the boat did – since the Titanic wasn’t one.

                  • Thanks for raising the objection, I too was very confused when Neil said boat… For the life of me I didn’t know why he was talking about a long narrow serving bowl used for sauces (especially gravy) at dinner tables.

                    Now that you clarify he should have said “ship” to fit in with naval tradition on how to refer to various seafaring vessels, I realize he was completely wrong in his terminology.


                    • There’s no need to snark. Considering he described the boat splitting in two right after describing Ismay getting into the boat, there was more pointing at that than at the Titanic anyway, over and above the fact that nobody would normally call the Titanic a boat anyway. (By the way, I put “the” in there to pander to people who don’t like technical usage.)

                      I wouldn’t have bothered pointing any of that out at all, if it hadn’t been for the false claim that he specifically described the ship splitting in two. If someone is going to assert anything as narrow as that, it should be pointed out when it isn’t so. Keep things general if you want to be allowed the latitude that goes with being general.

                    • He said Ismay got into “a” boat, then referred to “the” boat splitting. There’s only one sea-going vessel/craft/ship/boat/marvel-of-engineering that split in half that night.

                      Context matters.


                      If anyone had no clue what Neil was talking about, then they are hopeless.

                      “there was more pointing at that than at the Titanic anyway”


                      In a discussion about the Titanic, a reference to a ship splitting in half IS ABOUT THE TITANIC. A reference to a boat splitting in half IS ABOUT THE TITANIC.

                      Criminy, Neil may be wrong about most things he discusses here, but your penchant for needless quibble is downright stupid.

                  • To be fair, you really need to blast him about the “last song” played on the titanic…

                    Technically speaking they didn’t play a “song” as the last bit of music performed.

            • However, Jack, “docuDRAMA” does announce there is fakery to be found in the film. If it was advertised thus, then the filmmaker was admitting he wasn’t sticking to the straight story (and he may have been legally obliged to say so). The following was a distinction used in an article by Julia Layton about a miniseries that sailed much closer to the wind, and further from the truth: “The Path to 9/11.” [words in brackets mine]

              “\A documentary is a non-fiction film that re-enacts, comments on or just generally retells history. It is [supposed to be] entirely factual, even though it may also state opinions about the facts it presents. A docudrama, on the other hand, while based on historical events and typically presenting factual bits and pieces, is first and foremost a dramatic story. It does not have to be entirely factual, and it assumes a certain amount of dramatic license to change and/or make up events in order to increase the appeal of the story. Essentially, a docudrama is a fictional story that uses actual historical events as its context.”

              • No, a historical fiction fits that description. A docudrama substitutes scripted and acted sequences for real footage of the event, and speculates on thoughts and actions that have not been proven or documented, but it doesn’t document something when it’s fictional.

                • Okay, the last line wrap-up (“Essentially, a docudrama is a fictional story that uses actual historical events as its context.”) was factually incorrect. I stand by the rest of the definition.

                  I also withdraw the label of docudrama as applied to “Kill the Messenger.” It is, as you explained, a work of egregious fiction.

              • Well, that marks the first time I’ve ever seen the entire thing. Thanks.

                Poor Bibifax… I don’t think a canary could fly the 375 miles to land…let’s just hope some gallant Aryan passenger on the lifeboat recognized the bird’s innate fragility and rescued it…oh wait, never mind, they would have remembered their Nietzsche and decided the fragility needed to be destroyed.

                I was beginning to wonder if the ship would ever founder or not…they kept cutting to the same scene of the engine room flooding for nearly an hour and it never seemed to gain more water.

                I guess there is something common across time when big-state-loving movie makers vilify the exact same set of people.

                • Damn, you made me watch it again. It’s not quite as silly as I thought it the first time.

                  Don’t you ever wonder if the actors were that stiff off the set? Or is thinking that the fault of Hollywood-invented Nazis?

                  “…when big-state-loving movie makers vilify the exact same set of people.” Not sure which movie-makers/set of people you’re referring to.

                  • The actors were on extreme edge. I mean, they were under incredible pressure by Goebbels who even had the director killed.

                    I’m referring to the 90’s titanic by James Cameron for big state loving movie makers vilifying the same set of people: the wealthy (who by all accounts behaved like everyone else on the Titanic and not like vicious monsters)

                  • Of course, if one can look past the overt propaganda, it isn’t a terrible movie…which is a shame, because it’s easy to dismiss the era’s cinema because, hey Nazis! But, recall, they were movie makers that would have been making movies and perfecting movie making techniques whether or not the Nazis had been evil… so for what they are worth, with the messages distilled out, they aren’t bad movies from a technical and skills perspective.

  2. From your Washington Post link above:
    “After an exhaustive three-year investigation, the committee’s report concluded that CIA officials were aware of the smuggling activities of some of their charges who supported the contras, but it stopped short of implicating the agency directly in drug dealing.”

    Isn’t that just a political mealy-mouth way of saying Webb was right? I’m frankly surprised even that much was acknowledged, given the CIA’s reputation for (literally) “killing the messenger.”

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