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.