Kill the Messenger, a movie starring Jeremy Renner, just opened, about the life and death of Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Gary Webb, who committed suicide in 2004. Webb came late to the Iran/Contra scandal, long after most of the mainstream media had moved on. In 1996, he wrote a three-part series for the San Jose Mercury News, “Dark Alliance,” that exposed the distribution network, which included the Nicaraguan Contras, responsible for supplying the cocaine that helped kick off South Central Los Angeles’s crack epidemic.
The allegations were not new. Earlier, in the 1980s, Robert Parry and Brian Barger reported on the story for AP, which was picked up by then freshman Senator John Kerry, who in 1988 released an extensively documented committee report showing the ways the Contras, backed by Ronald Reagan’s White House, were turning Central America into a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine, using the drug revenue to fund their war on the Sandinistas. Webb’s report specifically looked at what happened to cocaine once it entered the United States.
Rather than follow up on Webb’s findings—and on Kerry’s and Parry’s earlier investigation—The New York Times, The Washington Post and, especially, the Los Angeles Times went after Webb, destroying his reputation and driving him out of the profession and into a suicidal depression.
I haven’t seen Kill the Messenger yet, but there’s no doubt that it sides with Webb. That seems to have unsettled David Carr, the media critic for The New York Times. Last week, in an anguished, deeply ambivalent assessment of Webb’s legacy, Carr admitted that the thrust of what Webb wrote about “really happened,” making passing reference to Kerry’s “little-noticed 1988 Senate subcommittee report.” Carr tentatively suggests that perhaps journalists should have better spent their energy reporting the larger story, rather than relentlessly fact-checking Webb. At the same time, though, he presented the campaign that ultimately drove Webb to his death as a “he-said-she-said-who-can-ultimately-say?” matter of interpretation, given ample space to Webb’s tormentors, like Tim Golden, who wielded the hatchet for The New York Times, and the odious Jerry Ceppos, the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News who, faced with unrelenting pressure from the big boys in NY, LA and Washington, betrayed Webb.
Such is the state of media criticism that Carr could make notice of Kerry’s “little-noticed” Senate report without pointing out the obvious: it was “little-noticed” because newspapers, like his, little noticed it. Alexander Cockburn, Carr isn’t. Maybe he was trying for understated irony. As many of Webb’s defenders have noted, if journalists had put half the passion into following up the implications of that report that they put to discrediting Webb, we’d know a lot more about the darkest side of America’s national security state. Peter Kornbluh: “If the major media had devoted the same energy and ink to investigating the contra drug scandal in the 1980s as they did attacking the Mercury News in 1996, Gary Webb might never have had his scoop.”