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.”
Carr’s worst offense against Webb—other than not mentioning that Webb had won a Pulitzer Prize, for his work with a team of reporters investigation the 1989 San Francisco earthquake—is that he blames Webb himself for his downfall: “Mr. Webb was open to attack in part because of the lurid presentation of the story and his willingness to draw causality based on very thin sourcing and evidence. He wrote past what he knew.”
No. Webb was open to attack because the Los Angeles Times alone assigned seventeen reporters to leverage the inherent mysteries of the national security state to cast doubt on Webb. As Nick Schou, author of the book, Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is based, writes, “Much of the [Los Angeles] Times’ attack was clever misdirection, but it ruined Webb’s reputation: In particular, the L.A. Times attacked a claim that Webb never made: that the CIA had intentionally addicted African-Americans to crack.”
Webb won’t be vindicated by the movie Kill the Messenger because he has already been vindicated by serious nonfiction reporters, like Schou and others. And by history itself. Webb was documenting one aspect of the blowback that we all have been living with from Iran/Contra, which is really just shorthand for Reagan’s broader set of Central American policies. Central America was the place the national security state got its groove back after Vietnam, and the repercussions are ongoing: among them, the rise of Salvadoran and Honduran transnational gangs, the drug war, which has turned the Colombian-Central American-Mexican corridor into a war zone, the 2009 Honduran coup, and this summer’s exodus of Central American child refugees.
Did Webb write “past what he knew”? Of course he did. He was writing about the covert activities of the rogue National Security Council and CIA and their shadowy relations with drug runners! As John Kerry complained in 1998, after being allowed to read a classified CIA investigation, launched as a result of Webb’s reporting: “Some of us in Congress at the time, in 1985, 1986, were calling for a serious investigation of the charges, and C.I.A. officials did not join in that effort…. There was a significant amount of stonewalling. I’m afraid that what I read in the report documents the degree to which there was a lack of interest in making sure the laws were being upheld.” “Scant proof,” sniffed Golden, in his New York Times take-down of Webb.
Webb provides a fascinating account of his “hours-long conversations with editors that bordered on the surreal” in an essay titled “The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On,” in which they relentlessly presented him with unprovable hypotheticals: “’How do we know for sure that these drug dealers were the first big ring to start selling crack in South Central?’ editor Jonathan Krim pressed me during one such confab…. ‘Isn’t it possible there might have been someone else and they never got caught and no one ever knew about them? In that case, your story would be wrong.’ I had to take a deep breath to keep from shouting. ‘If you’re asking me whether I accounted for people who might never have existed, the answer is no,’ I said.”
Schou writes that because “Webb shot himself in the head twice—the first bullet simply went through his cheek—many falsely believe the CIA killed him.” Webb was apparently depressed that he couldn’t get a job that paid enough to let him keep his house.
But staring too long into the abyss that is Iran/Contra is bad for one’s mental health. The artist Mark Lombardi drew constellation-like renderings of the paramilitary and para-financial scandals, scandals that have increased in frequency with the spread of neoliberalism. These include Iran/Contra, BCCI and Harken Energy, Savings and Loan, many of them involving the Bush family. Lombardi too killed himself, in 2000.
It is easy to fall down the rabbit hole, or into a James Ellroy novel, trying to draw the connections. Iran/Contra is like the Da Vinci Code of the national security state, and reading any one paragraph of the Kerry Committee Report can send minds reeling:
In a June 26, 1987 closed session of the Subcommittee, Milian Rodriguez testified that in a meeting arranged by Miami private detective Raoul Diaz with Felix Rodriguez, he (Milian) offered to provide drug money to the Contras. Milian Rodriguez stated that Felix accepted the offer and $10 million in such assistance was subsequently provided the Contras through a system of secret couriers.
Félix Rodríguez is, of course, the Cuban exile CIA agent who hunted down Che Guevara in Bolivia. The relationship of narcotics and covert ops goes back at least to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, but a key moment in the Cold War history of that relationship took place with the 1959 Cuban Revolution, which broadcast the Cuban drug mafia throughout all of the Americas, allying their interests with anti-Castro counterrevolutionaries and CIA spooks. That alliance mutated and metastasized, infecting different places at different times, including Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, Honduras and South Central Los Angeles.
Inevitably, the reporting of Webb and the art of Lombardi raise the specter of conspiracy. But conspiracy theorists, in their worst, most compulsive form, are obsessed with proving the detail, establishing the single link, after which everything will make sense. Webb and Lombardi, in contrast, stepped back to see the bigger picture and consider the moral meaning of the connections they were making.