The Truth Behind Kill the Messenger

In the 1990s investigative reporter Gary Webb broke the story linking the CIA with drug traffickers. Then his own fellow journalists effectively ruined him. Enter Hollywood.

October 10, 2014

In the new movie Kill the Messenger (opening in a handful of American cities this Friday ahead of a wider theatrical run), Jeremy Renner stars as the latest incarnation of a Hollywood archetype. It’s not one of the most common ones, but it’s among the most revered when it pops up: the crusading investigative reporter.

Renner plays a real-life reporter in the film—Gary Webb, a rising star at the San Jose Mercury News in the 1990s, who broke one of the biggest stories of the Reagan era with a three-part investigation into links between the Contra counter-revolutionary army in Nicaragua and drug trafficking into the United States. Webb’s story—later expanded upon in a book, Dark Alliance—laid bare one of the Reagan administration’s darkest chapters, revealing how the same CIA-run supply networks that were shipping arms (illegally, by the way) to Contra bases in Central America to fight a guerilla war against the socialist Nicaraguan government were also being used to ship wholesale quantities of cocaine and other illegal drugs into the United States.

Webb’s three-part expose became one of the first truly viral news stories, posted in its entirety—with voluminous accompanying documents—at the Mercury News website, where it quickly became a major national story. And where, as Kill the Messenger documents, it triggered a ferocious backlash from journalists at larger newspapers. Led by the Washington Post, Webb’s fellow reporters used his scoop as a means not to further investigate the CIA’s drug ties but to dismantle Webb’s own work, destroying his career in the process.

The trailer for Kill the Messenger frames its story as the unravelling of a conspiracy, a hunt for suppressed evidence in the style of All the President’s Men and a dozen reiterations of the archetype since the days of Watergate. It’s an obvious choice—and a fitting one, both because the facts of the Iran-Contra fiasco remain inexplicably hidden in plain sight and because conspiracy is a topic of endless fascination.

Conspiracy theories compel us because they promise tangible order in an otherwise arbitrary and indifferent world. They give meaning to coincidence and offer deep, secret truths as consolation for the hypocrisies and injustices of society’s cold, ruthless surfaces. There is a reason this is all happening, a plot, a hive of villains. The universe itself is not cruel, there are merely cruel people, and you were not selected randomly to abide their cruelties. And the truth will—well, if it won’t quite set you free, it will give you some righteous comfort. They’re wrong. You’re right. Their power and privilege is a crime. The chaos is not random. This is the welcoming fiction of a conspiracy theory.

It is arbitrary and random, nevertheless—a mere coincidence—that the brilliant investigative journalist Charles Bowden passed away at the end of August, just days before I heard that a movie about the trials and tribulations of Gary Webb would soon be released. There were, however, parallels in their work. Both journalists wrote about drugs and crime and the complicity of corrupt authorities—Webb of course in his muckraking book Dark Alliance, while Bowden wrote harrowing pieces for Harper’s Magazine and elsewhere about the brutally violent drug culture in Mexico’s border cities. When I heard about Bowden’s passing on Twitter, I read some more of his striking work and a beautiful eulogy of the man behind the stories by his sometime editor, Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones. I’d recently re-read Webb’s book, and Bowden’s writing resonated along the same dark pathways. Still: arbitrary, random, meaningful only to me.

Except this, a fact I hadn’t realized until I went chasing links in the days after news of his death broke: Bowden wrote about Webb. They knew each other. Bowden followed the same improbable lead Webb had—that it was more or less open knowledge, “documented and published,” as Bowden put it, that the CIA had working relationships with known drug traffickers, especially in the case of the web of scandal known as Iran-Contra. In Bowden’s pursuit of the story, he’d discovered Webb—a Pulitzer winner and a dogged journalist who was discredited, ruined, all but run out of the business within a year of breaking the story of the connections between the CIA and the cocaine boom of the 1980s. And so Bowden had verified much of Webb’s reporting, spoken at length with his fellow reporter, and published a beautiful profile-cum-exoneration in the September 1998 issue of Esquire.

Conspiracy theories compel us because they promise tangible order in an otherwise arbitrary and indifferent world. They give meaning to coincidence and offer deep, secret truths as consolation for the hypocrisies and injustices of society’s cold, ruthless surfaces.

Webb, Bowden wrote, “has no tolerance for conspiracy theories. By God, if he finds a conspiracy, it is not a theory, it is a fucking conspiracy, because it is grounded in facts.” And in the case of the contra-drug story, may be not so much a conspiracy as what old military-industrial hands like to call a clusterfuck, a mess of overlapping interests and need-to-know relationships, and mutually pursued goals. Some sort of intrigue, anyway, resulted in planes that the CIA used to deliver arms to Central America returning to the United States, indeed sometimes landing at American military bases, carrying wholesale quantities of cocaine and other illegal drugs. Maybe the CIA authorized this or even orchestrated it, or perhaps the agency simply instructed the local authorities to look the other way. In any case, someone saw to it that the airmen at Homestead Air Base in Florida would in no way intervene as drugs were unloaded with some frequency from cargo planes landed on its runways. These details were reported by several credible news sources in the mid-1980s. The facts were not called into dispute. And yet reporting them in greater detail for the San Jose Mercury News ten years later effectively ended Gary Webb’s career, after which he vanished into third-tier reporting gigs and spiralled into depression. He committed suicide in 2004.

I might have no greater point other than to persuade you to read Bowden’s profile of Webb if you have any interest in the movie, or investigative journalism, or Iran-Contra, or great writing. And then to seek out more of Bowden’s work, because he achieved less literary fame in his career than he deserved, and because he is the true figure behind the archetype—the principled, relentless, haunted investigative reporter who would sooner die than see his name above an untrue story and who would rather write greeting cards than carry water for corrupt authority. It’s significant—singularly so, as in a conspiracy—that he recognized a comrade in Webb, a fellow traveler, a truth junkie who might chase a story too far but never with the goal of intentionally misleading, only at shining glaring light on more shadowed truth. I trust Charles Bowden over a hundred ex post facto inside-the-beltwaystories citing “anonymous intelligence officials” at the CIA or anywhere else, which is exactly the kind of malicious journalism that ruined Webb.

This is the necessary context for Kill the Messenger and the crucial difference between Webb’s story and the Hollywood archetype. Because for Webb, there was no lucrative star turn as a lifelong Washington insider à la Woodward, no series of prestigious reporting and producing gigs à la Bernstein. Instead, the top-tier press Webb yearned to write for led the counterattack against his work, the Washington Post itself at the very front of the cavalry charge. Scooped by some overzealous kid from the bush-league San Jose Mercury News, the supposed champions of investigative journalism turned on their own. And tore him to shreds.

In a preview essay in LA Weekly ahead of the movie’s release, Melinda Welsh recaps the tale, which began with the publication of Webb’s three-part series “Dark Alliance” in August 1996. The piece was posted online along with reams of Webb’s voluminous documentation and research, a novel approach to a big story at the time. It quickly exploded, racking up 1.3 million hits per day—unheard-of numbers for a small-market paper in those early days of the Internet. “In some ways,” Welsh writes, “Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.”

The backlash began in early October, with a five-story package in the Washington Post that was introduced on the front page. Skipping right past the many serious allegations and implications in Webb’s story, the Post spilled most of its ink questioning Webb’s conclusions, doubting his sources, and repeating official denials from the CIA. There was no proof, the Post argued, that the CIA had actively abetted a crack epidemic on the streets of Los Angeles—an accusation hinted at in the Mercury News’ salacious packaging of the story but never made in Webb’s own reporting. The rest of the mainstream press responded in a similar vein—the Los Angeles Times, beaten to the story by its pint-sized regional rival, leaped especially heavily into the debunking game, assigning 17 journalists to tear “Dark Alliance” to shreds in what was referred to internally, Welsh reports, as the “Get Gary Webb Team.” Never mind the misty Watergate memories of journalistic valour—this is what the former employer of Woodward and Bernstein and its kin did to an explosive investigative story in the 1990s.

By the following spring, Webb had been shunted off to a sleepy bureau in Cupertino and the San Jose Mercury News’ editor published a strained apology, conceding that Webb “did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship” between drug rings on the streets of L.A. and the agency’s contra allies. Webb had never precisely alleged this, and the key finding of his work—that the planes flown to contra bases in Honduras to supply the Contras returned to the U.S., landing sometimes at American military bases, laden with enormous quantities of illegal drugs, which found their way to the streets of L.A. and other American cities by one route or another—was never debunked.

When Charles Bowden caught up with Webb in early 1998, he’d finally given up on validating his story and had just signed a letter of resignation from the Mercury-News under some duress. “Officially,” Bowden wrote, “he is dead, the guy who wrote the discredited series, the one who questioned the moral authority of the United States government.” Six years later, Bowden’s figurative death became literal with Webb’s suicide.

The Washington Post’s ombudsman eventually chastised the paper for its focus on the errors in Webb’s story instead of digging further on the accurate reporting and its implications. And the CIA’s inspector-general all but admitted negligence, telling the House Intelligence Committee in 1998 that the agency had been too slow to “cut off relationships with individuals supporting the contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug-trafficking activity, or take action to resolve the allegations.”

Whatever minor discrepancies and overstated conclusions coloured the fringe of Webb’s work, the core of the story was true and powerfully damning—of the CIA, of the Contra war, of the whole teflon-coated morning-in-America age of Reagan.

Whatever minor discrepancies and overstated conclusions coloured the fringe of Webb’s work, the core of the story was true and powerfully damning—of the CIA, of the Contra war, of the whole teflon-coated morning-in-America age of Reagan. But the American media establishment, far from celebrating this crusading investigative journalist, stomped him like an intruder and moved on to let the facts gather dust like half-forgotten folklore. “The history of the CIA’s relationship with international drug dealers has been documented and published, yet it is almost completely unknown to most citizens and reporters,” Bowden wrote in 1998. It remains so today. Ronald Reagan is championed as the next face for Mount Rushmore, Oliver North is a respected conservative commentator, and Gary Webb is a footnote. Kill the Messenger offers some small promise that he will escape the margins, finally, to be the centre of a new story about American journalism and American statecraft.

I don’t hold out too much hope, though. Consider New York Times media critic David Carr’s generally solid preview piece on the movie and the true story behind it. The subhed reads “‘Kill the Messenger’ Recalls a Reporter Wrongly Disgraced,” and it begins with two quick paragraphs confirming that Webb’s reporting began from established and extraordinary fact. But then Carr’s very next sentence lurches toward some kind of rebalancing, describing “Dark Alliance” as “a deeply reported and deeply flawed three-part series.” Built on fact, damning in conclusion, but because Webb was willing to “draw causality based on very thin sourcing and evidence,” the whole project must be framed, still, as deeply flawed. The CIA, it perhaps goes without saying, thrives in the shadow of doubt cast by phrases like “thin sourcing.”

The lion’s share of Carr’s piece is dedicated to cataloguing Webb’s alleged exaggerations and errors, the regrets of his former editor, the enduring criticism of the New York Times reporter who tore the story apart back in 1997. Carr’s story ends with a line that seems like a buried lede: “However dark or extensive, the alliance Mr. Webb wrote about was a real one.” The story was fundamentally true. And yet even in 2014, on the eve of a Hollywood vindication, the Times reporter puts the emphasis on what might have been false about it.

Which is one of many reasons why we should be grateful for Charles Bowden. “Like anyone who dips into the world of the CIA,” he wrote, “I find myself questioning the plain facts I read and asking myself, Does this really mean what I think it means?” Bowden rattles off a series of troubling facts that lead to obvious follow-up questions. They remain open questions. Go read them. Bowden and Webb are gone, but the story should live on until they’re answered.