former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Killing the messenger — again: New film arouses new ire from big media

In Blog on October 18, 2014 at 7:46 pm

I remember when Gary Webb’s story about the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and drug trafficking broke in the mid-1990s.  I remember the reaction of big papers to that story.  I read the book by Nick Schou on which the terrific new film, “Kill the Messenger” is based.

I am no expert on the CIA or drug trafficking.  But what has always saddened me is the approach the mainstream media took when Webb’s story broke.

The film portrays Webb as an investigative reporter who got the story right, but was unfairly discredited by other journalists at bigger newspapers.  The film has given those in big-time media another chance to take a whack at the story and Webb’s reputation.  Some have at least hinted at having second thoughts about how Webb was treated.  But others have not mellowed. Not even Webb’s suicide in 2004 seems to have dampened their ire.

“Dark Alliance”, Webb’s three-part series, published in 1996 in the San Jose Mercury News, is a convoluted tale because the story is complicated.  At its heart is the fact that in the 1980s, the Reagan Administration secretly, and illegally, supported a war that the public did not approve and which, eventually, Congress refused to fund.

The Iran-Contra scandal established that secret and illegal support.  Webb, however, found two Contra supporters who were also smuggling cocaine into the U.S.  The smugglers told him that the CIA knew of their activities and that drug money had been used to support the Contras.  What made the story so appalling is that the cocaine that was smuggled made its way into the inner city of Los Angeles, where the crack cocaine epidemic devastated African-American neighborhoods.

It’s one thing to turn a blind eye to the source of Contra money, and quite another to encourage or cooperate with the smuggling.  Webb’s words may not have claimed CIA direct involvement, but the graphics and headlines of the series seemed to lead to that conclusion.  The series, one of the first to go viral on the Internet, prompted rage from African American leaders and activists.

Because of its Silicon Valley location, the Mercury News was a pioneer when it came to making use of the internet, but it still was a relatively small newspaper.  The country’s big news outlets at first tried to ignore the story.  But the public outcry was so great, they couldn’t.  Their approach to “Dark Alliance” was not journalism’s finest hour.

At The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, reporters did not painstakingly take the time to verify the parts of the story that Webb got right, and to advance the story, or give it more context, something that often happens when an initial story creates waves.

Instead, reporters set out to discredit the story and its author.  They seemed to have inordinate respect for official sources at the CIA, such a wellspring of unblemished truth, and no respect for the dogged and solid reporting that Webb did.

Was Webb’s series perfect? No. Did it need more editing, and a less fervent tone?  Yes.  Has that ever happened before in the history of journalism?  Only every day.

But Webb had committed the unpardonable sin.  He made senior reporters, working for bigger news outlets, look like chumps.  They weren’t going to stand for that.

And he wrote his story at a time when the American public still retained some faith in its governmental institutions.  Yes, this was post-Watergate.  But the fact that the Watergate scandal was uncovered, and a President was held accountable, supposedly proved that the system worked.

Webb’s story cast doubts on the foundations of democracy in a much more fundamental way.  At the very least, it questioned whether the government funded an illegal war with reckless disregard for the source of those funds, or its impact on American communities.

After the media’s excoriation of Webb, Geneva Overholser, a distinguished journalist and The Washington Post’s ombudsman at the time, criticized the Webb story as “seriously flawed” for leading readers to conclude that the CIA knowingly permitted crack cocaine to be imported into the U.S., causing untold harm to inner city neighborhoods.

But Overholser’s critique didn’t stop there.  She also skewered big media for never expending energy on addressing “the serious questions the series raised.  Instead, she wrote, “The Post ( and the others) showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves.”  The reporters haggled over the details – the amount of cocaine smuggled into the country; the amount of drug money that found its way to the Contras.  But they didn’t objectively try to find out whether the story’s fundamental premise was true.

Overholser noted that Post editors and reporters had been aware of “strong previous evidence that the CIA at least chose to overlook contra involvement in the drug trade.” But the paper didn’t follow up.  (Indeed, one Post reporter who tried had his own work squelched by his editors. He concluded that Webb’s story had been essentially right.)

The Webb series could have given the Post the opportunity to have re-examined that evidence, Overholser wrote. “Alas dismissing someone else’s story as old news comes more naturally.”

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