Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou, 2006, Nation Books. 233 pages, $14.95.
My reporting career wasn’t even a year old when reporter Gary Webb’s sensational story linking crack dealers in Los Angeles to Central Intelligence Agency efforts to finance the contra rebels in Nicaragua appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. It was mid-August 1996, and I remember sitting around our tiny OC Weekly newsroom in Southern California reading the story with my news editor Nick Schou, who had hired me as an intern just seven months earlier.
“This is the kind of big story I want to do someday,” Schou told me. It didn’t take Schou long to find local hooks in Webb’s reporting that he could expand for our paper. Soon Schou had published so much new reporting on the story that Webb included much of the material in his 1998 book Dark Alliance and acknowledged that Schou had done more than any other reporter to advance the story.
That’s why it’s both appropriate and chilling that Schou should have written the new book Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. For all his work and research and endless reporting, Webb never received much more than ridicule, evisceration and grief. In December 2004, Webb fell into a deep depression and killed himself using a handgun that had belonged to his father.
Schou’s book on Webb is a hammer blow to the gut, whether you’ve worked in a newsroom or not. But it also stands as an unflinching look at the advantages and dangers of investigative reporting, which make up the journalistic core of papers like OC Weekly and Maui Time.
When the Dark Alliance series came out, Webb stood atop the journalistic pyramid. Good investigators get Pulitzer Prizes and operate in a shadowy world of secret sources and leaked documents, but more often than not they spend very long hours pouring over statistics and/or incredibly arcane government reports.
But they also have to thick skin and loyal editors so they can withstand the inevitable pummeling that follows when enraged corporate and government officials find themselves portrayed in an unflattering light. Indeed, Schou shows that lawsuits entangled Webb on a couple occasions after headlines on his stories implied more than his reporting offered (in these cases, his papers settled out of court without retracting any of his stories).
An outstanding, relentless reporter, Webb did the shoe leather work many newspapers cheer but few accomplish, putting in long hours interviewing sources and reading stacks of court testimony. But he also needed a strong, careful editor who could independently weigh the value of Webb’s research. No matter the story, Webb always believed he had the facts on his side, and that those facts would ultimately vindicate him.
“Gary wasn’t afraid of anything,” Schou quotes Webb’s lifelong friend Greg Wolf as saying. “It was a sort of character flaw.”
Schou’s reporting makes clear that the Merc News editors were in no position to handle Webb’s enormously complex story. His immediate editor was enormously competent but over-worked, handling not only Webb’s story but also city and state editor duties. Her supervisor was an ex-photographer with no reporting experience who viewed the Dark Alliance series as a way to market the paper as a rival to the Los Angeles Times. For reasons stemming from newsroom politics, the paper’s special projects editor—who typically supervised all big investigative stories—was cut out of the story entirely.
What’s more, Schou’s reporting shows that resulting media firestorm—the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and New York Times all ran voluminous stories defending the CIA and cutting Webb’s stories to ribbons—could have been largely avoided had Webb’s editors been more careful with the story’s first words.
“For the better part of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found,” read the story’s lead sentence, which would have been a dynamite way to the start the story if that was in fact the point of Webb’s reporting. But it wasn’t.
Webb could be a jerk to his colleagues—Schou quotes a couple of his former colleagues as saying he was a “nasty guy” who “launched ad hominen attacks on people who challenged him”—but he understood the limits of his reporting on the Dark Alliance series. Webb apparently saw the story as a detailed, nuanced feature about links between the CIA and drug dealers—not a breathless expose of a conspiracy by the federal government to pump cocaine into America’s black communities.
The irony is that in 1998, the CIA Inspector General’s office—sort of an internal watchdog organization—released a report saying that between 1982 and 1995, the CIA and Justice Department had an agreement under which they wouldn’t say anything publicly about the contras who “had decided to engage in drug trafficking to the United States to raise funds for its activities.” It wasn’t quite a vindication of Webb’s original stories, but it was a huge blow to the CIA’s original denials. Whereas the LA Times, New York Times and Washington Post had devoted gratuitous column inches to attacking Webb and the Merc News, they either buried mention of this report or—in the case of the LA Times—didn’t report on it at all.
Ultimately, that kind of behavior was far easier to explain than that of the Merc News. Big daily papers do conduct rigorous investigations—the Bush Administration’s response to 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided the press with blockbusters on secret prisons, the legalization of torture and allegedly illegal wiretap operations—but for the most part mainstream paper steer clear of big stories that describe allegedly criminal actions by government institutions and administrations.
The run-up to the invasion of Iraq, in which most journalists repeated administration insistences that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled chemical, biological and possibly even nuclear weapons, is the most recent and brazen example of a lazy press. At the same time, newspapers—like USA Today and our own Maui News—that eschew reporting based on unnamed sources in the name of accountability deprive their readers of potentially important stories critical of the establishment.
There is no question that Webb and the Mercury News overreached on the CIA/crack cocaine stories. It’s undeniable that at times Webb was too headstrong and his editors were too fixated on winning a brass ring, but it’s also important to note that they were taking risks. Journalism can be very rewarding, but if it’s to be effective, especially in times when the White House sometimes seems to equate debate about national security with treason, then it must also be bold. MTW