Book Review: Kill the Messenger (2006)

Virtually no one disputes Gary Webb died in 2004 of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Yet the question “What killed Gary Webb?” still exists.

Was it that his August 1996 “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News regarding how some Nicaraguan “contra” rebels backed by the CIA received funds from crack cocaine traffickers was seriously flawed? Was it that the Mercury News distanced itself from the series and Webb? Was it that “Dark Alliance” was the subject of withering attacks by such major metropolitan newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post? Or was it as simple as the depression Webb suffered and the fact he found himself divorced, unemployed and sufficiently impoverished that he was moving back in with his mother at age 49?

While Nick Schou’s Kill the Messenger does not — and cannot — answer those questions, it is an excellent exploration of how and why they, Webb, and “Dark Alliance” remain relevant today. Schou may be a perfect author for this book. An investigative reporter himself, Schou has examined the “Dark Alliance” series for a decade. Equally important, he applies a journalist’s eye and style to the story, examining such things as the way the editing process and even internal newsroom politics may have contributed to the problems in “Dark Alliance.”

Webb’s three-part series was not unique solely by virtue of exploring the relationship between the CIA and crack cocaine traffickers. It also demonstrated the impact the so-called mainstream media could have via the internet. Given its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Mercury News simultaneously published the series on its web site and provided links to many of the documents Webb used. Once the series appeared, the paper’s site went from thousands of hits per day to half a million per day. Yet as we have learned over the last decade, things not only seem to take on a life of their own on the internet, it is fertile ground for conspiracy theories. A large number of people, including significant portions of the African-American community in and around Los Angeles viewed the series as confirmation of suspicions the government was behind the explosive growth of crack cocaine.

The Mercury News did not help the situation. The graphics used to illustrate the story showed the silhouette of someone smoking a crack pipe over the CIA seal. The headline suggested that the crack cocaine problem in Los Angeles grew from the battle between the contras and the Nicaraguan government. Webb was not involved with either of those decisions. Similarly, the story’s opening sentences, revised during the editing process, suggested that millions in drug profits had gone to a the contras and that this helped sparked a crack “explosion” in America. Yet as Schou makes clear, the series did not accuse the CIA of being behind that explosion.

That is a position Webb himself always took but seemed never able to convince people. Webb wrote in his own 1998 book that he “never believed, and never wrote, that there was a grand CIA conspiracy behind the crack plague. Indeed the more I learned about the agency, the more certain of that I became. The CIA couldn’t even mine a harbor without getting his trench coat stuck in its fly.”

Schou agrees with and supports that assessment. According to Schou, Webb’s series was correct in its most important respects, that being that the CIA had at least some ties to those bringing cocaine into the U.S. and that some money from the drug traffic was finding its way into the hands of the contras. At the same time, he details how neither Webb nor his series accused the CIA of being involved in the distribution of crack cocaine.

While Webb’s series was an unprecedented exploration of government activities to support the contras (predating revelation of Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair), it at first generated little attention. When reaction began, it spread rapidly. Not only was the story taken up in the African American community, three major metropolitan papers assigned some of their top reporters to investigate what had appeared in some upstart regional newspaper and spread across the country over the internet.

By October, the Mercury News and Webb were under an unprecedented full frontal attack. The Washington Post, followed quickly by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, attacked Webb’s reporting and his sources. In fact, the L.A. Times devoted 17 reporters and produced its own three-part, 20,000-word (more than “Dark Alliance”) series to debunk Webb’s reporting. One part of that series was devoted to exploring whether African Americans were more likely to believe conspiracy theories.

The coverage in each of the major newspapers often was based on CIA sources and seemed to highlight errors that either did not go to the true premise of the series or were the result of the editing process, which cut the series from Webb’s initial four parts to three. According to Schou, the problem with “Dark Alliance” was that it “contained major flaws of hyperbole that were both encouraged and ignored by [Webb’s] editors.” Nothing in the series, however, justified what Schou has called “the most vicious and unrelenting campaign of vilification directed against a reporter in recent memory.” In fact, in late 1996 even the Washington Post‘s ombudsman said the mainstream media engaged in a feeding frenzy that “showed more energy for protecting the CIA from someone else’s journalistic excesses” than examining the true nature of government involvement.

And while the Mercury News initially supported Webb, who’d won more than a dozen reporting awards before joining the paper, it eventually distanced itself from him. In May 1997, the paper published a letter to readers that, while saying the series was “right on many important points,” said there were significant errors in the series and that it oversimplified the crack problem. As Webb feared, the letter was immediately viewed as a repudiation of the series. This idea was reinforced when the paper reassigned Webb to a routine beat in a suburban bureau more than 150 miles from his home. He left the paper at the end of the year but, by then, was a pariah in mainstream journalism.

In telling Webb’s biography and the story of “Dark Alliance,” Schou relies not only on his own extensive research but interviews with Webb’s family and former colleagues, including his editors and fellow reporters. And while he is rightfully critical of the Mercury News and the major metropolitan papers who attacked the series, he does not take a hands off approach to Webb. His interviews with Webb’s colleagues and editors not only touch on some of Webb’s shortcomings, he also explores lawsuits arising out of articles Webb wrote earlier in his newspaper career. Schou also points out, among other things, that portions of the series were predicated on the testimony of convicted felons which may or may not have been reliable. In fact, Schou notes, the federal law enforcement records cited as sources in the series were “mostly transcripts of testimony by crooks.”

All things considered, Kill the Messenger ultimately leans toward Webb’s perspective on the “Dark Alliance” series. That does not damage this highly readable and detailed exploration of not only the series but the reporter behind it and the ensuing and perhaps wholly unprecedented feeding frenzy of the mainstream media. And in the end Schou does what any good author should do with this type of story. He leaves us to decide for ourselves what killed Gary Webb and who, if anyone, is responsible.

[W]e now live in a country where reporters dread becoming Gary Webb. God help us.

Charles Bowden’s Introduction to
Nick Schou, Kill the Messenger

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1 comment to Book Review: Kill the Messenger (2006)

  • I was teaching in Minnesota when I heard of Webb’s suicide, and the news saddened me because Webb’s reporting had caught my attention when I arrived in the U.S. to pursue my Masters degree…

    After Webb’s suicide I wrote an Op-ed for, wherein I explored the cowardice that affects American news reporting when it comes to stories that contest national institutions, such as the CIA or the presidency…

    And to those who refuse to believe the words of convicted felons when it comes to addressing the question of whether or not the CIA could have, or should have, known about the Contra’s cocaine smuggling operations – well, to these skeptics I offer Afghanistan, a wide open country currently run by ganglords, some of whom are supported by the US and are well know to the CIA…

    For some reason, since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002, the Opium production in Afghanistan has skyrocketed. For some reason, the American germalists there don’t seem to be reporting on who is behind the new Afghan drug trade, how is it flourishing, what does the CIA know about it, and why is the US government not taking any measures to stop it.

    Gary Webb may not have been killed by the CIA or the criticism of his peers, but his sad life does present a mirror to reflect upon the sorry state of American journalism, especially when it comes to reporting on the nexus between drug smuggling and the financing of covert US foreign ops.