The film, Kill the Messenger, based on a true story, recounts a California reporter named Gary Webb. It discussed his real life effort to link the CIA with the 1980s crack epidemic and funding of the Contras. Webb implied that drug smuggling by Nicaraguans into American cities was intentionally overlooked by the CIA and a Reagan Administration weapons program in order to supply right wing anti-democratic fighters in Nicaragua. Webb maintained that the CIA knew of the drug trafficking operation. Reagan needed that operation since following passage of the Boland Amendment Congress would not help fund any Contra-oriented operation.
The movie essentially shows how Webb took on the world while no one else listened. The San Jose Mercury News decided to let him run his “Dark Alliance” series in 1996 and the story brought Webb notoriety. Other larger newspapers such as the LA Times, New York Times and Washington Post coalesced to marginalize the Mercury’s editors and Webb, claiming that the story lacked credibility. They argued this was justified since Webb never nailed down a completely verifiable CIA source. They thought the story was plausible and interesting, but too circumstantial in proportion to the magnitude of its accusations and assertions. There is however, now evidence, based on the work of Robert Parry, that the CIA used its connections with the major print news publications to undermine Webb’s work. Webb put himself out there and the mainstream news media (as well as his own publication) left him hanging out to dry.
A small news outfit like the Mercury was trying to enhance its reputation and the overly enthusiastic journalist Webb launched his efforts forward, based on probability and reliable secondary sources of evidence. The larger newspapers were beaten to the punch and had to be publically skeptical of the story, based on the fact that they didn’t report it first.
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The film conveys a few important concepts historically.
First, it reinforced the mid-1990s Luddite type of idea, that anything on the Internet was second rate reporting when compared to elite establishment newspapers. Since then, we have learned that the net can be a liberating tool, or an instrument of limited thought and coercion. The major media found themselves dedicated to promoting the latter during the period the film covers.
Second, the film mentions how the story gained little traction since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was then grabbing all the headlines. The 1990s also saw an irrational media focus on coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. Webb’s personal life was also under fire by the CIA in the film, to discredit his story, no matter how compelling, provocative and interesting the crack for weapons story became. When Webb needed support the most, almost all his colleagues bailed on him.
Third, there were obvious issues with the timing of Webb’s story – too late to be relevant and tied to Reagan, and before more internal reports and the work of Parry flowed forward. Webb has since been posthumously vindicated. He allegedly committed suicide in 2004. The film comes at a time when the American public is increasingly wary of the security state. This media hype may be a double edged-sword as the intentional association of government involvement in corruption conditions the preservation of power. It invites cynicism and futility and an inactive citizenry. This is a major accomplishment of a state-capitalist democracy, although incremental progress is undoubtedly made in the process.
In any event, the corporate media in the 1990s, and Kill the Messenger today, overlook some disturbing facets of the Reagan administration in the effort to tell this story, as good as this film is.
We should not forget that Reagan was very unpopular with many by the end of his Presidency. He was responsible for US condemnation at the World Court for the illegal use of force and aggression in Nicaragua. It was discovered that Reagan-trained elite battalions brutalized thousands in the Central American region. Reagan also backed dictatorial force that killed thousands of Mayan Guatemalans in a single year with Israeli support. US backed dictatorships created havoc and destruction in Argentina and Chile. Both dictatorships were under close Washington supervision.
In the 1980s, the United Nations reviewed Reagan’s undermining of human rights progress in South Africa for nearly the entire decade. Additionally, the deadly actions of the United States in El Salvador rivaled Soviet brutality in its Eastern European satellites. Pakistan, a nuclear dictatorship, had strong Reagan support along with the pre-Taliban morph, Mujahideen to combat the Russians. Many of these “Reaganites” involved in policy formation were recycled during the Bush 43 era (neoconservatives). They implemented a similar paradigm whereby an unwitting sentimental leader was the front for a set of overreaching and calamitous international policies.
I felt bad for Webb in the film as he had a gripping and important story to tell. He was discredited, not for his lack of evidence, but for his attempt to violate the mainstream and its conventions. He embarked on an important legacy of questioning although unfairly castigated as a loony hack at the time.
Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra was overall far worse than Nixon’s Watergate and Gary Webb’s efforts were more courageous than Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s. Notice the difference however in the overall context of their respective historical moments; whereas Nixon made recordings and obstructed justice, Reagan’s orders and antics were non-recorded spoken word and mostly insulated with plausible deniability. Like Bush 43, Reagan probably did not even fully understand what he was doing.
The CIA neglecting a drug cartel set up to distract and cripple marginalized concentrations of African-American people at home, while funding illegal and deadly activities abroad, is a troubling matter. It is disturbing and consistent with the overt nature of neo-liberal and ultra-conservative resentment of the civil rights movement. Recall the subtext of Reagan rhetoric’s in the 1970s regarding “welfare” and “food stamps.” Maxine Waters did important work for citizens when she raised awareness and demanded an inquiry into these issues as an elected official. It was a very serious issue.
It is unquestioned that Webb’s courage was met by turncoats and hacks. When large issues around Reagan however, are omitted, real care for the victims, activism, and a broadened focus are the inevitable casualties.