The release of the new movie Kill the Messenger, a biopic based on the book of the same name by Nick Schou and detailing the life of journalist Gary Webb, has renewed interest in his life and the shocking piece Webb wrote in 1996 claiming that the CIA was involved in drug running. There are many things about Webb and his big scoop that are unclear and tenuous but if there is a thrilling and explosive story to make into a movie it is Webb’s.
Any good conspiracy story is far-reaching in scope and cast of characters. The cast of Webb’s story involves folks like Oliver North and John Kerry from the Iran Contra proceedings, powerful and well-connected drug smugglers and violent warlords in Nicaragua, all the way home to the ghettoes of the U.S. and the men who ruled the ruthless crack trade. The appeal of Webb’s story, as documented in Schou’s book, is that it relates the secrecy and institutional wronging of the Iran-Contra affair with the tragedy and darkness of the 1980s crack epidemic. It can appeal to foreign policy buffs and government watchdog types as well as neighborhood advocates on the local and social level.
The San Jose Mercury News first published Webb’s investigative report as Dark Alliance, a three part series that attempted to show that the CIA was aware of if not directly involved in the transfer of large amounts of cocaine into the US. But that’s not all, folks. Webb also tied the cocaine suppliers to “Freeway” Rick Ross, a legendary crack dealer who was able to control a large market with his cheap Nicaraguan source. Although Webb never explicitly made the connection, one could make a semi-logical jump from the CIA to Rick Ross and others to conclude that the CIA created, or at least fostered, the crack epidemic of the 80s. This is where we enter the land of conspiracy.
Everyone knows that the government and its alphabet agencies occasionally have to make some dirty deals and work with shady characters but delivering affordable crack to impoverished neighborhoods seems more ruthless than most of us would like to think our government capable of. It must be remembered that at the time the story broke the nation was still recovering from the crack epidemic and its aftermath. California in particular was hard hit and had instituted its “three strikes” policy to imprison repeat drug offenders for long stretches of time. In fact, Rick Ross’ own trial was used to ferret out information on his sources that Webb used in Dark Alliance. Dark Alliance seemed to point to a gargantuan hypocrisy in the American system where the government allowed drugs onto the scene and strictly punished low level offenders, which for some pointed to a larger conspiracy to undermine and destroy poor and minority communities. There emerged a group who looked to Dark Alliance as proof that the U.S. Government had sought to harm the black population. This vocal but misguided group only helped to undermine Webb’s credibility and the veracity of his account.
The critical response to Dark Alliance by many of the nation’s top papers was the beginning of the end for Webb. The story and Webb’s character were roundly called into question and eventually Webb was forced to leave the paper. In 1999 Webb turned the original three part story into a full length book with added sources and documentation, but only after being rejected by 30 publishing houses. It became increasingly clear that Webb was finished in mainstream US journalism. Webb committed suicide in 2004.
In 2006 Nick Schou published Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. Although the story of Webb and Dark Alliance is fascinating and certainly exciting enough to make a major motion picture out of, it is surprising that it was used as the film’s basis. Schou’s book is a sober and fairly reported interpretation that provides a lot of details and context but not much in the way of car chases and explosions. In fact, I thought it surprising that Kill the Messenger was as unbiased as it was, with a good amount of material showing that Gary Webb had a history of making grand claims and not doubting his conclusions. Schou quietly points to a lack of a strong editor and editorial oversight as the reasons Dark Alliance came to be so controversial and was subsequently weakly defended.
In the end, Schou’s book does the dirty job of explaining all of the circumstances of the story (a hotshot reporter on the hunt for the Big Scoop, depression, infidelity, drug abuse, weak supervising editors, paranoia) and turning them into a balanced and believable account. It succeeds in showing “How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb” without turning Webb into a martyr or fanning the flames of fringe conspiracies. Perhaps most importantly, Schou is assertive that Webb was not murdered, and does a good job of showing the series of tragic events that led Webb down the path to suicide.