Return of the messenger
Nearly two decades after a reporter exposed a connection between the CIA and crack cocaine in America, Hollywood chimes in with a major movie
This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter’s story is torn apart by the country’s leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.
Hold on, though. The above is not fiction.
Kill the Messenger, an actual film in theaters right now, is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb’s story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.
After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb eventually came to work in August 2004 at Sacramento News & Review. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family—and some trenchant questions:
Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?
Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his unhappy memorial service at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.
Because here comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb; Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb’s top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia and Robert Patrick. It’s directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series Homeland).
Webb’s immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expected to feel a measure of solace upon the film’s release earlier this month.
“The movie is going to vindicate my dad,” he said.
For Renner—who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Hurt Locker—the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he’d played before. During a break in filming Mission Impossible 5, he spoke to the News & Review about his choice to star in and co-produce Kill the Messenger.
“The story is important,” said Renner. “It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.
“He was brave, he was flawed. … I fell in love with Gary Webb.”
‘The first big Internet-age journalism exposé’
There’s a scene in Kill the Messenger that will make every investigative journalist in America break into an insider’s grin. It’s the one where—after a year of tough investigative slogging that had taken him from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to a moldering jail in Central America to the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles—Renner as Webb begins to actually write the big story. In an absorbing film montage, Renner is at the keyboard as it all comes together—the facts, the settings, the sources. The truth. The Clash provides the soundtrack, with Joe Strummer howling: Know your rights / these are your rights … You have the right to free speech / as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.
It took the real Gary Webb a long time to get to this point in his career.
His father, a U.S. Marine, moved Webb around a lot in his youth, from California to Indiana to Kentucky to Ohio. He wound up marrying his high-school sweetheart, Sue Bell, with whom he had three children. Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate and in need of income, he left college three units shy of a degree and went to work at The Kentucky Post, then The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he rose quickly through the ranks of grunt reporters. Dogged in his pursuit of stories, Webb landed a job at the Mercury News in 1988 and became part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake.
It was the summer of 1996 when the lone-wolf journalist handed his editors a draft of what would become the three-part, 20,000-word exposé “Dark Alliance.” The series was exhaustive and complex. But its nugget put human faces on how CIA operatives had been aware that the Contras (who had been recruited and trained by the CIA to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.
When “Dark Alliance” was published on Aug. 18 of that year, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. That’s because it was one of the first stories to go globally viral online on the paper’s then state-of-the-art website. It was 1996; the series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.
“Gary’s story was the first Internet-age big journalism exposé,” said Nich Schou, who wrote the book Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is partially based, along with Webb’s own book version of the series, Dark Alliance. “If the series had happened a year earlier, ‘Dark Alliance’ just would have come and gone,” said Schou.
As word of the story spread, black communities across America—especially in South Central—grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole, fueling an epidemic of addiction and crime. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles’ urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.
But after a six-week honeymoon period for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted. The attacks began.
On Oct. 4, The Washington Post stunned the Mercury News by publishing five articles assaulting the veracity of Webb’s story, leading the package from page one. A few weeks later, The New York Times joined with similar intent.
The ultimate injury came when the L.A. Times unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists (known internally as the “Get Gary Webb Team”) on the case, writing a three-part series demolishing “Dark Alliance.” The L.A. paper—which appeared to onlookers to have missed a giant story in its own backyard—was exhaustive in its deconstruction, claiming the series “was vague” and overreached. “Oliver Stone, check your voicemail,” summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.
Now, even some of Webb’s supporters admitted that his series could have benefited from more judicious editing. But why were the “big three” so intent on tearing down Webb’s work rather than attempting to further the story, as competing papers had done back in the day when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?
Some say it was the long arm of former President Ronald Reagan and his team’s ability to manipulate the gatekeepers of old media to its purposes. (Reagan had, after all, publicly compared the Contras to “our Founding Fathers” and supported the CIA-led attempt to topple the Sandinista government.)
Others say that editors at the “big three” were simply affronted to have a midsize paper like the Mercury News beat them on such a big story. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review claimed some L.A. Times reporters bragged in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer.
One of their big criticisms was that the story didn’t include a comment from the CIA. When reporters at the big three asked the agency if Webb’s story was true, they were told no. The denial was printed in the mainstream media as if it were golden truth.
Other issues fueled controversy around Webb’s story. For example: It was falsely reported in some media outlets—and proclaimed by many activists in the black community—that Webb had proven the CIA was directly involved in drug trafficking that targeted blacks. He simply did not make this claim.
In some ways, Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.
After triumphing in the early success of the series, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Jerry Ceppos, the paper’s executive editor, published an unprecedented column on May 11, 1997, that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it “fell short” in editing and execution.
When contacted by N&R, Ceppos, now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said he was only barely aware of the film coming out and wasn’t familiar with the acting career of Oliver Platt, who plays him in the movie. “I’m the wrong person to ask about popular culture,” he said.
Asked if he would do anything differently today regarding Gary Webb’s series, Ceppos, whose apologia did partially defend the series, responded with an unambiguous “no.”
“It seems to me, 18 years later, that everything still holds up. … Everything is not black and white. If you portrayed it that way, then you need to set the record straight.
“I’m very proud that we were willing to do that.”
Some find irony in the fact that Ceppos, in the wake of the controversy, was given the 1997 Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.
Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered “the newspaper’s version of Siberia.” In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on the “Dark Alliance” series, he quit the paper altogether.
But a year later, he was redeemed when the CIA’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for The Associated Press, called the report “an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA.” But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb’s series. A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.
But no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.
‘I never really gave up hope’
Earlier this month, Webb’s son Eric, 26, opened the door to his Sacramento rental home with a swift grab for the collar of his affable pit-bull mix, Thomas. Eric—lanky at 6 feet 4 inches, with his father’s shaggy brown hair and easy expression—attended college at American River College and hopes to become a journalist someday. He was happy to sit down and discuss the upcoming film.
To Eric, the idea that a movie was being made about his dad was nothing new. He’d heard it all at least a dozen times before. Paramount Pictures had owned the rights to Dark Alliance for a while before Universal Studios took it on.
“I stopped expecting it,” Eric said.
Webb’s ex-wife, Stokes, now remarried and still living in Sacramento, had heard it all before, too.
“I’d get discouraged,” she said, “but I never really gave up hope.”
Things finally took off almost eight years ago, when screenwriter Peter Landesman called author Schou, now managing editor at the OC Weekly, about his not-yet-published book about Webb. Landesman was hot to write a screenplay about Webb’s story, said Schou.
It was years later when Landesman showed the screenplay to Renner, whose own production company, The Combine, decided to co-produce it. Focus Features, which is owned by Universal, now has worldwide rights to the movie Kill the Messenger.
“When Jeremy Renner got involved,” said Schou, “everything started rolling.”
It was the summer of 2013 when Stokes and Webb’s children—Eric, his older brother, Ian, and younger sister, Christine—flew to Atlanta for three days on the film company’s dime to see a scene being shot.
“The first thing [Renner] did when he saw us was come up and give us hugs and introduce himself,” said Eric. “He called us ‘bud’ and ‘kiddo’ like my dad used to. … He even had the tucked-in shirt with no belt, like my dad used to wear. And I was like, ‘Man, you nailed that.’”
The scene the family watched being filmed, according to Stokes, was the one where Webb’s Mercury News editors tell him “they were gonna back down from the story.”
“I was sitting there watching and thinking back to the morning before that meeting,” said Stokes. “Gary was getting nervous [that day]. He said, ‘I guess I should wear a tie and jacket’ to this one. He was nervous but hopeful that they would let him move forward with the [follow-up] story.”
Of course, they did not.
After a pause, Stokes said: “It was hard watching that scene and remembering the emotions of that day.”
Just a few months ago, in June, Webb’s family flew to Santa Monica to see the film’s “final cut” at the Focus Features studio. All were thoroughly impressed with the film and the acting. “Jeremy Renner watched our home videos,” said Eric. “He studied. All these little words and gestures that my dad used to do—he did them. I felt like I was watching my dad.”
When asked how playing the role of Gary Webb compared to his usual action-adventure parts (such as in The Bourne Legacy), Renner said it was like “apples and oranges” to compare the two, but then admitted, “I can say this one was more emotionally challenging.”
Stokes has no regrets about the film.
“Seeing a chapter of your life, with its highs and lows, depicted on the big screen is something you never think is going to happen to you,” she said. “It was all very emotional.
“But I loved the movie. And the kids were very happy with how it vindicated their father.”
Said Renner, “If [the family gets] closure or anything like that … that’s amazing.”
‘I’ve shot that gun so I know’
It was an otherwise routine Friday morning in December 2004 when Eric Webb was called out of class at Rio Americano High School. The then-16-year-old was put on the phone with his mother, who told him he needed to leave campus immediately and go straight to his grandmother’s house.
“I told her, ‘I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what happened,’” said Eric. So she told him about his dad.
“He killed himself,” she said.
Eric had the family BMW that day, so he floored it over to his father’s Carmichael home—the one his dad had been scheduled to clear out of that very day. Webb had just sold it with the alleged plan of saving money by moving into his mother’s home nearby.
“I needed a visual confirmation for myself,” said Eric. He pulled up to the house and saw a note in his dad’s handwriting on the door. It read, “Do not enter, please call the police.” Eric went inside and saw the blood, “but his body had already been taken,” he said.
For his children and Stokes, nothing was ever the same. And almost 10 years later, questions still reverberate around Gary Webb’s death.
It’s clear from all who knew him well that he suffered from severe depression. Some—like Stokes—believe in retrospect that Webb also likely was ill with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Still, why did he do it? What makes a man feel despair enough to take his own life?
After leaving the Mercury News in ’97, Webb couldn’t get hired at a daily. After writing his book, he eventually found a position working for the California Legislature’s task force on government oversight. When he lost that job in February 2004, a depression he’d fought off for a long while settled in, said Stokes.
Though divorced in 2000, the couple remained friendly. On the day that would have been their 25th anniversary, he turned to her, utterly distraught, after hearing he’d lost the job.
“He was crying, ‘I lost my job, what am I gonna do?’” she said. He knew the development would make it tough to stay in Sacramento near his children. She urged him to regroup and apply again at daily newspapers. Surely, she thought, the controversy over his series would have waned by now.
But when Webb applied, not even interviews were offered.
“Nobody would hire him,” she said. “He got more and more depressed. He was on antidepressants, but he stopped taking them in the spring,” said Stokes. “They weren’t making him feel any better.”
It was August when Webb finally got work as a reporter at N&R. Though he hadn’t set out to work in the world of weekly journalism, with its hit-and-miss prestige, he was a productive member of the staff until near the end. During his short time with the paper, he wrote a few searing cover stories, including “The Killing Game,” about the U.S. Army using first-person shooter video games as a recruitment tool.
In the days following his death, the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office came out with a preliminary finding that was meant to cease the flood of calls to his office. The report “found no sign of forced entry or struggle” and stated the cause of death as “self-inflicted gunshot wounds to the head.”
But it was too late to stop the conspiracy theorists. The CIA wanted Webb dead, they hypothesized, so the agency must have put a “hit” out on him. To this day, the Internet is full of claims that Webb was murdered. The fact that Webb had fired two shots into his own head didn’t dampen the conjectures.
Said Eric, “The funny part is, never once has anybody from the conspiracy side ever contacted us and said, ‘Do you think your dad was murdered?’”
The family knew what Webb had been through; they knew he had been fighting acute depression. They learned he’d purchased cremation services and put his bank account in his ex-wife’s name. They knew that the day before his suicide he had mailed letters, sent to his brother Kurt in San Jose, that contained personal messages to each family member.
Receiving the letters “was actually a big relief for us,” said Eric. “We knew it was him. They were typed by him and in his voice. It was so apparent. The things he knew, nobody else would know. … He even recommended books for me to read.”
According to Eric, the “two gunshots” issue is “very explainable,” because the revolver Webb had fired into his head, a .38 Special police edition his Marine father had owned, has double action that doesn’t require a shooter to recock to take a second shot. “I’ve shot that gun so I know,” said Eric, who said his father taught him to shoot on a camping trip. “Once you cock the trigger, it goes ‘bang’ real easily. … You could just keep on squeezing and it would keep on shooting.”
In Kill the Messenger, Webb’s death goes unmentioned until after the final scene, when closing words roll onto the screen. Renner said he felt it would have been a disservice to the viewer to “weigh in too heavy” with details of the death. Including Webb’s demise would have “raised a lot of questions and taken away from his legacy,” he said.
‘Stand up and risk it all’
It was eight days after Webb’s death when a few hundred of us gathered in Sacramento Doubletree Hotel’s downstairs conference room for an afternoon memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted on tables as mourners filed into the room. There he was on his prized red, white and blue motorcycle. There he was camping with his children. There he was featured in an Esquire magazine article recounting his saga. Family members and friends, longtime colleagues and N&R staffers packed into the room.
My own distress at Webb’s passing wasn’t fully realized until my eyes lit on his Pulitzer Prize propped on a table just inside the entryway. It was the first one I’d ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he could have produced if things had gone differently.
“He wanted to write for one of the big three,” said Webb’s brother Kurt. “Unfortunately, the big three turned [on him].”
Praise for the absent journalist—his smarts, guts and tenacity—flowed from friends, colleagues and VIPs at the event. A statement from now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to N&R: “Because of [Webb]’s work, the CIA launched an Inspector General’s investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn’t have happened if Gary Webb hadn’t been willing to stand up and risk it all.”
And Rep. Waters, who spent two years following up on Webb’s findings, wrote a statement calling him “one of the finest investigative journalists our country has ever seen.”
Renner was hesitant to say if those who watch Kill the Messenger will leave with any particular take-home lesson. “I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all,” he said of his David and Goliath tale. And then, “I do believe [the film] might help create some awareness and accountability in government and newspapers.”
And what would the real live protagonist of Kill the Messenger have thought of it all? It’s at least certain he’d have been unrepentant. In the goodbye letter his ex-wife received on the day of his suicide, Gary Webb told her:
“Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.”