Return of the messenger
How Jeremy Renner's new film will vindicate investigative journalist Gary Webb
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, a film coming soon to a theater near you, 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 massive readership and stirred up a firestorm.
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.
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 thought it 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. Directed by Michael Cuesta, the film opens October 10.
Members of Webb’s immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger.
“The movie is going to vindicate my dad,” he said.
Renner spoke to the News & Review about his choice to star in and co-produce it.
“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 Watergate reporting 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. 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 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 Nicaraguan government) 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 that year, it was as if a bomb 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. The series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances poured in from national TV news shows.
“Gary’s story was the first internet-age big journalism exposé,” said Nich Schou, author of 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 it, ’Dark Alliance’ just would have come and gone,” said Schou.
As word spread, black communities across America—especially in South Central—became outraged, demanding 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, who represents Los Angeles’ urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for 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. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.
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.
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 then 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 Nicaraguan 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.
It was falsely reported by some media outlets and 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 to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.
After basking in the early success of the series, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos published an unprecedented May 11, 1997, column that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it “fell short” in editing and execution. The apologia did partially defend the series.
Webb was soon banished to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered “Siberia.” In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on “Dark Alliance”, he quit the paper altogether.
But a year later, he was redeemed and vindicated when CIA inspector general Frederick Hitz released a 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Associated Press reporter Robert Parry called the report “an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA.” A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.
But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb’s series. 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'
To Webb's son Eric, 26, planning a journalism career, and Webb's ex-wife, Stokes, a movie about Gary Webb was old news. A Paramount project had never come to fruition. Things finally took off almost eight years ago, when screenwriter Peter Landesman called author Schou about his not-yet-published book about Webb. Landesman was hot to write a screenplay, 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, owned by Universal, now has worldwide distribution of the movie Kill the Messenger.
“When Jeremy Renner got involved,” said Schou, “everything started rolling.”
In the summer of 2013 Stokes and Webb’s children 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 story.”
Of course, they did not.
After a pause, Stokes said: “It was hard watching that scene and remembering the emotions of that day.”
In June, Webb’s family saw the film’s final cut at the Focus Features studio in Santa Monica. All were 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.”
Stokes has no regrets about the film.
“It was all very emotional,” she said. “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 December 2004 morning when 16 year old Eric Webb was called out of class at Rio Americano High School and 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 and he floored it to his father’s Carmichael home—the one his dad had been scheduled to clear out of that very day. Webb had 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.
It’s clear from all who knew him well that Gary Webb suffered from severe depression. Some—like Stokes—believe in retrospect that Webb was also likely ill with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Still, why did he do it? What makes a man feel enough despair to take his own life?
After leaving the Mercury News in ’97, Webb couldn’t get hired at a daily. He wrote his book, and eventually worked 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. 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 the Sacramento News & Review. Though he hadn’t set out to work in the world of weekly journalism, with its lesser pay and more hit-and-miss prestige, he was a productive member of the staff until near the end. During his short time with SN&R, 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.
“I was always happy to see his covers,” said Eric, attending high school at the time. “We got SN&R on our campus, and I would be like, ’Hey, my dad’s on the front page. That’s awesome.’ ”
It was the morning of Dec. 10 when SN&R editorial assistant Kel Munger entered editor Tom Walsh’s office with word that Gary’s son had just called saying, “Somebody needs to tell the boss that my dad killed himself.”
Within a few hours, SN&R was fielding press calls from all around the country, said Munger. A week later, it was she who had the gut-wrenching job of cleaning out Webb’s work cubicle, to pass his belongings on to his ex-wife and kids. “There was bundled-up research material, a bunch of Detroit hockey paraphernalia, photos of his kids. … I remember he had a 2004 Investigative Reporter’s Handbook with Post-it notes throughout.”
“I was having a hard time keeping it together,” said Munger. “Like everyone else, I’d been looking forward to getting to know him.”
In the days following his death, the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office came out with a preliminary finding that was meant to stop a flood of calls. 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, had purchased cremation services and put his bank account in his ex-wife’s name, had mailed letters to his brother Kurt in San Jose containing 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 addition his Marine father had owned, has double action that doesn’t require a shooter to re-cock 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 at Sacramento Doubletree Hotel for a memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted. 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 SN&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 just inside the entryway. It was the first one I’d ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he might have produced.
“He wanted to write for one of the big three,” said Webb’s brother Kurt. “Unfortunately, the big three turned [on him].”
Praise flowed for the absent journalist, for his smarts, guts and tenacity, from friends, colleagues and VIPs. A statement from-now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to SN&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.”
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.”
When Hollywood weighs in on the Webb saga, the storm that surrounded him in life will probably be recycled in the media and rebooted on the internet, with old and new media journalists, scholars and conspiracy theorists weighing in from all sides.
The film itself is an utter endorsement of Webb’s work.
“I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all,” Renner 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.”