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Killing the Messenger: Award-Winning Journalist versus the CIA

By: Pedro García Otero - Feb 3, 2015, 4:02 pm
Renner encarna a un convincente Gary Webb, el periodista que acusó a la CIA de nexos con el narcotráfico. (ArcticMonkey)
Jeremy Remmer brings to life Gary Webb, the journalist who accused the CIA of working hand in hand with drug traffickers. (ArcticMonkey)

EspañolIt does not happen so often, but sometimes, Hollywood has an attack of social consciousness. It then shows to the world — and mainly the people of its own country — the US government committing unholy actions, placing politics above the welfare of its citizens.

Is the Central Intelligence Agency partially culpable for bringing crack cocaine to US streets, especially to the black neighborhoods of South Central, Los Angeles, and hence supporting its spread like an epidemic among the forgotten children of the “American Dream”? Yes it is, perhaps to the surprise of younger generations; and Kill The Messenger, a film released in November 2014, reminds us of this.

Kill the Messenger — directed by Michael Cuesta and starring Jeremy Renner and Rosemarie DeWitt, in a cast that also includes Andy García, Paz Vega, Ray Liotta, and Barry Pepper — tells the story of Gary Webb, a reporter with the San José Mercury News, a small newspaper in California.

Webb discovers a plot every reporter dreams about: how Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers negotiated with the “Contra” of that country. They in turn sent the drug to the United States, and thus financed their struggle against the Sandinistas — all of this, with the consent (and explicit support) of CIA officials, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The crack cocaine scandal was part of the “Iran-Contra affair,” perhaps the scandal that most affected Reagan’s presidency. It was back when the Cold War was still a reality, and Central America was a game of global chess in which the Soviet Union and the United States distributed the world between themselves.

Webb is embodied in the skin of a convincing Renner, an expert in playing the role of every man who is against the wall. He must observe how his research, which raises admiration at first — he won the 1996 annual award for journalism in California, and was close to a Pulitzer — turns against him.

CIA agents begin to undermine his credibility, spreading the rumor that he had no other support than the statements (attested to, by the way, in court) of drug traffickers, and even exposing his marital infidelities.

In the same year, Webb was forced to resign from the San José Mercury News, and never got a job as a journalist again. Two years later, he wrote Dark Alliance, the book which Kill The Messenger is based on.

The intelligence agency, incidentally, had the invaluable help of the great US press (jealous that a small newspaper like the San Jose Mercury News had the unique case), for Webb’s moral destruction. They also ensured the lack of support of the newspaper to its reporter, using government pressure.

As a journalist, it is fascinating, especially for those who did not live it, to see how research was done before the internet — and for those of us who did live it, to remember. Webb’s courage moves the viewer, since he did not negotiate with the truth, although this cost him his job and much more.

It is disappointing that, in the country of free press, petty reasons favored the powerful against the oppressed — and just 20 years after the Washington Post (one of the outlets that disputed his story the most) forced the resignation of Richard Nixon.

Webb only received the backing of the Black community in Los Angeles. Their leaders saw how crack cocaine, a cheap drug, raged in the streets — out of nowhere and in an abundance — and rapidly turned the poor into addicts.

The reporter was found dead at his home in San José, California, on December 10, 2004. The police closed the case as a suicide, although he had two shots to the head. The messenger had finally died, as from time immemorial has happened with the bearers of bad news.

In 1998, the CIA admitted in a report that they had acted exactly as Webb indicated in his book; and did so alongside the distraction of another scandal, Bill Clinton‘s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The media, the same individuals who first praised Webb, finally abandoned and ostracized him altogether. They gave virtually no coverage to the CIA report and ignored it in their front pages, including the Washington Post. And of Clinton, who led the country during a period of economic growth, peace, and progress, we had to watch his reputation tarnished due to his marital infidelities (but that’s another story).

Coincidentally, I saw Kill The Messenger on Sunday, January 18. On the morning of 19th, I woke up (or every Latin American woke up) to the news of the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman in Argentina. He had also “committed suicide,” according to the initial “official” version.

I live in a country, Venezuela, where the smoke screens of power are so frequent that one does not have a way to know what is a red herring and what is a real scandal. That is why I was fascinated by Kill The Messenger.

I recommend it, even though it didn’t do well at the box office. Perhaps that is because, as a witness tells Webb at one point in the film, “some stories are just too true to tell.”

It is a striking testimony, well guided and with excellent performances and insight into how, everywhere, arrogant governments act above the law. And pessimistic, unlike most Hollywood films, because when it comes to the fight against the state, there are rarely happy endings.

Translated by Rebeca Morla. Edited by Fergus Hodgson.

Pedro García Otero Pedro García Otero

Pedro García is the Spanish managing editor of the PanAm Post. He is a Venezuelan journalist with over 25 years of experience in local newspapers, radio, television, and online media. Follow him @PedroGarciaO.