Capitol offense: Kill the Messenger ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2014)

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‘Member back in the ’80s, when the CIA was in league with the crack cocaine trade, and they were all like, funneling the drug profit to the Nicaraguan Contras?

(*sigh*) Ah, the Reagan era. Morning in America…mourning in Central America.

Good times.

All you have to do is tell the truth, and nobody will believe you. That’s what happened to San Jose Mercury investigative journalist Gary Webb, who published a series of articles in 1996 that blew the lid off of this “dark alliance”. I’m ashamed to admit that while I remember hearing something about it, I somehow got the impression (at the time) that it was an urban legend; the kind of thing that the SNL sketch character “Drunk Uncle” might blurt out at the dinner table while everyone snickers or hides their head in embarrassment. “Hey everybody…I heard that the CIA was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in the African-American community!”  Right, uncle.

Here’s the thing. The CIA actually did (sort of) cop to it, a few years after Webb’s newspaper expose. Normally, that would (should) have become a fairly major news story in and of itself. Unfortunately, the MSM was a little preoccupied at the time with a shinier object…the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Also by this time, Webb had lost his credibility, thanks to a concerted campaign by same aforementioned MSM to make Webb look like some nut yelling at traffic. Tragically, it “worked” too well; he became a pariah and ended up killing himself.

This largely forgotten debacle has been dramatized in a new film from Michael Cuesta called Kill the Messenger. Jeremy Renner delivers a terrific performance as the tenacious and impassioned Webb. We follow him on a journey that begins with a relatively innocuous tip from a player in the local drug trade, which leads to a perilous face-to-face meet with an imprisoned kingpin in Nicaragua (a great cameo from Andy Garcia) and eventually to the belly of the beast in D.C., where he’s implicitly advised by government spooks to cool his heels…or else. Naturally, this only makes him want to dig deeper. He hits pay dirt, and the exclusive story is published. His editors appear to have his back; that is, until the backlash begins.

The story about how Webb got “the story” is relegated to the first act; this was a wise choice by screenwriter Peter Landesman (who adapted from Nick Shou’s eponymous book and Webb’s Dark Alliance). While most of this political thriller’s “thrills” (and the snippets in the trailers) are derived from this first third of the film, that’s not the most crucial takeaway from Webb’s story. Granted, the actions of the CIA were bilious enough, but even more distressing is how eager the MSM was to sink their talons into a fellow journalist.

In this respect, Kill the Messenger parallels Oliver Stone’s JFK, in that both center on idealistic truth seekers (Jim Garrison and Gary Webb) who got crucified for their troubles…by the very parties who should be championing and joining them on their quest (now that I think about it, that’s human history in a nutshell). It’s interesting, I was listening to Democracy Now the other day while driving in to work, and Amy Goodman did a segment about Webb and his legacy. She was talking to investigative journalist Robert Parry, who observed:

“…there’s no question that this was one of the most important stories of the 1980s and really the 1990s, when you get to the end of this and the CIA confessing. But it’s also a story about the failure of the mainstream press that extends to the present, goes through the Iraq War, the failure to be skeptical there, and goes right on to the present day. So it’s not an old story; it’s very much a current story.”

All I can say is thank the gods for the likes of Amy Goodman, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Vice News and others following in Webb’s footsteps. And for this movie, which is one of the first fall season releases that have any true substance.

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