Saturday, October 11, 2014
"Kill the Messenger", the story of Gary Webb and his "Dark Alliance" series, lays out problems with journalistic integrity, and intelligence services (Michael Cuesta)
“Kill the Messenger” is an important film for journalists, even (or especially) those who enter the field as amateurs or wind up there.
It is based on the book by Nick Schou, which is in turn drawn from the book and newspaper series by the subject, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), “Dark Alliance”. It is written by Peter Landesman, and directed by Michael Cuesta, who had directed “L.I.E.” (“Long Island Expressway”) which I had seen in Minneapolis on the evening of September 11, 2001, for a screening. I director was forced to stay in town three days by the events, and I met him in a downbar bar “afterparty” afterwards. I had a conversation with Cuesta about some liberty issues (DADT and other matters like national security) in the wake of 9/11 as it had just happened, and I wonder if that stuck with him.
Gary Webb’s series of articles in the San Jose Mercury News exposed the role of the CIA in funding the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s who smuggled drug back into the US, most of all the ghettos in Los Angeles. The film starts out in documentary fashion with Richard Nixon’s saying that drug use is a national security problem as much as the Soviets, followed up by Ford, Carter, and especially Ronald Reagan, capping off with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” program that got traction in the late 1980s. But Reagan saw stopping the Cubans and left-wing influence in Central America as instrumental to winning the Cold War, but Congress didn’t want to give him the money, when he was cutting social programs so much (including allegedly underfunding AIDS research) and busting unions. So Reagan, the story goes, turned to both Oliver North and the CIA. Scott Herhold has a retrospective article in the San Jose Mercury News about the case here. The paper took down the series, but it’s available elsewhere, like here (on a “Niue” domain).
After the introduction, the film presents an early interaction between Webb and his female editor, where Webb talks about civil asset forfeiture (a big action item for the Libertarian Party in the late 1990s). The Washington Post has a stunning story (Oct. 12) about police abuse of civil forfeiture, which can happen without proof that a crime has actually been committed, here.
The film shows Webb’s building up his contacts, and visiting a drug kingpin in a jail in Nicaragua. His own teenage son Ian (Lucas Hedges, another rising teen acting star who dominated “The Zero Theorem” [Sept. 23]) is the first to find the series online (in the 1996 Internet). At first, the major newspapers act as if the San Jose Mercury News doesn’t matter, as it is viewed as a smaller local rag (like The Washington Times). But soon, after pressure – including CIA dirty tricks -- from the underlings of the Clinton administration, they are claiming that Webb can’t produce his sources for fact checking, and publishing stories casting doubt his account. Webb’s protests that the CIA “is what it is” fall on deaf ears. Nevertheless, he says that he never really did cay that the CIA deliberately turned poor people in the ghettos of LA and other cities into drug addicts to give the rebels income.
The epilogue of the film shows former CIA director Deutsch admitting the CIA involvement in 1998 testimony, at a time when the country was kept distracted by Bill Clinton’s scandal with Monica Lewinsky.
The film also mentions Honduras, now (along with El Salvador) one of the two Central American countries contributing the most to the illegal child immigration problem in 2014. At least two churches with whom I interact have sent youth-and-adult groups to Central America for mission work. The First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC has supported a mission in Nacascolo, itself the subject of a slide show that almost amounts to a short film. Nicaragua would sound like a less than safe destination today. And Trinity Presbyterian in Arlington sends groups to Belize to work on missions in the summer, although Belize is a much more stable place, apparently. And one other group (in Ohio) has sent relatives (as engineering college graduates) to work in Guatemala. Still another church sent a small number of young adults to Kenya. The idea of sending people overseas to volunteer is becoming all the more dangerous, both because of violence and political instability , and, recently, infectious disease. This is becoming a new subject for film.
Also, on the subject of journalistic integrity, it's well to mention that in 1996 a Tacoma, WA newspaper removed a lesbian reporter from her job (and assigned her to copyediting) because ot thought her public gay rights activities compromised her "objectivity" as a reporter. The state supreme court upheld the action at the time.
My "cf" (Films on threats to freedom, from Profile) blog has a review of a film on danger to journalists in the line of duty March 3, 2009,
The official site is here (Focus Features).
I saw the film at the Angelika Mosaic in Merrifield VA, before a fair audience Saturday afternoon. I expected the crowd to be bigger.
Wikipedia attribution link for San Jose Mercury News headquarters (by CoolCaesar, under Creative Commons Share-Alike 3.0 license).
Update: Jan. 16, 2015
Facebook comment on the movie and Webb's experience by Philip Chandler.