“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” I was reminded of this oft-quoted line from the movie A Few Good Men when watching the newly released film Kill the Messenger. Based on the true story of a reporter who tries to rise to the lofty aspirations of a journalist – to act as society’s truth-teller – with scant regard for the disastrous consequences.
In many ways this is a miserable story. In the mid-1990s, journalist for the San Jose Mercury News, Gary Webb (pictured, played in the film by Jeremy Renner) became aware of a government corruption scandal bigger than he could have imagined.
After undertaking his own investigation, he wrote a feature story linking the CIA with the Contras – the ‘freedom fighting’ rebel coalition against the Nicaraguan Junta government from 1979 to 1985 – and a large-scale crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Webb claimed the CIA and the Reagan administration allowed members of the Contras to smuggle large shipments of cocaine into the US to sell and raise funds for the war in Nicaragua.
At the beginning of the film Webb’s life seems good, enviable even – he appears happily married to his wife Sue (Rosemarie Dewitt) with three cute kids. But his once happy family is decimated by his bold attempts to do what journalism claims to do – uncover the truth, even if in the face of vested interests and power.
A film like this shows the times and places where the system is corrupt. Or, from a more cynical view, how corrupt the entire system really is. Through Webb’s investigations he learns that the mass media is just another cog in the wheel of cover-ups that implicitly condone corruption. The media remain controlled, the really big secrets remain buried and the system remains sick.
In the aftermath of the scandal Webb said: “… five years ago, you wouldn’t have found a more staunch defender of the newspaper industry than me … And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job … The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress …”
The film opens up the story in compelling ways that can’t be matched by a simple reading of the facts. The crack cocaine epidemic was of such proportions that the affected neighbourhoods remained ghettos of crime, addiction and sickness for years after. A scene where Webb visits a ghetto depicts a scary, other-worldly atmosphere that gives chilling depth to the seriousness of the CIA’s crime.
The epidemic predominantly affected African Americans, many of whom supported Webb and his work to uncover the story. Real footage is used to illuminate the emotional backlash in these communities.
Watching this dark story unfold on screen makes it hard to escape questions around the pressure that large and powerful institutions – particularly secretive ones like the CIA – put on individuals to maintain a facade.
Unsurprisingly, the story ends on a grim note. Webb’s personal and professional relationships cannot take the enormous pressure and scrutiny inflicted by those out to “controversialise” him – a term used in the film by a source who warns Webb of his fate – rather than focus on his disclosures of corruption. In this historic case the implicit message comes through: there are things you are not allowed to be journalistic about.
The government could not defend itself against Webb’s claims. Backed up by a complicit media, they forced him to defend his own integrity. The character assassination would lead to his ruin – as a journalist, and as a member of a family and society.
James Aucoin, a communications professor who specialises in the history of investigative reporting, wrote: “In the case of Gary Webb’s charges against the CIA and the Contras, the major dailies came after him. Media institutions are now part of the establishment and they have a lot invested in that establishment.”