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Entangled Webb

Hollywood weighs in on the journalist who exposed the CIA's crack connection



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 is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News "Dark Alliance" articles. The three-part series revealed how the CIA turned a blind eye while U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras were trafficking crack cocaine in South Central L.A. and elsewhere in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb's story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.

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 went to work in August 2004 at the weekly Sacramento News & Review. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49.

Now comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb, Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb's then-wife Sue Bell (now Stokes), and a litany of other distinguished actors.

Members of Webb's immediate family expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger.

"The movie is going to vindicate my dad," said Webb's 26-year-old son Eric, who is planning to make journalism his career.

For Renner — who's best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission Impossible and The Avengers — the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he'd played before.

"The story is important," said Renner, who also served as Kill the Messenger's co-producer. "It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.

"He was brave, he was flawed ... I fell in love with Gary Webb."

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, the actor 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 that 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, Bell, with whom he had three children.

Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate 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 of grunt reporters. Doggedly determined 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 on 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 leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.

When "Dark Alliance" was published, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. The series attracted 1.3 million hits per day from around the world. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.

As word of the story spread, black communities across America — especially in South Central — grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles' urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.

But after a six-week honeymoon period for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted and 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. Weeks later, the New York Times joined with similar intent.

The ultimate injury came when the L.A. Times — which appeared to have missed a giant story in its own backyard — unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists on the case. The paper concluded the series "was vague" and overreaching. "Oliver Stone, check your voice mail," wrote Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.

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 as if it were golden truth.

Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper's Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered "the newspaper's version of Siberia." In 1997, he quit.

But a year later, he was redeemed when the CIA's inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for the Associated Press, called the report "an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA."

Yet no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.

Earlier this month, Webb's son Eric opened the door to his Sacramento rental home with a swift grab for the collar of his affable pit-bull mix, Thomas. A lanky 6 feet, 4 inches, he has his father's shaggy brown hair and easy expression.

To Eric, the idea that a movie was being made about his dad was nothing new. He'd heard it all at least a dozen times before. Paramount Pictures had owned the rights to Webb's book Dark Alliance for a while before Universal Studios took it on.

"I stopped expecting it," said Eric.

But a few months ago, in June, Webb's family flew to Santa Monica to see the film's "final cut" at the Focus Features studio. All were thoroughly 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."

It was an otherwise routine Friday morning in December 2004 when Eric Webb was called out of class at Rio Americano High School. The then-16-year-old was 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 that day, so he floored it over to his father's Carmichael home — the one his dad had been scheduled to clear out of that very day. Webb had just 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.

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."

With Hollywood weighing in on the Webb saga, the storm of controversy that surrounded him in life will likely be recycled in the media and rebooted on the Internet. But the film itself is an utter vindication of Webb's work.

Renner is hesitant to say if those who watch Kill the Messenger will leave with any particular take-home lesson. "I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all," he says. 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."

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