The journalistic integrity of U.S. media; an illicitly-financed, CIA-backed war against Nicaraguan Sandinistas; the crack epidemic of 1980's urban America: these are the main subjects of Michael Cuesta’s "Kill the Messenger."
In the film, Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner portrays Gary Webb, the real life San Jose Mercury News reporter who is warned against publishing information that proves the CIA turned a blind eye while its Nicaraguan allies, the Contras, smuggled cocaine into the U.S. to fund their war against the country's Sandinista government.
Defiant in the face of threats, Webb publishes a three-part series called "The Dark Alliance," writing not only about the well-known connection between the CIA and the drug traffickers, but alleging their large-scale smuggling operation had fueled the crack epidemic in predominantly African-American communities in some U.S. cities.
From there, says Renner, Webb’s life unravels.
“Big interests, big media getting scooped, making Gary the story or discrediting him or tearing the story apart, versus furthering the journalism, which is shame and travesty, if you ask me,” he said.
The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, which had not given the CIA-Contra connection much coverage in the 80s, dismissed Webb’s conclusions about the crack epidemic as speculative.
Eventually, his own paper backed down.
Renner calls it a typical David versus Goliath story — only this time, Goliath wins.
“Not to discredit the San Jose Mercury News," he said, "I just think the whole story became much bigger than any of them was ever used to, and [they] didn’t know how to handle it ... except Gary, who just needed more support to go and dig and find more truth.”
Investigative reporter Robert Parry, who was the first to break the CIA-Contra story for the Associated Press in 1985, agrees.
“Webb did something that was very important that we did not do,” he said. “We had focused on the Contra movement and the importation of drugs throughout Central America into the United States. What Webb did was look at what happened when the drugs got here.”
According to Cuesta, Webb did not have direct evidence that linked Contra drug trafficking to the crack epidemic.
“It wasn’t nuanced enough," he said. "It was easy for the other papers to find flaws in it.”
But Parry says Webb’s reporting had substantial merit of another very important kind: he and the black caucus finally forced the CIA to investigate a drug epidemic they helped to create.
In 1998, Inspector General Frederick Hitz released a report connecting the CIA directly to the Contras’ drug trafficking operations.
But, according to Parry, Webb's reporting ultimately fell prey to bad timing. Published in the mid-1990s, he says, the story surfaced while large U.S. media outlets paid more attention to the Monica Lewinsky scandal than the hardships of crack-ravaged U.S. communities of a prior decade.
"The press was more fascinated by the president’s sex life than they were about whether or not the CIA had been involved with drug traffickers back in the 1980s," he said.
By the time the Hitz report came out, Webb’s career had been destroyed. He committed suicide in 2004.
Cuesta hopes his film will renew the conversation about the integrity of the press.
“If you call it a movie about indicting any particular establishment like the government, I think it’s more about media," he said.
“The media should take this movie as an opportunity to reassess what it did," he said. "This was a terrible action by the major news organizations. And they should look at themselves and say ‘was our behavior proper?’ And I think if they did that they would have to admit that honestly it wasn’t. That instead of advancing a major story on a major scandal, they helped suppress the story about a major scandal. That’s the opposite of what American people expect of their news media.”