We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.
Meet Gary Webb, a sharp, sophisticated, and ambitious reporter. He took investigative journalism to the next level. As shown in the Hollywood movie, “Kill the Messenger,” Webb was a rising star. In 1997, his feature made the astonishing allegation that the Central Intelligence Agency controlled the crack cocaine outbreak in America. Eight years later, Webb is pronounced dead. Two gunshot wounds to the skull. Was it murder or suicide?
The Rise of a Journalist
“Kill the Messenger,” showed the wonderful, horrible life of Webb. However, before his success as a big-time reporter, he had humble beginnings. His first newspaper, The Northerner, in college was a success. Then, in 1978, he landed a job as a writer at the Kentucky Post. Still, his real break did not come until 1980. It occurred after his seventeen-part series called “The Coal Connection,” was published by the post.
The series was a hit and Webb won the national Investigative Reporters medal. He also obtained the Editors Prize Award the same year. Both accolades were for his examination of the murder of a coal company leader. Webb’s investigation skills helped expose connections to organized crime.
His knack for uncovering the truth cracked a State Medical Board case in Ohio. He exposed the scandal in his investigative work called “Doctoring the Truth.” This 1985 article series sparked the Ohio House investigation, which led to the state Medical Practice Act revising their entire agenda.
The movie, “Kill the Messenger” showed Webb rise to fame, after gaining employment with the San Jose Mercury News, in 1988. However, it was at this daily newspaper that his life would spiral downhill and eventually end in his demise.
The Decline of Mr. Webb
San Jose Mercury News was good to Webb. They allowed him to publish his groundbreaking series, the “Dark Alliance.” However, this remarkable series would be a curse and a blessing to his career. The drama, “Kill the Messenger,” showed the world that this series inspected the roots of the crack cocaine trade that was destroying the African-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Webb did not hold back any punches. In the “Dark Alliance” series, he exposed information about the followers of the anti-government Contra insurgents, in Nicaragua, and their role in producing the trade using profits from cocaine to support their struggle.
In the meantime, the series was gaining momentum, particularly in the African-American community of Los Angeles. However, two women were furious about what they read; California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. Feinstein and Boxer asked the CIA to investigate the articles. Maxine Waters, the representative for California’s 35th district, was also livid by the editorials and became a fan of Webb. Right away, she urged the CIA to investigate, which sparked three intensive investigations into the drug allegations.
In the film, “Kill the Messenger” the reports of the three federal investigations ultimately rejected the series’ main accusations, nevertheless, they were critical of some CIA and police actions. San Jose Mercury News said Webb’s story was inconclusive and transferred him to another newspaper. Unhappy with this decision, he resigned, in November 1997.
‘Kill the Messenger’ Exposing the Darkside
Unfortunately, the film, “Kill the Messenger” did not dig deeper into the dark sides of Webb’s death. Some journalists believe that investigative journalism should call the influential into account and unmask sleaziness. Webb did that by exposing corruption, but it may have cost him his life. In 2004, he was found dead with two alleged self-inflicted gunshot injuries to the head. They discovered a handwritten note at the scene. According to investigators, the note was an indicator that he took his own life – but was it?
Trustworthy sources, who were Webb’s close colleagues, mentioned constant death threats. Webb was also consistently followed. He confided in friends that odd men were popping up out of nowhere. In fact, days before his death he experienced break-ins at his house, before his “suicide” that following Friday morning.
Webb reported seeing mysteriously dressed professional men coming in and out of his house. He even went into detail, explaining they were jumping out of windows from his balcony and ran away when he challenged them. He told a close friend that they were not burglars but professional agents from the government. Weeks before his death, Webb was working on a new story about the drug trafficking and the involvement of the CIA.
Assassination or Suicide?
As a result of the lack of further investigation, the death of Webb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is mystifying. A journalist that exposed CIA drug trafficking operations and suddenly dies is controversial. Still, many believe his series of books and reports for the San Jose Mercury News cost him his life.
If there was ever a remake, “Kill the Messenger: The Takedown of Gary Webb” should be the name of the movie. The debate of Webb’s death has no answers; it is still not certain if his loss was a suicide or assassination. It has been 12 years, and to some, his death is still a mystery.
By Jomo Merritt
Edited by Jeanette Smith
The Washington Post: Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says
The Intercept: Managing A Nightmare How the CIA Watched over The Destruction of Gary Webb
The Nation: ‘The New York Times’ Wants Gary Webb to Stay Dead
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