‘Kill the Messenger’ Demonstrates Real Investigative Journalism [Review]

Investigative Journalism

Bluegrass Films and The Combine released “Kill the Messenger,” in 2014. The movie depicts the life of Gary Webb, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning American investigative reporter, who died almost 20 years ago under mysterious circumstances. The on-screen adaptation is partially based on a book by the same name written by journalist Nick Schou, as reported by the LA Weekly. The film, which is set in the mid-1990s, demonstrates real investigative journalism. It has Jeremy Renner playing the protagonist, Webb, alongside a distinguished star cast, including Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife Sue Bell, and Oliver Platt as his top editor Jerry Ceppos.

According to the Newsmanual website, the basic principle of investigative journalism is to find information, report, and present the truth which others want to hide. The movie’s storyline embodies this tenet completely. “Kill the Messenger” demonstrates real investigative journalism by showcasing the collusion between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Nicaragua’s drug-running rebels that Webb (Renner) tried to investigate and expose. Something which did not go down well with the CIA, who obviously did not want the world to know about it. This ruined Webb’s career and supposedly ended his life as well.

The film has two highpoints that make it a must-watch, as they repeatedly challenge the protagonist’s journalistic skills, thereby, offering a perfect platform for Renner to display his acting chops to the hilt.

First is Webb’s revelation regarding the above mentioned CIA-drug mafia tie-up. According to both the LA Weekly and “Time Magazine,” Webb deeply investigated this nexus for almost 12 months and documented the troublesome revelations in a three-part, 20,000-word-long article series dubbed “Dark Alliance.” He wrote it for his then employer, “San Jose Mercury News,” in 1996. The published write-up, which traced the history of cocaine in the U.S., more than 30 years back, when it entered the territories of South Central Los Angeles and other urban areas during the 1980s, also directly accused the CIA, of facilitating the unlawful activity. The article suggested that the cocaine was actually smuggled  by the Nicaraguan Contra group called FDN,  who had links with a San Francisco-based drug ring. However, the act had full support of the CIA, which orchestrated it by sponsoring the FDN. The agency’s interest in permitting the entire drug trafficking racket to proliferate lay in serving its own selfish economic ends, since it wanted to finance the collapse of the leftist Sandinista regime by using millions of dollars earned from cocaine sales.

The second highpoint, where the movie gains momentum pertains to Webb’s “lack of on-the-record sources,” as suggested by “The Telegraph.” Interestingly, at this point, the movie also fumbles slightly. The reason is a blatant violation of the second cardinal rule of investigative journalism. According to the Newsmanual website, another important principle of investigative journalism is to keep eyes and ears open for spotting, gathering, and reporting only those facts that can be verified and corroborated. Talking about its depiction in the story-line, the issue with Webb’s inquiry was that he recklessly gathered information from different sources with sheer disregard to their authenticity. He seemed ignorant, if not indifferent, of their ability to be verified. In the film, Webb personally met with real people for his story. Be it his original source, the woman Coral Baca, or the jailed drug dealer Freeway Rick Ross, who informed him about the CIA-backed Nicaraguan cocaine supplier, Danilo Blandon as the main culprit, as reported by “The Huffington Post.” However, the loophole emerged when the media, comprising of both his office colleagues and competitors, cross-checked his gathered evidence. They found most of it to be unconfirmed and “off-record.”

Despite this fallacy, Webb’s reporting methods did appear convincing on the big screen, according to “The Telegraph.” Needless to mention, the credit for this goes to Renner, who portrayed the deceased fearless Sacramento-based reporter, enigmatically and honestly, and made sincere efforts to demonstrate real investigative journalism.

In a nutshell, “Kill the Messenger” is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that would appeal to anyone interested in witnessing a real demonstration of investigative journalism, with all its challenges and opportunities.

By Bashar Saajid
Edited by Jeanette Smith & Cathy Milne


Bluegrass Films and The Combine: “Kill the Messenger”
LA WEEKLY: How Kill the Messenger Will Vindicate Investigative Journalist Gary Webb
The News Manual: Chapter 39: Introduction to investigative reporting
TIME MAGAZINE: This Is the Real Story Behind Kill The Messenger
The Telegraph: Kill the Messenger: ‘earnest and true’
The Huffington Post: Gary Webb Was Right 
Image Courtesy of Gage Skidmore’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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