Last month, I wrote about the then upcoming Gary Webb bio-pic Kill the Messenger. It is about how Webb’s reporting on CIA-affiliated smuggling of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s was attacked by the major press outlets. This eventually led to Webb killing himself. But I noted, “I’m sure… the press will push it as a story of one of their own, even though the primary reason that Webb seems to have taken his life is that no one would hire him.” Well, I was wrong. What I forgot is that a lot of the people who attacked Webb are not only still alive, but still working. So of course they aren’t going to laud them as the best that journalism is. Webb is long dead, but they still feel the need to attack him.
Recently, there was much coverage of the the Watergate break-in because of the fortieth anniversary. I discussed the coverage, Bob Schieffer Believes in Journalism That Happened 40 Years Ago. (Schieffer, of course, being the man who thinks that Edward Snowden should be thrown in jail — and maybe Glenn Greenwald as well.) In that article, I mentioned that if there had not been the incriminating tapes, Nixon would never have been forced to resign; Republicans would to this day be claiming that it was a small scandal; and most of all, journalists would not celebrate Woodward and Bernstein. And notice: the tapes are nothing that they uncovered; the tapes simply proved them right.
On Friday, Jeff Leen at the Washington Post wrote, Gary Webb Was No Journalism Hero, Despite What “Kill the Messenger” Says. And who is Jeff Leen? Well, at the time of Webb’s reporting, he was a reporter at the Miami Herald, doing work on the drug trade. And part of that work was to counter Webb’s work. It is almost twenty years later, and he’s still working that assignment.
Robert Parry wrote a great response to Leen at Consortium News, WPost’s Slimy Assault on Gary Webb. In 1985, Parry and Brian Barger broke the story in the Associated Press that the Contras — the rebels we supported who were fighting against the Nicaraguan government — were shipping cocaine into the United States. Webb’s work followed up on that, showing that CIA contractors were involved and that the CIA was complicit. So Parry knows what he’s talking about.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing because he takes Leen apart. Of course, it won’t matter to Leen, who is a typical career journalist whose biggest asset to a paper is that he will never file anything that would upset anyone powerful. But what stood out to me in the article is the way that people like Leen can continue to nitpick away at Webb, even while later events have shown him to be right.
That made me wonder what would have happened if Nixon’s tapes had existed, but didn’t get released for a decade after Watergate. Based upon the treatment of Webb, it must be that much of the media establishment would never have forgiven Woodward and Bernstein, much less lionized them. Here is Parry on an interesting comparison:
Instead of diving into the reeds of the CIA and DOJ reports, Leen does what he and his mainstream colleagues have done for the past three decades, try to minimize the seriousness of the Reagan administration tolerating cocaine trafficking by its Contra clients and even obstructing official investigations that threatened to expose this crime of state.
Instead, to Leen, the only important issue is whether Gary Webb’s story was perfect. But no journalistic product is perfect. There are always more details that a reporter would like to have, not to mention compromises with editors over how a story is presented. And, on a complex story, there are always some nuances that could have been explained better. That is simply the reality of journalism, the so-called first draft of history.
But Leen pretends that it is the righteous thing to destroy a reporter who is not perfect in his execution of a difficult story — and that Gary Webb thus deserved to be banished from his profession for life, a cruel punishment that impoverished Webb and ultimately drove him to suicide in 2004.
But if Leen is correct — that a reporter who takes on a very tough story and doesn’t get every detail precisely correct should be ruined and disgraced — what does he tell his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, whose heroic Watergate reporting included an error about whether a claim regarding who controlled the White House slush fund was made before a grand jury?
While Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein were right about the substance, they were wrong about its presentation to a grand jury. Does Leen really believe that Woodward and Bernstein should have been drummed out of journalism for that mistake? Instead, they were lionized as heroes of investigative journalism despite the error — as they should have been.
Yet, when Webb exposed what was arguably an even worse crime of state — the Reagan administration turning a blind eye to the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States — Leen thinks any abuse of Webb is justified because his story wasn’t perfect.
Those two divergent judgments — on how Woodward’s mistake was understandably excused and how Webb’s imperfections were never forgiven — speak volumes about what has happened to the modern profession of journalism at least in the mainstream US media. In reality, Leen’s insistence on perfection and “extraordinary proof” is just a dodge to rationalize letting well-connected criminals and their powerful accomplices off the hook.
In the old days, the journalistic goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but the new rule appears to be: “any standard of proof works when condemning the weak or the despised but you need unachievable ‘extraordinary proof’ if you’re writing about the strong and the politically popular.”
In another scathing attack on Leen’s article, Al Giordano and Bill Conroy at Narco News wrote, The Washington Post Needs a Bus — and to Throw Jeff Leen Under It. It makes the argument that the big three newspapers didn’t destroy the story because of its subject matter, but because Webb’s story was the first big news story on the internet. They were trying to kill electronic media and Webb was just a casualty of that. Here is Webb discussing the impact of the internet:
But what’s especially great about the article is that they interviewed Nick Schou, who wrote the book, Kill the Messenger. Leen took some quotes from his book to prove his case that “Gary Webb Was No Journalism Hero.” Well, Schou read Leen’s article and was not pleased:
I’m glad this guy wrote what he did because it reveals exactly why the movie gets the story so right. The writer of this worthless and whiny op-ed perfectly captures the craven mentality of cowardice of most of Webb’s critics at the three major papers. And he totally takes my statement out of context. I do believe that Dark Alliance contained major flaws of hyperbole, but they were mostly the story’s logo and a few unnecessary phrases that overstated the evidence Webb had at the time. What I’ve always argued is that had Webb been allowed to keep writing, and had the other papers including the Post actually done their job, the true extent of the story would have been revealed. The fact remains that Webb’s story nonetheless forced the CIA to admit that the true flaw of Dark Alliance was hardly one of hyperbole but the exact opposite – the story radically understated the scandal.
The article also contains a bit of text from Webb’s book, Dark Alliance where he calls out the work of Jeff Leen. I’ve transcribed it:
A handful of researchers, James Inciardi for example, maintain that the crack market in Miami developed simultaneously with that in LA, but the historical record to support this is much thinner. One of the journalistic advocates of this scenario is Jeff Leen, a self-styled cocaine expert formally with the Miami Herald. If Leen is correct, however, it means he missed the story by about four years. His first article on crack (which he erroneously referred to as “free-base” throughout) didn’t appear until December 30, 1985, a month after the New York Times announced its presence on the Eastern seaboard.
Giordano and Conroy added, “Leen thought he could publish Friday’s essay without disclosing that it was none other than Gary Webb who exposed Leen’s early cocaine journalism in that passage of his book.” But the sad truth of the matter is that Leen will get away with the article. It’s been several days and I’ve only found a smattering of articles about it — only two of which were in Google News. And Leen will finish out his unremarkable and cowardly career and have a nice retirement. I’d like to believe that Giordano and Conroy are right and that Leen will be thrown under the bus. But it doesn’t work that way. People like Gary Webb who speak truth to power are thrown under the bus. People like Jeff Leen who kiss up to the establishment are cherished.
Update (21 October 2014 11:23 am)
The Rancid Honeytrap has posted an article about some other attacks and resources about the work that Webb and the work he did, Misremembering Gary Webb. It is very good.
Update (21 October 2014 1:46 pm)
Joseph Palermo at Huffington Post wrote a good overview of the history of the whole thing, The Gary Webb Story: Still Killing the Messenger. Also: Kenneth V Smith wrote, Yet Another Mainstream Media Attack on the Ghost of Journalist Gary Webb. After listing three article about Webb, he wrote, “The above are left-of-center websites, with which I normally disagree. I would like to find a right-of-center or libertarian article that is critical of The Washington Post’s attack on Gary Webb, but so far, nothing.” Funny that! Well, I have a clue. For the conservatives, well, they don’t want to hear anything that will shed a negative light on Reagan. There is a reason that liberals often refer to him as Saint Reagan: their love of him is faith based and facts will not get in the way. As for libertarians, well, as I’ve noted before, they aren’t much more than embarrassed Republicans. If the conservative movement had any substance to it, you would think they would love this story that paints a very bad picture of the government. And I expect that Reason will have something to say on the issue. But no conservative can get really excited about denigrating the Reagan years when they accomplished the one thing all conservatives believe it: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest.