Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Gary Webb. Photo: Sacramento Bee
It's been nearly 10 years since reporter Gary Webb died, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But his story is more than a suicidal journalist driven to death by depression and a difficult personal life. 

It's an example of a reporter's own newspaper, and his fellow news organizations, failing to back him up when the heat came down. 

Now a new movie with Jeremy Renner, Kill The Messenger, is due out this week and apparently gives the real account of Webb's work and how he was unfairly punished for seeking to get out the truth. And how it killed him.

Webb, who died in December 2004, sought to break a major story eight years before his death that claimed the CIA was involved in illegal drug-running. His Dark Alliance series, which ran in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, offered a serious link between the CIA and crack cocaine smuggling and distribution.

After the series ran, the criticism began and the Mercury News essentially threw Webb under the bus, publishing a lengthy letter claiming problems with the series and later demoting him to a lesser beat. He left the paper in 1997 and eventually wound up at the alternative Sacramento News & Review.

After his death, I wrote a lengthy story for Editor & Publisher magazine in which I interviewed his ex-wife and brother and found that Webb had been battling depression and other problems sparked, in part, by the way he was unfairly demonized.

Moreover, other news outlets that might have picked up the story and explored it further criticized Webb and sought to write him off as a bad reporter. 

In the years since, however, many news outlets have admitted their mistakes in bashing Webb and realized his reporting was, for the most part, on target. 

In today's journalism where partisan attack claims, newsroom cutbacks and demands for instant content have crippled many news outlets, Webb's story stands as a reminder of what real shoe-leather reporting can do. But also why good journalism needs to be supported and defended.

See my 2008 story on the movie's development HERE and a movie trailer for the Oct. 10 release of Kill the Messeneger below:

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