From Gary Webb to James Risen: The struggle for the soul of journalism

Two courageous reporters dug up dark government secrets. Only one was betrayed by his peers. Why did it happen?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published October 25, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)

Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in "Kill the Messenger"       (Focus Features)
Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb in "Kill the Messenger" (Focus Features)

In thinking about the cases of Gary Webb and James Risen, two famous investigative reporters aggressively persecuted for their explosive revelations (in very different situations, and with different results), we are drawn into the thorny question of journalism and its so-called professional ethics. How well do the supposed codes of journalism work, and whom do they serve and protect? Is the primary role of journalism as a social institution to discover the truth as best it can and raise the level of public discourse, or to preserve its own power and prestige and privilege? I don’t claim to know the answers with any certainty. If anything, the stories of Webb and Risen suggest that those questions yield different answers in different contexts.

I’ve been a working journalist for more than 25 years, across the demise of print and the rise of the Internet, and I’ve always viewed the idea of journalism as a profession as, at best, a double-edged sword. I mean the word “profession” in the sense that law or medicine or accounting is so defined, each with its own internal codes of conduct administered by various self-governing institutions. All too often, the ideal of professionalism in journalism becomes an excuse for “the View from Nowhere” described by media critic Jay Rosen – a bogus conception of impartiality and “balance,” a refusal of critical thinking and a disinclination to challenge official sources or disrupt accepted narratives.

Amid the chaos of Internet journalism, and the evident fact that many people in the field have no conception of ethics or responsibility, it seems laughably nostalgic to talk about professionalism. But in any case journalism never resembled those listed professions, which was always a strength and a detriment. There is no examination to pass and no credentialing board to face. Graduate programs in journalism have grown more influential, paradoxically or not, even as the trade itself has decayed. But no one would claim they are necessary. I’ve known plenty of journalists who didn’t have college degrees at all; Hunter S. Thompson never finished high school. It’s one of those jobs you learn best by doing, with the right guidance and mentorship. Most of the people who got me interested in the possibilities of journalism in the first place, like Joan Didion and Thompson and Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau and the underappreciated, long-dead San Francisco critic John L. Wasserman, had no professional training, would have refused to join any such association and repeatedly violated the norms and customs of the trade.

On the other hand, maybe journalism does qualify as a profession, in that it displays a sense of tribal identity also found among the doctors and the lawyers. Insiders with the right connections, who conform to established codes, are zealously protected; outsiders perceived as threats to the established order are thrown to the wolves. This is an entirely understandable human reaction, and not always a bad thing. Mainstream journalism has pretty much circled the wagons around Risen, a national-security reporter for the New York Times who was working to uncover the extent of illegal or unconstitutional NSA spying long before anybody had heard of Edward Snowden. His work has sometimes made his own editors uncomfortable – former Times editor Bill Keller repeatedly killed Risen’s NSA story in 2004 and 2005, after a private meeting with President Bush – but in broad terms both the Times and what's left of the journalism establishment have grasped that the government’s attempt to shut Risen down or send him to prison was a direct assault on the role of the press in a so-called democracy.

Over the course of the past decade, Risen has been the focus of malevolent attention from several grand juries and two successive presidential administrations. Ostensibly, the government wants to compel Risen to reveal the identity of a confidential source who told him about a botched CIA operation in Iran. But it’s not unduly paranoid to speculate that the real issue is not a 10-year-old leak no one cares about anymore but rather an attempt to single out and scapegoat a reporter who has repeatedly revealed the most corrupt and disturbing and even tragicomic aspects of the war on terror. (Risen’s new book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War,” is full of horrifying and sometimes hilarious detail.) Risen recently told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!” that he believed the government was reluctant to come directly after the Times over his NSA stories, which might have provoked a constitutional showdown at the Supreme Court level. Instead, the apparatchiks fixed on the Iran-CIA leak – which was revealed in his 2006 book “State of War,” but not in the newspaper – as a way “to isolate me from the New York Times.” Risen has become the central test case in the Obama administration’s vindictive and adversarial relationship with the press, and its unprecedented persecution of whistle-blowers.

I’d like to believe that some of the professional journalists who stand with Jim Risen today, largely because he’s a credentialed member of the tribe and an employee of the flagship American newspaper, feel ashamed when they look back at the case of Gary Webb. We know at least one does. Jesse Katz was one of the 17 Los Angeles Times reporters who were assigned to pick apart “Dark Alliance,” Webb’s groundbreaking 1996 CIA-Contra-cocaine investigative series for the San Jose Mercury-News, which became one of the first viral phenomena in the short history of the Internet. In retrospect, it looks an awful lot like the L.A. Times management felt embarrassed by a cowboy reporter at a smaller regional rival, who had broken a huge story on their turf, and set out to demolish him. As Katz told a radio interviewer last year, the Times counterattack was “kind of a tawdry exercise … Most of us who were involved in it, I think, would look back on that and say it was overkill.”

If you don’t know much about Gary Webb or his big story, you can learn his basic narrative – in an admittedly truncated and Hollywoodized form – in the new movie “Kill the Messenger,” a tidy drama anchored by a fiery performance from Oscar-nominated actor Jeremy Renner, who also produced the film. A Pulitzer-winning reporter with a reputation as a maverick and a checkered personal life, Webb broke one of the biggest scoops of the 1990s, working essentially on his own for a paper that had modest resources, limited experience with investigative reporting and almost no experience in international coverage. “Dark Alliance” put the Mercury-News on the journalistic map, partly because it was published simultaneously in print and in the newborn electronic medium many old-school journalists believed was a passing fad. “Dark Alliance” remains well worth reading more than 18 years later, but here’s the “too long; didn’t read” version: The Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, which was avidly sponsored and supported by the Reagan administration, was at least partly funded by Latin American cocaine smugglers who fueled the crack epidemic in America’s cities. At the very least, the CIA knew about these big-time drug smugglers, tolerated them and protected them.

Here’s the important thing to say about Webb’s big story: In general terms, and in most of its specifics, it was true. Virtually no one would deny that today; congressional commissions, internal CIA investigations and scholarly articles by historians have reached similar conclusions, shrouded in more lawyerly or diplomatic language. You can say that the CIA was apparently complicit in drug-dealing but not directly involved; you can say that the agency “turned a blind eye” to evidence that smuggling revenue was being used to fund the Contras; you can say that “the CIA knew or should have known that some of its allies were accused of being in the drug business,” in the exceedingly careful phrasing of New York Times media reporter David Carr. If the tone of Webb’s reporting was sometimes inflammatory, what he said happened pretty much happened. Webb never stated or implied that the CIA had deliberately imported crack cocaine into African-American neighborhoods; that construction or interpretation came later, from other people.

There is no question that amid Webb’s thousands of words of prose and his months of exhaustive reporting on “Dark Alliance” there were a handful of factual claims he didn’t nail down, along with a few misstatements or overstatements. Some critics have said that the whole package carried a sensationalistic tone that suggested a widespread conspiracy without exactly saying so. That charge should have been directed at Webb’s editors at the Merc, first of all, and could be applied to almost every Pulitzer-seeking investigative series ever published by any American newspaper. As we see in “Kill the Messenger,” Webb and his entire project came under an extraordinary and unprecedented tripartite assault from the L.A. Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post, each of which launched teams of reporters to explore every actual or perceived flaw in “Dark Alliance.” Webb’s credibility as a reporter was destroyed, his own editors flung him to the curb and he was driven from the profession; he never held a full-time newspaper job again. After a series of personal and financial setbacks and a battle with depression, he took his own life in 2004.

Here we see the dark side of journalism as a “profession” with its own internal codes and mores. Webb was an outsider from a Nowheresville paper who made the big boys look bad, and who declined to take dictation from government sources. As Ithaca College journalism professor Jeff Cohen writes in an extensive essay for Common Dreams, elite reporters from the Big Three papers simply accepted denials from anonymous CIA sources as fact, as if they simply hadn't noticed how often and how avidly the agency has lied to the media and the public. (An internal CIA memo approvingly cited this as “a ground base of already productive relationships with journalists.”) Peter Landesman, a former investigative reporter who wrote the screenplay for “Kill the Messenger,” has suggested that each paper had its own reasons for wanting to destroy Webb: The L.A. Times was envious of a smaller rival, the Washington Post was way too cozy with the CIA and the national-security apparatus (then as now), and the New York Times was simply a profoundly arrogant institution with its head firmly up its butt. (My words, not Landesman’s.)

There were countervailing voices at the time, and there have been many more since. Even in 1996, Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser criticized the paper for its “misdirected zeal,” writing that her colleagues seemed more interested in “sniffing out the flaws” in Webb’s reporting than in investigating the larger issues he had raised. [CORRECTION: I originally, and erroneously, wrote that Overholser was then at the L.A. Times.] After Webb’s death, Chicago Tribune public editor Don Wycliff wrote, “He got the treatment that always comes to those who dare question aloud the bona fides of the establishment: First he got misrepresented … Then he was ridiculed as a conspiracy-monger.” Former Associated Press and Newsweek reporter Robert Parry, who first broke the Contra-cocaine story way back in 1985, has tirelessly worked to redeem Webb’s reputation, and recently wrote a fascinating dissection of David Carr’s cautious push-me-pull-you piece for the New York Times about Webb and the movie, which amounts to a guarded admission that the Gray Lady screwed up this story the first time through.

Yet the “professionals” have not entirely surrendered. Jeff Leen, an editor who runs investigative reporting at the Washington Post, recently wrote an Op-Ed response to “Kill the Messenger” that offers a tepid defense of the witch hunt against Gary Webb. Leen’s article has been subjected to a vigorous takedown by filmmaker and journalist Marc Levin and widely debated on social media, so I don’t need to pile on, but it's a masterpiece of mediocre equivocation. Leen says he feels sorry for Webb, but cannot bring himself to say that Webb was treated despicably for despicable reasons. He complains about the way Hollywood simplifies real-life stories (there's an original observation!) and recites a litany of journalism-school clichés. Leen begins with the old saw, “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof” and ends by urging younger reporters to “keep the hype out of their nut graphs.” I do not claim to have Leen’s experience with the kind of laborious reporting done by the Post, but I’m inclined to respond by saying no and no. All claims of truth require proof; you either have it or you don’t. And the “nut graph,” meaning the paragraph near the top of an article that summarizes its argument, is precisely the place to make grand claims, as long as you have the evidence to support them.

Gary Webb had the evidence, and Jim Risen does too. Both men did noble and necessary work exposing the misdeeds of high government officials who broke the law, overreached their constitutional authority and lied about it. That does not make you popular with those in power, or with those in the media who want to protect their gigs as court stenographers. Risen and Webb have both paid the price for their tenacity and courage, but Risen had the “professional” juice to ensure that when the government came after him his colleagues mostly had his back (even if he makes them uneasy). When the government came after Webb, the profession’s leaders were suspiciously and disgustingly eager to destroy him. They scourged him and smeared him and hounded him to disgrace and death, and then, years later, they decided they felt a little bit bad about it. Sometimes those same people wonder how and why journalists lost the public’s trust.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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