Monday, October 27, 2014

Lessons Unlearned

Calhoun's Cannons for Oct 27, 2014

"You get the most flak when you're right above the target."
                                                                   Kill the Messenger

The late investigative reporter, Gary Webb, should have been the wake-up call, a warning bell that a new era had arrived.  But the real meaning of his life and death got lost among the din.  And remains lost to this day.  Which was the point.

The era Webb was writing about  was Reagan's, the War On Drugs was running full-blast, as was the CIA and their "dirty-little wars," various black-ops being run under the public's radar. Webb was what's known in the popular imagination and in Hollywood portrayals as a "dogged reporter."  One of those passionate post-Nixon, post Watergate, post Woodward and Bernstein guys who actually believed that journalism was an honorable profession.  He was working for the San Jose Mercury News, a smallish paper that had a pretty solid reputation, a paper that Hollywood would portray as "scrappy."

Until Gary stumbled on a story that seemed inconceivable at the time -- that during the '80s the U.S. government, namely the CIA knew/ had to have known/ knowingly was laundering drug money (specifically cocaine funneled into L.A. and most pointedly and politically explosively into black South Central L.A., via a major drug-dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross). Gary tracked the story down and in 1996 the Merc News ran it and before anyone had invented the word "going viral," the story went viral.

At the time, I remember reading the story and I watched in amazement at the growing firestorms, and headlines by the other "big papers" -- the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times -- that followed: accusations that the CIA had deliberately funneled crack cocaine into the black community in order to destroy it, that the CIA itself was selling the drugs to pay for it's secret Nicaraguan "Contra" wars, each claim more outrageous than the other and all being laid at Gary's feet.  Then came the shift in focus from denial to a growing criticism of Gary's story, and finally Gary himself, until the ultimate betrayal by his own paper, which threw him under the bus in an effort to save itself..  All of which is very well portrayed in the new film, "Kill the Messenger," staring Jeremy Renner as Webb.

However, throughout this media assault, I kept noticing one constant, repeating small point that consistently got steamrolled:  The accusations and claims making the headlines and being debunked, were NOT what Gary had written.  He never said what the news stories were reporting he said.  But instead of taking Gary's lead and running with the story, taking it further, digging deeper, the media stopped looking and just repeated the straw-man lies until that false narrative became "true." Then they ran with that.

And continued to run with it for years whenever events caused the story to be referenced again.  Fake "facts," like some Urban Myth, endlessly repeating. It was a surreal phenomenon to watch at the time and I kept thinking that surely, a big paper like the L.A. Times would discover its error and correct their own record. 

Years later, when the CIA 'fessed up that they were doing exactly what Webb reported -- looking the other way as drug money was laundered to buy guns for their "contra" operations -- the L.A. Times buried that story way back in the middle of the paper in a single column and it wasn't until 2006 that they finally acknowledge their own complicity in the falsification of that story.  But by that time, Gary was dead, his death ruled a suicide, his career destroyed, his reputation sullied; death by a thousand cuts administered, not by his enemies, but by his professional colleagues.

For a man who considered journalism to be an honorable profession, it was an unimaginable betrayal, and is perfectly represented by the film's ending: Gary, his career already in ruins, is shown accepting an "Excellence in Journalism Award."  The bitter irony was not lost on the audience.

Tragically, the public didn't pay attention to what had just happened with Gary, a dangerous change in how the media/corporate/government complex operates that continues (on steroids) to play out today: the rise of mega-corporate news organizations, the too-cozy willingness of  that media to act as a lapdog to government, not a watchdog, the willingness of both media and the public to focus on the messenger, not the message, the ease with which a narrative can be falsified by changing even one word, and the willingness of the public to "buy" that false narrative, even at their own peril.

What happened to Gary Webb was the template for how easy it is to get away with it all -- crash an economy, start wars on lies, spy on millions of Americans, you name it.  The list is endless but the M.O. is the same: Falsify the narrative, kill the messenger, distract the audience until it loses interest, then re-write history.  Simple.  



Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Good column. And I would argue that Sharyl Attkisson is following in Webb's footsteps. See the plug for her forthcoming book in the NY Post:

mom said...

My daughter Rebecca was a good friend of the guy who broke the story and wrote the book that is now a movie. They were colleagues at the O. C. Weekly. I forget his name. Jeez. Anyway, Becca used to talk at length with the author about it all.

Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

Great film. The public never seems to get the real story. And probably doesn't want it in many cases... what's the point when your mind is already made up!

Churadogs said...

Mom, you mean Gary Webb? I don't think he wrote for the O.C. Weekly, he was a reporter at the Merc News? Or do you mean the guy who wrote about Gary and the whole mess that's the basis for the movie?

I did a taped interview with Gary back in the day. We played it on the (local) Dave Congalton Show (radio)

Patrick: Obama isn't the only one being protected by the "liberal" press. The "liberal", the "conservative" press (i.e. the corporate press) "protects" a whole lot of folk. left and right. Gary learned the hard way that as a reporter, you'll be "safe" so long as you don't actually write about something really important. Then, look out.

Toonces: The public gets the partial "first story" which is very often wrong, or it gets a spun "first story," the narrative of which can be changed by people wanting it to change -- that has to happen very quickly -- then once that deliberately tweaked false narrative takes hold, it's nearly impossible for The Public to move off the false story. The fake narrative becomes gospel. And "facts" are totally useless. And The Public mostly doesn't care. They want a meme that's easy and simple, something that doesn't require any thought. If it's wrong or illogical or absurd, it doesn't matter.

And you wonder why we have the Congress we have, the laws we have and the society we have . . . look no further than that.