Imagine an All the President’s Men type of scenario, except in addition to the shadowy governmental MIBs trying to intimidate and shut up the intrepid investigative journalist, his newspaper colleagues also throw him under a bus. This is basically what happened to San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in the wake of his 1996 series of articles called “Dark Alliance” — later expanded into a book of the same name [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] [iTunes U.S.][iTunes U.K.] — detailing how the CIA turned a blind eye as, and sometimes actively assisted, the anti-Communist Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras shipped cocaine into the United States and used the profits to fund their war. This wasn’t exactly new news at the time, but no one else had run it down and turned it into a Big Story… and, as this angry film suggests, it was perhaps professional jealousy at being shown up that prompted the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post to tear Webb’s work apart to the point of deliberately misinterpreting and outright lying about what Webb had uncovered and how he presented it. In the wake of this pressure from the big boys, even Webb’s Mercury News bosses backpedaled on him, publishing a partial retraction that was arguably completely unjustifiable but which certainly amounted to an inexcusable apology for doing aggressive journalism.
The most fascinating thing about this passionate and intense drama — fueled by a fierce performance by Jeremy Renner (American Hustle, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) as Webb — is how it furiously underscores the problem of lickspittle corporate “journalism” that kowtows to power instead of speaking truth to it. Were the Times and the Post merely pissed off at having missed a big story? Or were they carrying water for the CIA when they pounced on Webb instead of pouncing on what he had reported? The ironies are many and layered: Webb didn’t have sources inside the CIA, because, you know, it’s an agency that is all about secretive skullduggery; Times and Post editors did have sources (who would of course deny Webb’s reportage, even though Webb was later vindicated), so it was in their best interests to do whatever they needed to do in order to maintain that access. The freedom Webb had to do his reporting, unbeholden to powerful interests, was the very noose that was used to hang him.
The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that, 20 years later, the horrible truths that Webb’s work revealed have become cynically accepted as unalterable reality. Oh, the CIA helped turned the streets of American cities into drug-fueled war zones that chew up mostly poor and disproportionately black Americans, and that’s even before it feeds them into the meatgrinder that is the “War on Drugs” and funnels them into a for-profit prison system? You don’t say? *shrug* I care, maybe you care, but shouting this from the rooftops — as by making an entertaining suspense drama about it starring one of the guys from the biggest superhero franchise ever — doesn’t seem to make a lick of difference. The Powers That Be don’t need to kill the messenger if hardly anyone cares what he has to say, and those few who do care have no way to affect any change.