The CIA tries to stop the message in “Kill the Messenger,” a film about a determined journalist searching to find and expose the truth. The movie strives to keep the vital message and purpose of journalism alive and in the public eye.
It is based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, played superbly by Jeremy Renner. Webb’s story uncovered the complicity of the CIA, in the funneling of crack cocaine from Nicaragua into the United States, during the 1980s.
While Webb was working at the San Jose Mercury Times, he was given some grand jury transcripts that piqued his curiosity, enough to investigate. His digging uncovered evidence that implicated the CIA. Once the message was out, the agency began efforts to stop the message, by beginning a campaign to kill the messenger.
Webb encounters one obstacle, after another, while tracking down sources to validate the story. His efforts to publicize the message were blocked at every turn. These barriers slow Webb’s attempts to do what journalists should do — tell the message truthfully.
Too True to Tell
Webb’s investigation soon led him to the CIA. In one scene, while he is meeting with officials from the agency, one warns him, “Some stories are too true to tell.” This is no small claim. In cases such as these, one understands the threat.
Is he simply issuing a warning about how dangerous a further pursuit of the truth would be? How much peril would exposing the message entail? Would the CIA really stop the release of information by trying to kill the messenger?
The Price of the Message
Webb tirelessly hunts down the truth. His diligent determination to reveal the message pulls him into Central American prisons. In doing so, he met with drug lords and encountered many other dangerous situations along the path.
He also suffers great loss during his tenacious digging. He loses his job, home, family, and in the end, his life. Webb even loses the support and trust of his peers. The price of the message proves to be very high.
His integrity comes into question, and his colleagues begin to side with the CIA. These journalists also try to stop the message, and perhaps, aid in the effort to kill the messenger.
Integrity is an internal attribute, yet, it is subject to external forces. Sometimes the greatest blow to one’s sense of integrity is when it is questioned by their peers. This is especially devasting when it comes from trusted co-workers.
What crushed Webb was the fact that journalism, as a profession, and his colleagues, doubted and finally dismissed his integrity.
This could be considered a form of cannibalism in the journalistic arena. The question is almost savage. Why would someone eat their own kind? The answer is equally brutal and blunt. They do this for their own survival.
Such behavior is practically expected, if not accepted, among some other professions. Many of these fall into the realm of government or business. In fact, it is true of any profession where a level of politics, in whatever form, is operating. When it is time to survive, there will always be those willing to eat their own, to save themselves.
Moral Ideals and Cross-Purposes
The journalistic cannibalism experienced by Webb was devastating. He was disappointed to learn that the worst thing of all was, “realizing you weren’t reaching for the same purpose as those you worked with.”
Webb had high journalistic ideals about the truth of the message and the urgency of making it known to others. He believed his fellow journalists had the same set of moral.
When he came to understand that morals and ethics can be thrown aside in order to survive, he despaired. In some professions, such as national intelligence positions, personal ethics are expendable, and everyone knows this. Journalism is not one of those professions. The message is too important.
Webb refused to jettison his journalistic ethics in the face of opposition, danger, and loss. Journalism, which strives to present a message of truth, must have the same kind of courage. Otherwise, the information will become distorted into propaganda, and liberty will be lessened.
The Messenger Can Kill the Message
One of Webb’s contemporaries writes this:
An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. That old dictum ought to hang on the walls of every journalism school in America.
This particular writer speaks from personal experience, bolstering his argument that Webb did not supply the “extraordinary proof” to match his claims about the CIA. Webb’s mistake was never his sincerity or integrity. His error was not being able to supply the proof necessary for such an explosive message.
When a journalist decides to follow a story, they must ensure the story will hold up against rigorous examination; especially by peers. Unfortunately, in the final analysis, Webb failed that test.
When controversy is involved, the facts of the message must be as air-tight as possible. If this kind of discipline is not followed faithfully, the messenger might end up killing the message.
Opinion News by D.T. Osborn
Edited by Tracy Blake and Cathy Milne
The Washington Post: Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says
The Huffington Post: Gary Webb Was Right
The Nation: ‘The New York Times’ Wants Gary Webb to Stay Dead
Featured and Top Images Courtesy of Eva Rinaldi’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Inset Image Courtesy of neilberrett’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License