Opinion - The messengers have been killed

The country could use more reporters like Gary Webb and Kathy Scruggs

Scores of journalists have been sacrificed by their bosses and employers. I can count about four dozen among scribes I have known. A few have died, and all have had their careers wrecked. They fell through the trapdoor when they got too close to the truth. And they were often betrayed by the newspapers where they worked.

I only met Gary Webb once. I only talked to Kathy Scruggs once.

Scruggs won't have a memorial to her work in Atlanta. She was the lead Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter covering the 1996 Olympics bombing. Early suspicions were aimed at Richard Jewell, the security guard who had first alerted authorities to a backpack at Centennial Olympic Park. For Scruggs, it was the scoop of a lifetime — one that crumbled three months after the bombing when Jewell was exonerated.

The AJC had vilified Jewell in every conceivable way, and the fault for that was with the top brass, not a pawn like Scruggs. If the AJC and its owner, Cox Enterprises, had had a shred of ethics and morality, they would have given Jewell an apology and some money. He was forced to sue the company, as well as CNN, NBC, and others. All of the defendants settled — except Cox, which went after Jewell with a vengeance. Scruggs didn't want to settle the case but it was Cox's decision to not back down. The media giant tossed Scruggs into the buzz saw during the litigation. Her life turned to hell and ended with a morphine overdose.

Gary Webb will have a memorial, of sorts, in Atlanta. Focus Features is filming Webb's story here — titled "Kill the Messenger" and starring Jeremy Renner. That said, Webb's story was written, ultimately in his own blood, in California where he worked for the San Jose Mercury-News, owned by Knight-Ridder.

I had talked several times to Webb, a Pulitzer Prize winner, in the early 1990s on stories involving cocaine trafficking. In 1996, he alerted me to an upcoming three-part series by him, "Dark Alliance." The heart of the story had begun a decade earlier in what became called the Iran-Contra scandal. The Reagan Administration had bartered missiles to Iran in exchange for freeing American hostages held in Lebanon. The money paid by Iran was shipped to CIA clients in Nicaragua called Contras, who were trying to topple the leftist government there. Webb's series linked the flood of Contra cocaine into America, particularly the crack epidemic in cities such as Los Angeles.

That's all documented now — including Ollie North's own diaries detailing $14 million in drug money being used by the Contras, with his and the CIA's blessings. Since the 1980s, a few courageous journalists have peeled off layers of Iran-Contra. But Webb brought the cocaine element into focus.

When Webb called me, I was an editor for the alternative newspaper in Tampa. I was astounded to learn that other Knight-Ridder papers, particularly the Miami Herald (where cocaine was always a top story) had declined to run "Dark Alliance." So, I published it, the only paper in Florida to print the series.

As the movie title suggests, Webb garnered derision, not plaudits. Three mighty newspapers, which had missed the story and were pissed, excoriated Webb.

Nick Schou, whose biography of Webb, Kill the Messenger, serves as the basis for the film, states what happened in LA Weekly: "The New York Times, Washington Post, and L.A. Times each obscured basic truths of Webb's 'Dark Alliance' series." ... "Much of the Times' attack was clever misdirection, but it ruined Webb's reputation."

Webb was demoted, and ultimately could find only part-time work at a small weekly. His finances were ruined and his family tattered. He wrote suicide notes to his children and killed himself on Dec. 10, 2004.

Robert Parry, one of the pioneer reporters on Iran-Contra, makes the case — as do many others, including me — that the decline of journalism is ominous for democracy. "The Reagan guys were smart and aggressive at playing the media," he told me. "Anyone who went after them paid a price. The journalists who did well were those who acted like Pavlov's dogs. They would bare their teeth and go after other reporters who were trying to tell the truth."

The already pathetic state of the media is now much worse. Says media scholar Robert McChesney: "Contemporary commercial journalism is essentially a mix of crime stories, celebrity profiles, consumer news pitched at the upper middle class, and warmed over press releases."

In the last decade, the news media, especially newspapers, have imploded under the weight of tremendous debt and competition with digital sources. And, most importantly, they have fired so many of their best journalists that they no longer have the compelling stories and content that used to entice people to newspapers.

One of the most serious losses in this period has been investigative reporting. What is generally called "investigative" today is simply public documents and very little else. While good, it is not the material that used to create groundbreaking stories like "Dark Alliance." Private First Class Bradley Manning first offered classified government documents to the New York Times and Washington Post and they declined. The story was essentially put out by WikiLeaks. And in the last week, the major disclosures on U.S. government surveillance were primarily broken in the U.S. online version of the Guardian, a British newspaper.

There aren't many with the guts of Webb and Scruggs who are willing to pay the cost just so people in media boardrooms can get fat. The messengers have been silenced.

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