Features & Columns

'Kill the Messenger' Reconsiders
Gary Webb's Legacy

Investigative journalist Gary Webb broke one of the Mercury News' biggest scoops ever.
It cost him his career, and eventually his life. Jeremy Renner's new film
reconsiders his epic legacy.
Gary Webb

This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive expose and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter's story is torn apart by the country's leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.

Kill the Messenger, an actual film coming soon to a theater near you, is the true story of investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb's story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.

After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb ditched the mainstream media in August 2004 to work for the alt-weekly Sacramento News & Review. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family—and some trenchant questions:

Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?

Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his memorial service a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.

But no.

Because here comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb; Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb's then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb's top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia and Robert Patrick. Directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series Homeland), the film opens in a "soft launch" across the country. It will open on Oct. 10 in Silicon Valley.

Members of Webb's immediate family—including his son Eric, who plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger. "The movie is going to vindicate my dad," he said.

For Renner—who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Hurt Locker—the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he'd played before. During a break in filming Mission Impossible 5, he spoke to SN&R about his choice to star in and co-produce Kill the Messenger.

"The story is important," said Renner. "It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.

"He was brave, he was flawed. I fell in love with Gary Webb... continue reading