Contrary to Leen's column, "Kill the Messenger" is actually a fairly honest portrayal of what happened when Webb exposed the consequences of the Contra cocaine smuggling after the drugs reached the United States. One channel fed into an important Los Angeles supply chain that produced crack.
But Leen tells you that "The Hollywood version of [Webb's] story -- a truth-teller persecuted by the cowardly and craven mainstream media -- is pure fiction."
He then lauds the collaboration of the Big Three newspapers in destroying Webb and creating such enormous pressure on Webb's newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, that the executive editor Jerry Ceppos threw his own reporter under the bus. To Leen, this disgraceful behavior represented the best of American journalism.
"The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, in a rare show of unanimity, all wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.
"Gradually, the Mercury News backed away from Webb's scoop. The paper transferred him to its Cupertino bureau and did an internal review of his facts and his methods. Jerry Ceppos, the Mercury News's executive editor, wrote a piece concluding that the story did not meet the newspaper's standards -- a courageous stance, I thought."
"Courageous"? What an astounding characterization of Ceppos's act of career cowardice.
But Leen continues by explaining his role in the Webb takedown. After all, Leen was then the drug expert at the Miami Herald, which like the San Jose Mercury News was a Knight Ridder newspaper. Leen says his editors sought his opinion about Webb's "Dark Alliance" series.
Though acknowledging that he was "envious" of Webb's story when it appeared in 1996, Leen writes that he examined it and found it wanting, supposedly because of alleged overstatements. He proudly asserts that because of his critical analysis, the Miami Herald never published Webb's series.
But Leen goes further. He falsely characterizes the U.S. government's later admissions contained in inspector general reports by the CIA and Justice Department. If Leen had bothered to read the reports thoroughly, he would have realized that the reports actually establish that Webb -- and indeed Kerry, Barger and I -- grossly understated the seriousness of the Contra-cocaine problem which began at the start of the Contra movement in the early 1980s and lasted through the decade until the end of the war.
Leen apparently assumes that few Americans will take the trouble to study and understand what the reports said. That is why I published a lengthy account of the U.S. government's admissions -- both after the reports were published in 1998 and as "Kill the Messenger" was hitting the theaters in October. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Sordid Contra-Cocaine Saga."]
Playing It Safe
Instead of diving into the reeds of the CIA and DOJ reports, Leen does what he and his mainstream colleagues have done for the past three decades, try to minimize the seriousness of the Reagan administration tolerating cocaine trafficking by its Contra clients and even obstructing official investigations that threatened to expose this crime of state.
Instead, to Leen, the only important issue is whether Gary Webb's story was perfect. But no journalistic product is perfect. There are always more details that a reporter would like to have, not to mention compromises with editors over how a story is presented. And, on a complex story, there are always some nuances that could have been explained better. That is simply the reality of journalism, the so-called first draft of history.
But Leen pretends that it is the righteous thing to destroy a reporter who is not perfect in his execution of a difficult story -- and that Gary Webb thus deserved to be banished from his profession for life, a cruel punishment that impoverished Webb and ultimately drove him to suicide in 2004.
But if Leen is correct -- that a reporter who takes on a very tough story and doesn't get every detail precisely correct should be ruined and disgraced -- what does he tell his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, whose heroic Watergate reporting included an error about whether a claim regarding who controlled the White House slush fund was made before a grand jury.
While Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein were right about the substance, they were wrong about its presentation to a grand jury. Does Leen really believe that Woodward and Bernstein should have been drummed out of journalism for that mistake? Instead, they were lionized as heroes of investigative journalism despite the error -- as they should have been.