Movie News & Reviews

“Kill the Messenger” subject Gary Webb cut journalistic teeth alongside TNT reporter

Gary Webb always made me laugh.

Thanks to the new film “Kill the Messenger,” which opened in theaters nationwide this week, the world has another opportunity to remember him as the hard-nosed investigative reporter who blew the lid off of a 1980s cocaine-Contra-CIA connection in his 1996 “Dark Alliance” newspaper series — and paid an awful price for it.

His series in the San Jose Mercury News was scrutinized by national media, and his conclusions were questioned. His paper disowned him and he left the daily newspaper business.

But I knew Gary a lifetime ago, when we were both student journalists during the late 1970s at Northern Kentucky University.

I was co-editor of the student paper, The Northerner. Gary was our music critic. I was one of The Northerner’s “serious journalists,” who pontificated from the editorial page and helped cover some pretty delicious college administration scandals.

And Gary?

He was the guy who set the ceiling of our newspaper office on fire while playing with flammable materials and a cigarette lighter, then somehow smooth-talked his way out of trouble during an arson investigation.

As a critic, he was an iconoclast who took pleasure in skewering the popular music of the 1970s and infuriating our student audience.

He regularly referred to Bachman-Turner Overdrive (with hits like “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “Takin’ Care of Business”) as Bachman-Turner Overweight. He dissed the popular Average White Band (“Pick Up the Pieces”), a Scottish group that freely mimicked black American funk, with lines like “You don’t see the O’Jays wearing serapes, do you?”

Yeah. Gary was offensive. And funny. And the kind of writer who knew how to hit the sweet spots, letting words ooze across a page like honey.

His musical tastes ran to the artsy. He was passionate about Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music (“Love Is the Drug”). He took me to my first and only Ramones concert — light years before most people had even heard of them.

I can still picture Gary driving his classic British sports car up to the decaying, insect-infested old house that served as The Northerner office. He’d park on the lawn, unfold himself from the car and saunter in, while lighting up his trademark unfiltered Camel cigarette.

We all spent too many nights when we should have been working on the paper playing air hockey or pinball, hanging out in the bar across the street, or arguing about music, films and politics.

We were studying journalism in the wake of Watergate and were all confident, the way only 20-somethings can be, that we would all slay our own dragons and have Pulitzers in our back pockets in no time.

If you had asked me back then, I would never have picked Gary as the one among us who would first make that dream a reality.

He quit school, just inches away from graduation to take a job at the local Kentucky Post, part of the Scripps-Howard chain. It was there that he was bitten by the “serious journalist” bug, digging up dirt on Kentucky’s powerful coal industry.

From there, Gary moved to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he took on the state medical board, and then to the San Jose Mercury News, where he and others on the staff were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their work reporting on the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The Northerner staff had been a tight little group in college. I attended Gary’s wedding in 1979, but, as often happens, we all lost touch with each other over the years.

It wasn’t until some time in the early 1990s that I crossed paths again with Gary, when we both showed up at a conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors held in Portland. He was an honored guest speaker. I was scribbling notes in the audience.

I went up to him after his presentation and he greeted me with a gigantic hug. He introduced me to a few of his pals – important journalists from impressive national newspapers – and we all went out for dinner and drinks.

At the time, I was working for the now-defunct Bellevue Journal-American, a small operation without a travel budget. I had paid my own way to Portland, bunking with an old friend to avoid a hotel bill.

Once Gary heard that, he quickly grabbed my dining and bar tab.

“I’ll just put it on the paper’s expense account,” he said with a wink – another Gary trademark.

When the “Dark Alliance” series hit in 1996, I remember reading it first as an incredible piece of journalism. Then I read it again when I saw the byline and realized it was the work of my old college buddy.

The next time I heard from Gary, it was a few years after the publication of “Dark Alliance” – after the national firestorm that erupted over the series had driven him out of daily journalism.

Gary called me to talk about a local story I’d written for The News Tribune that he found online. He was interested in getting some background for a freelance story he was working on about racial profiling by law enforcement. (His “Driving While Black” appeared in Esquire Magazine in 1999.)

I asked him what he was doing, careerwise, and he seemed almost embarrassed to say he was out of newspapers, working as an investigator for the state of California. In typical Gary fashion, he put a brave spin on his career change, but I could tell that he was hurting.

We talked for a bit about “Dark Alliance.” Our phone conversation took place not long after another journalism scandal had erupted, over stories published in 1998 by the Cincinnati Enquirer, attacking the Chiquita banana company. One of the reporters on that story was eventually fired — and prosecuted — for illegally hacking into corporate voice mails for information.

Gary said, “They’re doing the same thing to that Chiquita guy that they did to me. They’re hanging him out to dry.”

I assured him then that I believed every word of “Dark Alliance.” And I still do.

One December day in 2004, I awoke to read in The News Tribune that my old friend was dead. A suicide.

After recovering from the shock, a sense of deep personal regret crept over me. I had known what was happening to Gary, as he went through the national media wringer. Eventually his own newspaper buckled under the pressure, removing him from the follow-up stories and publishing a “mea culpa” written by the Mercury News executive editor.

Even though I knew, I never raised my voice publicly, as a fellow journalist, in support of him. I wish I had.

I suppose my excuse is that while Gary was swaggering across the national stage, I was busy being the mom of a toddler — consumed by the competing demands of motherhood and journalism.

In retrospect, that's a poor excuse for failing to come to the defense of an old friend. But it's the only one I've got.

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