“Kill the Messenger” is very good movie fiction about an investigative story accused of being fictionalized.
But this is not a movie review. And the investigative reporting at the center of the film was not fiction—it just concluded more than it could prove.
So much has changed since the 1996 publication of “Dark Alliance” by Gary Webb for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. Taking a reader back to the first real investigative piece of journalism with a significant presence on a newspaper’s website is like taking Steve Jobs back to meet Alexander Graham Bell.
“Dark Alliance” contended that the CIA allowed Nicaraguan drug dealers to bring Colombian cocaine into the United States. According to the story, the drug dealers used the profit from those sales to fund the war fought by the Contra rebels, supported by the CIA, against the Nicaraguan government, which was propped up by Communists. Further, it contended that the cocaine shipments were the catalyst for a major outbreak of crack cocaine in American ghettos.
African-American leaders and politicians protested against the CIA and waved “I told you so” fingers. Other major news organizations, who had never been able to prove such a story, took the unusual step of dissecting another newspaper’s work. Other journalists concluded that the Mercury News’ reporting was thin and lacked critical attribution and proof. In other words—no smoking gun.
Their reports troubled Jerry Ceppos, Mercury News executive editor. For one thing, it was the first major online investigative effort by an American newspaper. The Mercury News posted the entire article online and many of the supporting documents. It also offered to mail (through the United State Postal Service) a CD of the story and documents to interested readers. This was cutting edge stuff for 1996.
As the fissures in Webb’s story began to emerge, Ceppos ordered a team of reporters and editors to do a post-mortem on “Dark Alliance.” In a front-page letter to readers published nearly 10 months after the series, Ceppos said the Mercury News team found the story’s conclusion over-reached the facts it reported; the newspaper had created a graphic that left a false impression; made an estimate of the cocaine traffic appear as a fact; and overly simplified complex information that ignored contrary facts.
Like many editors of that era, Ceppos has moved on to a life outside of the daily newspaper business. He was dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada-Reno and now is dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, where about 1,200 students study.
He has seen “Kill the Messenger” and groaned through the film’s inaccuracies. Some are typical Hollywood reaches (there is a rooftop conversation at the Mercury News and Ceppos was never on the roof of any newspaper building) and some are plain boneheaded (disgraced Webb ends up in the newspaper’s Cupertino bureau—a bureau that never existed).
But the key moment in the film provides the fulcrum for what really perplexed Ceppos. The movie depicts Ceppos’ post-mortem letter to the readers as the moment in which Webb is abandoned by craven editors who won’t back their reporter. In Ceppos’ mind, his letter was the essence of good journalism. “When you make a mistake, you let people know about it,” he said. A New York Times article on his front-page letter to the readers that called it a “highly unusual critique published in his own newspaper” made him sad.
“To this day it troubles me that self-criticism is described as ‘unusual.’ This was not the only story published that had flaws,” Ceppos said.
Today, Ceppos is the bridge between old-school, triple-check-your-facts reporting (that failed in the “Dark Alliance” instance) and training young journalists for a future in which stories going viral means moment-to-moment-transmissions of videos, not CDs in the mail.
Many of the students who take Ceppos’ media ethics class at LSU know about the “Dark Alliance” story. He talks about it for those who don’t know. He teaches them to avoid the snares of imprecise or inaccurate reporting by heeding the advice of well-known editor Reid McCluggage. “He used to talk about prosecuting a story. Going through every fact and seeing if it is correct,” Ceppos said.
Looking back to 1996, Ceppos sees nothing to regret in the publishing of his letter to the readers. “We didn’t have to run my column. If we had let things peter out, there might not have been a movie. But when you know something is wrong, you don’t have a choice.”
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.