Gary Webb, Jon Stewart, and the Stories That Are Too True to Tell

The real reason that people call funnyman Stewart "the most trusted news source in America" is that he's an outsider. He rarely worries about offending his journalistic colleagues or angering high-level news sources who won't return his phone calls -- because he doesn't really have any.
10/13/2014 01:57 pm ET Updated Dec 13, 2014
Television host Jon Stewart reacts during a taping of  "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," in New York, on Wednesday Nov. 30,
Television host Jon Stewart reacts during a taping of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," in New York, on Wednesday Nov. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Brad Barket)

I cut out on my Saturday chores this weekend to spend a couple of hours watching Kill the Messenger, the big-screen re-telling of the sad story of the California journalist Gary Webb. It was Webb (pictured at top) who poked a giant hornet's nest in 1996 when he reported that the CIA turned a blind eye to government-backed right-wing rebels in Nicaragua who raised millions of dollars by shipping cocaine to U.S. cities at the dawn of the crack epidemic.

That article -- dinged up but never disproved in the 18 years since it appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News -- was a huge indictment of American policies in the Reagan era. But the much bigger story here, and the one that still echoes in the age of Obama, is how "the establishment" conspired to crush Webb like so much roadkill, and how journalists from the nation's elite news organizations practically tripped over each over in a race to do the bidding of the U.S. intelligence community to trash Webb's reporting. The reality is that while some of the story's packaging was a bit overhyped (mostly the fault not of Webb but his bosses), the contents of the package were affirmed again and again, first by the CIA inspector general and as recently as this weekend in some solid reporting in The Huffington Post (here and here.)

You could call this Hollywood redemption song for Webb -- played superbly by the talented Jeremy Renner --"bittersweet," except the aftertaste mostly carries the sting of a raw lemon, and no sugar. The film must carry the anchor weight of knowing that Webb eventually committed suicide a decade ago, money-troubled and still heartbroken over the fact that the Beltway establishment had killed his career in journalism, the only thing in life he wanted to do. There is one line from Kill the Messenger that echoes as you walk quietly out of the theater: The government source who tries vainly to warn Webb away, saying, "Some stories are just too true to tell."

One reason that line resonates is that you can see, in hindsight, how the late 1990s were a moment when the fulcrum of the role that a free press can, and should, play in a true democracy starting tipping -- and tipping in a dangerous direction. The prior era of Watergate, ABSCAM, and a bias toward questioning authority was all but dead. After Webb was wrongly discredited, the list of "stories too true to tell" kept growing longer and longer: That invading Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, that Wall Street's astronomical profits of the 2000s were built upon a bed of fraud, and that "homeland security" had become an excuse to spy upon law-abiding American citizens.

That's not to say there aren't scores of next-generation Gary Webbs, toiling away in newsrooms large and small. There are, but increasingly -- in a time when investigative reporting is shrinking and power and influence is more consolidated than ever -- a smaller number of groupthink-addled players get to decide what makes really big news, and which stories are "too true to tell." That inside-the-Beltway mind-meld is no accident -- it starts on the playing fields of elite universities and metastasizes over lunch at the Capitol Grille or drinks at Georgetown or Upper West Side cocktail parties. One drug fuels this lifestyle: a drug called "access." Lose access to the people in power, it is believed, and you lose everything.

Gary Webb, in the backwaters of northern California, didn't have access. That didn't hinder his work. To the contrary, that made him a great journalist. He wasn't scared about offending anyone at the CIA, because he didn't know anyone at the CIA.

Like most drugs, the people in D.C., New York and L.A. who are most addled by access have fleeting moments of clarity, when they're desperate to kick the habit. We learned of a remarkable instance of this just the other day, with a mind-boggling report that NBC News -- in an effort to revive its flagging Meet the Press franchise on Sundays and replace the struggling David Gregory -- invested considerable effort in unsuccessful effort to woo not another journalist but rather a comedian with loose journalistic overtones: Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. The timing was ironic, because the Stewart/MTP saga is actually the logical conclusion of the story that started with Gary Webb in 1996: We have finally reached a point where we can no longer trust journalism to the journalists.

Let me explain, because in their muddled minds I don't even think the honchos at NBC understood exactly why they wanted Stewart. They knew that he appealed to young demographic that doesn't now watch traditional news shows, so much that many young people in college or in their 20s often say that Stewart or his late-night kinfolk -- Stephen Colbert, John Oliver or Bill Maher -- are where they mainly get their information about politics and current events. The NBC execs probably think that's because these guys are funny... and sure, that helps.

But the real reason that people call funnyman Stewart "the most trusted news source in America" is that he's an outsider. He rarely worries about offending his journalistic colleagues or angering high-level news sources who won't return his phone calls -- because he doesn't really have any. When a senator like John McCain or Chuck Schumer says something dumb, the first thought that goes through the head of Stewart and his ace staff isn't to get their high-powered pal on the phone to help them weasel their way out of it. Instead, it's to find the tape from two years ago when the senator said the exact opposite thing. And when Stewart does attack journalists -- as he did post-financial crisis on his epic takedown of CNBC -- it is always for being sycophants to the powerful, not because they spoke truth to power. Someone like Stewart or Colbert wouldn't have tried to destroy Gary Webb -- they are Gary Webb, just cloaked in humor.

NBC's talks with Stewart seem like a bizarre plea for help, and in the end they couldn't make this happen (ironically, they went with an insider's insider in Chuck Todd). Maybe that's for the best. For one thing, one of Stewart's few flaws is that he can pull his punches (with the torture-enabler John Yoo, for example) during interview segments... and that says something: That even he struggles when he has face-to-face access. But wouldn't it just be better if -- instead of replacing them with jokesters -- actual journalists get back to doing journalism?

How can that happen? Newsrooms are still reeling in the 2010s, lacking a for-profit model that pays for real news, but in the search for solutions let's all hope that more funding -- probably donations to nonprofits and even "crowdsourced" reporting by concerned citizens, and that's okay -- will go toward investigative reporting, the kind of journalism where the reporter buries his nose in a dense stack of documents and not in the lap of your elected official. If the only journalist left standing is that guy eating a $26 cheeseburger with a White House official at The Palm, we're all screwed.

But every journalist, no matter what she or he covers, can stand for a lot less of the one word that the media critic and professor Jay Rosen has so aptly used to describe the current affliction of our profession: "savviness." That's a reference to newspeople who are too comfortable with showing off their brilliance in knowing how power is exercised, but who never express umbrage at the way their sources/buddies abuse that power.

Let me give you a quick example from just the other day here in Philadelphia. The state agency that oversees city public schools decided to cancel its labor contract with the teachers' union and cut $44 million out of their health insurance to balance the budget. This public body pulled this off in a shocking shroud of secrecy -- minimally meeting the legal requirements with a small legal notice buried in the Sunday classifieds, with nothing on its website and no word to reporters until moments before the vote.

Afterword, I actually read newspaper editorials and even heard from a journalist or two that the move was savvy, not only because the teacher-benefit cuts were deserved (because when you whip the American worker 98 times, I guess they 99th time they had it coming?) but because if the agency hadn't moved in secrecy, the teachers might have been able to block the move in court.

Seriously? Since when it is the job of the journalist to care more about the outcome than about the process? Breaking a major union contract in a room reeking of deception might be a "savvy" thing to do, but it's not something that can be morally justified. If you're not against all forms of lying -- even, or perhaps especially, when a high-ranking official claims that "the end justifies the means" -- and against excessive secrecy by government agencies, then by definition whatever the hell you are doing, it is not journalism.

It's hardly shocking that some of the exact same news people who so gleefully trashed Gary Webb in 1996 are the folks who went after NSA leaker Ed Snowden and his media contacts like Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in 2013-14. They are insiders who not only want to be the gatekeepers, but who want that gate to be closed most of the time. The people banging hard on the outside of the gate- - whether it's Gary Webb or Glenn Greenwald or even Jon Stewart or John Oliver -- are a threat to their influence. But it's a deserved threat, one they've brought on themselves.

There was one other irony that struck me after seeing Kill the Messenger, and that involved the opening scene of the film. It showed Webb reporting his last big story right before the CIA and drug trafficking -- about law enforcement misusing asset forfeiture laws to take millions of dollars from folks who in a number of cases aren't even charged with a crime. When I got home from the movie, this exact story -- about the abuses of asset forfeiture -- was on the front page of the Washington Post, still festering, still a black mark on American society, 18 years after Webb reported it.

How many other stories like this are bubbling under the brownfields of modern American journalism -- not because they're too hot but because they're too true?