Review of Kill the Messenger

Schou, Nick. Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb. Nation Books, 2006.

When Gary Webb’s series “Dark Alliance” was published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, it set off what was easily the biggest journalistic controversy of the 90s. Nick Schou’s book gives a highly sympathetic picture of Webb, but may not satisfy all interests.

I became interested in Webb and his “Dark Alliance” series (DA below) a few years ago, and spent much time fishing around the internet trying to piece the story together, before finally reading Schou’s book. Schou book puts a lot of the story together, and provides some important new contributions as well, but I cannot recommend it as a complete introduction. In the end, Schou tries to do too much in too little space. Kill the Messenger is a combination of biography, journalism critique, and re-examination of the DA story, and that’s just too much ground to cover for a book that’s only a little over 200 pages. Schou’s sympathies also get in the way of the story sometimes, substituting discreet understatements for a straightforward narrative.

For those who want to know more about Webb’s life and career, the first and last two chapters are interesting and useful biography, heavy on anecdotes, but solidly based on interviews with Webb’s family and friends. Schou’s description of Webb’s decline and suicide is plainly but movingly told. And for those who like gloves-off writing, his curb-stomping of the conspirati who claim that Webb was murdered is good clean fun.

For those interested in the journalism, the book gives a detailed and fascinating account of the complex relations between Webb and his editors. In most magazine and journal articles I read on DA, Webb’s editors refused all comment. Schou, however, managed to interview some central people, including executive editor Jerry Ceppos, Dawn Garcia, the editor who worked directly with Webb on DA, and reporter Pamela Kramer, who worked on many of the DA follow up stories with Webb. As a result, “Mea Culpa”, the chapter which deals with how Webb left the Mercury News after the story fell apart, is fascinating reading and adds important information to the story.

The chapter “Feeding Frenzy”, which deals with LA Times, Washington Post, and New York Times coverage of the story, is much weaker, partly because of Schou’s sympathy, which leads him to understate things in a way that can make it hard to understand what the coverage really said, and partly because Schou sometimes shows a hostility which seems almost personal. He is especially hard on LA Times reporter Jesse Katz, for instance, in a way the text doesn’t seem to explain or justify.

Despite this, Schou is not as partisan as some others, who lambast everyone at the big three papers who wrote about “Dark Alliance.” In an interview with NY Times reporter Tim Golden for example, although Schou is determined to extract some concession that Golden was too trusting of the CIA, he doesn’t try to hide Golden’s outstanding qualifications and accomplishments, or the absurdity of what Golden went through after he criticized Webb’s story.

Lack of detail for a complex story is also a problem. One chapter I had a really hard time figuring out was “Drug Stories” which deals with how Webb put together the series. This includes a long description of the travails of Martha Honey, Tony Avirgan, and Daniel Sheehan, but never explains how they fit into the story. I still don’t get this. I also found the chapter about Ron Lister very hard to understand. This chapter is where Schou tries to build his case that DA was basically right about some things, but there’s just not enough detail in the book to make it convincing or even easily comprehensible.

These defects take off a star. It loses another star for no index; it may be a short book, but there’s more than enough characters to merit an index. I must punish the cheapskate publisher.

[Postscript] I wrote this review over three years ago, and after reading more on the subject, I have a much harsher view of Schou’s attempts to find some substance to Webb’s claims. But that is a post for another day.

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