Want to tell the truth as a writer? Be prepared to pay a priceby Steve Meissner
Gary Webb told the truth, and it cost him dearly.
Journalist Gary Webb could handle it. All it cost him was everything, and I mean that literally. Don’t take my word for it. Go see the movie Kill the Messenger that just came out; it’s about his life.
During my journalism travels, I got my shot at the big time in the late 1980s. I was hired by the Cleveland Plain Dealer to cover Ohio politics from its statehouse bureau in Columbus. It turned out that while I loved working for a big newspaper, I was repulsed by the blatant corruption in Ohio politics. I also missed the Sonoran Desert the way you pine for an ex-lover who still owns your heart. Finally, there was a major family issue that needed my attention. So I returned to Tucson, where my journalism career petered out with a whimper.
Before I left Ohio, I got to know Gary Webb. He was moving to Columbus to plow through the muck and mire of government. He was a crazy man, and I quickly developed a deep fondness for him. We socialized briefly, and I met his wife, a warm and beautiful woman who deeply loved her husband.
I lost touch with Gary after I returned to Arizona. He probably felt I was turning my back on truth-telling. In a sense, he was right. The people who ran the Arizona Daily Star had no interest in rocking the boat, and they crushed me on several occasions when I tried. But this is not about me. This is about a journalistic hero whose tale should be told in every journalism school in America.
Gary moved to California and won a Pulitzer Prize. Then he came out with an amazing story – which I instantly believed – about the CIA using drug sales to fund the right-wing Contras who were trying to overturn a leftist government in Nicaragua.
What I didn’t know until very recently was the fate that befell him.
His story was denigrated and trashed by the government, but that goes on all the time. His truly fatal error was in scooping the journalistic giants, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, etc. You see, Webb humiliated reporters who covered the CIA for the big boys. When that happens, a journalist has two choices. Follow the story and try to catch up, or trash the scoop-getting journalist’s reporting.
The biggies chose to trash Gary Webb. As a result, Webb’s stories were discredited, and his editors at the San Jose Mercury News walked back his reporting. It didn’t help that Gary had a testy relationship with those editors. The best reporters usually do.
His newspaper sent Gary to newspaper Siberia: one of their suburban bureaus. He was assigned to cover school board meetings and write features about county fairs and dancing dogs. He quit, only to find that no other newspaper would hire him.
Finally, after losing his career, he lost his wife and his home. He made careful plans to soften the blow for his loved ones. Then he ate a bullet at the age of 49. In honor of Gary Webb, I’m going to tell some truth to honor his memory.
Investigative reporting is difficult. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman made it look sexy and exciting in All the President’s Men. In fact, it’s a dreary business.
You comb over records like a pig hunting for that elusive truffle. You chase a lot of dead ends. Sometimes you drink too much in an effort to ply information out of sources. Other times you face skeptical editors who won’t run your story until you’ve proven every fact with airtight documentation.
That’s often a good thing, but sometimes it becomes an excuse not to rock the boat.
I once spent three months of weekends working in a county hospital’s emergency room as a volunteer. I cleaned up blood and vomit, watched people die. I also managed to clean out a toxic hospital leadership team, but not before they relentlessly attacked me and my reporting. I had to fight repeated rejections by my editors before they reluctantly agreed to run a story I wrote about a dam in Phoenix that would have wiped out an Indian tribe. On both occasions I was attacked by fellow journalists who mocked my stories.
But I never went through the hell that befell Gary Webb. That’s because he was a better journalist.
This is a complex issue. I could literally write a book about it, and still give the topic short shrift. So here’s the bottom line. Journalists like Gary Webb are rare, and there’s a reason. It’s risky and sometimes painful. You make a lot of powerful enemies. You risk the wrath not only of the people you cover, but also of the journalistic establishment. I’ve seen it time after time. In fact, there’s always a point during the development of a major story when you face criticism from your fellow journalists. It happened to me on several occasions, and I’m not worthy of carrying Gary Webb’s pen and notebook.
So if you decide to write a book that tells the unvarnished truth, beware the consequences. Because the world often can’t handle the truth, and all too often the messenger gets shot.
For more than three decades Steve Meissner has watched the Arizona political scene as a journalist, lobbyist, bureaucrat, and even as a legislative staff member. For nearly 20 years he was a reporter, editor and columnist for several publications, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Most of his newspaper career was spent at the Arizona Daily Star, where he was a reporter, editor and columnist, and taught journalism for more than a decade as an adjunct at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. He is the author of Cactus Caucus, a novel about Arizona’s legislative politics, which is available in Kindle format. He is currently working on a second novel about Arizona politics.