Is Gary Webb an unreliable narrator?

Jeff Leen, a Missouri Honor medal winner and the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations, weighed in Friday about “Kill the Messenger,” the film some of you saw over the weekend.

Webb isn’t around to debate Leen on what he has to say here, but Leen’s warning about overreaching is really important. For example, in the film, Webb’s assertion that the CIA created the crack epidemic in L.A. is presented as valid, and it struck me as pretty far-fetched. Leen cites a later CIA “internal affairs” investigation that showed that, at worst, the CIA may have looked the other way while some of the people the agency was working with in Central America engaged in drug trafficking.

Another problem with the film, Leen says, is the way it depicts Webb’s editors as craven cowards for not standing behind him and the mainstream media as being motivated by jealousy in discrediting his reporting.

Some of these claims and counter-claims are difficult to sort out. But this is true, as Leen writes in the piece: “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” The work must be airtight, with zero wiggle room for debate. Because the people whose reputations are at stake can discredit you, if you’re even just teeny weeny bit wrong as an investigative reporter.

It’s an entertaining film, if you didn’t have a ringside seat to the actual events. It hews very closely to Gary Webb’s version of events. And he, unfortunately, might be what called in literature “the unreliable narrator.”

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6 Responses to Is Gary Webb an unreliable narrator?

  1. reedkath says:

    I forgot to thank Jared McNett for sending me this link, which I’d missed over the weekend. Thanks, Jared!

  2. Katherine, I wanted to ask you about your position on how movies clearly based on real events deal with important facts. As journalists we are interested in how the truth is used for people for their own purposes, and we must be. However, the creation of drama in feature films sometimes requires the suspension of relevant facts, of course. Does that, for you personally, take away from enjoyment of the film? Also, even if dramatic effect is not the primary objective of a film, isn’t the propagation of a a larger point sometimes aided immensely by the overlooking of smaller details? Even as I say this, the journalist in me recoils at that notion. I guess I just find the interplay between fact and fiction in dramas (and comedies) fascinating.

    • reedkath says:

      It is fascinating, but also troubling. Does the desire to entertain trump any responsibility to the facts? The criticism of the film has been that it hews too closely to Webb’s account, as laid out in “Dark Alliance.” But there are other perspective on his “facts,” as Jeff Leen’s piece illustrates. One could make the argument that the film does a rare thing: It make Webb a hero. And when you look at depictions of journalists in movies and on TV (“House of Cards” leaps to mind), there are very few positive depictions of journalists in fictional films, which have a wider audience than documentaries. So one could make the argument that in dispensing with some facts that complicate the narrative and make Webb less of a hero, the director brought to a wider audience a positive depiction of a journalist who paid dearly for what he did (right or wrong). In this age of blaming the media for everything, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I derived some enjoyment from the positive portrayal of Gary Webb.

  3. kenzpender says:

    When a movie is made that is based off of “real events,” people begin to think that the movie directly follows or even reflects what happened in real life. I think it’s hard for people to realize that if they want the actual story, they need to read about it themselves. I think this is one of the hardest and most important things that viewers should and don’t do. I’m sure Kill the Messenger is a great film, with gritty performances and enough action to keep you on the edge of your seat, but in the end, it won’t be and never intended to be (at least in my opinion) anything but a movie based on a guy who did something crazy. It isn’t a documentary.

  4. Kasia says:

    And here’s a criticism of the criticism of the criticism from a former AP reporter who apparently obtained and wrote about incriminating evidence against the Reagan’s National Security Council staff and the DEA in 1985:

    Journalists sure like to call each other hacks, huh?

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