There’s a great scene at the end of “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 Hollywood version of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s years-long unraveling of the Watergate scandal. It features a teletype machine cranking out headline after headline, with the last one reporting the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The ceaseless tapping hammers home an unspoken message in the movie, which ends two years before Nixon stepped down, with editor Ben Bradlee famously telling his reporters to “rest up 15 minutes, then get your asses back in gear.” The work of a watchdog never ends.
The fragility of the whole investigation into the break-in and the subsequent cover-up shows how much the veracity of the news depends on the guts not only of reporters but also of their editors and publishers. “Woodstein,” as Woodward and Bernstein were jokingly known, never would have nailed Nixon had they not had the support of an editor with an iron backbone willing to stand up to the White House, which used both anonymous leaks and on-the-record denials to try to kill the story.
That editor, Bradlee, passed away on Oct. 21 at the age of 93, which is too bad, because America needs the type of journalistic guts he embodied, now more than ever.
A case in point involves another movie now in theaters, “Kill the Messenger,” which is based in part on my 2006 biography of investigative reporter Gary Webb. In 1996, Webb unloaded a three-part series for The San Jose Mercury-News alleging that the Central Intelligence Agency helped spark America’s crack cocaine epidemic by enabling drug traffickers tied to the Nicaraguan Contras to ship into the country and use the proceeds to fund their insurgency against the Sandinista government. Published on the Mercury-News’ website, thereby making it available to all, the series, “Dark Alliance,” became one of the first viral news pieces of the Internet era. As with Watergate, the story led to furious denials from anonymous government sources — only this time The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post rallied strenuously to defend the feds.
All three papers published lengthy rebuttals to Webb’s stories, dismissing them as the work of an irresponsible journalist who bent the facts to fit his thesis, thus empowering conspiracy theorists, particularly in the African-American community, which long suspected the U.S. government of complicity in the crack trade. Never mind that a subsequent report released by the CIA at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal admitted to much wider collaboration with agency-affiliated Contra-sympathizing coke peddlers than Webb ever claimed.
“Kill the Messenger,” which stars Jeremy Renner as Webb, depicts the withering media attacks that forced Webb from journalism and may have contributed to his eventual suicide in 2004. In response to the film, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times recently published stories acknowledging that, in hindsight, their attacks on Webb were overkill and that history had vindicated his basic premise. The Washington Post, on the other hand, published a scathing op-ed asserting that Webb was a fraud and commending his editor at the time, Jerry Ceppos, as “courageous” for pulling Webb off the CIA beat and authoring a letter to readers backing off the story.
As a reporter who covered Webb’s story and the controversy that followed, I happened to be in a position to investigate the drug ring he exposed. One of its members was Ronald Lister, a cop-turned-arms-merchant who sold guns to crack dealers who flew to Central America at the behest of ex-CIA agents, who hired him to provide security services to the Salvadoran military and death squad founder Roberto D’Aubuisson. One of Lister’s business partners at the time was Bill Nelson, a retired CIA deputy director of operations. I had to go to court to force the agency to hand over files on Nelson’s relationship to Lister, most of which remain classified to protect U.S. national security. And that was just the findings of one reporter working for a small alt weekly in Southern California. Imagine what even three of the 17 reporters The Los Angeles Times assigned to destroy Webb could have done.
It gives cause to wonder what would have happened if Bradlee rather than Ceppos had been Webb’s editor. For one thing, most of the flak Webb caught involved hyperbole that had been aided and abetted by his editors — chief among them the story’s logo, which featured the image of a crack smoker superimposed on the CIA’s official seal. Had Ceppos stood by Webb and permitted him to continue his work and had other newspapers objectively worked to advance his reporting, the true flaw of “Dark Alliance” — that it radically understated the extent of the CIA’s ties to Contra drug traffickers —wouldn’t have come out only when the CIA decided to confess its sins.
But of course, Ceppos, who somehow managed to win an ethics in journalism award from the Society of Professional Journalists for throwing Webb under the bus, was no Bradlee. Investigative reporting is difficult, dangerous work, and it has become something of a lost art form in mainstream American reporting, which is why whistleblowers such as former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden don’t trust American media institutions to report their secrets. Instead, Snowden looked abroad to find a reliably gutsy journalist, then–Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, to help bring to light what he knew.
I recently reached Greenwald by telephone (after four mysterious click-click-click disconnections) at his home in Brazil to ask him if he saw a similarity between what happened to Webb and more recent media attacks on whistleblowers like Snowden and Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame who came under fire from U.S. officials for sharing government secrets.
“The established media in the U.S. is extremely close to the government and will react the same way the government does,” he told me. In the wake of Greenwald’s reporting on Snowden’s revelations, he, like Webb, was subjected to scathing personal attacks in the press, most notably from The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, who authored the most egregious assaults on Webb’s credibility after “Dark Alliance.”
“The government doesn’t even have to carry out the attacks, because the media will do that for them,” Greenwald told me. “You saw that with Gary Webb — going after him personally and ganging up on him — and you see the same thing happening today.”
Greenwald recently co-founded The Intercept, an independently funded investigative reporting enterprise. Webb is an “inspiration” for a new generation of whistleblowers and muckraking reporters, according to Greenwald.
“We are trying to follow in his footsteps not only because the reporting he did was so important and fearless,” he says, “but how vindictive the way the CIA and media reacted underscores how urgent it is to shine a light on what they are doing.”
Unfortunately, America cannot afford to depend on anarchist hackers like Assange or the occasional disillusioned spook such as Snowden to protect our democracy from corruption or abuse. Instead we need a well-functioning and -funded press that employs journalists as fearless as Webb and editors like Bradlee who are willing to carry water for their reporters rather than for the government.