In This Drug War, Truth Was the First Casualty

In songs, books, and now movies, the fable of Dark Alliance rolls on.


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Jeremy Renner delivers a fine performance as Gary Webb, but the movie is a lie.

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of Focus Features

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A decade after the San Jose Mercury News first wrote about how the U.S. government helped spread crack cocaine across black America, that story hit the Billboard charts. I’d been worrying about something like that for years.

On the 2006 song “My Favorite Mutiny,” Oakland’s The Coup alluded to this reporting in a roster of depressing African-American milestones that also included Rosa Parks being sent to the back of the bus, ghetto author Iceberg Slim pimping out of his Cadillac, and proto-rapper Gil-Scott Heron trading music for heroin. To that distressing list, Boots Riley added the moment when “the CIA told Ricky Ross to put crack in a sack,” a reference to the legendary Los Angeles drug dealer at the center of the Merc’s story.

By 2008, the infamy of alleged CIA drug dealing had outstripped even that of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments in a song by the rapper Murs, then a member of East Oakland’s Living Legends hip-hop collective:

Genocide, the deliberate extermination,
Of a race, culture, or an entire nation;

Centuries ago, they brought us here on a boat,
Enslaved us, beat us, til our spirit was broke;
Then they gave us freedom, and a little bit of hope,
Then they killed our leaders, and they gave us dope;
Crack, from the CIA, by way of Nicaragua,
Shipped to Rick Ross, he’s the black godfather ...

Now this tale is reaching its widest audience yet in the new movie Kill the Messenger, the story of how the late Merc reporter Gary Webb uncovered the Central Intellegence Agency’s role in the spread of crack cocaine, only to be taken down by the nation’s media establishment for daring to challenge the spy agency.

It’s an edgy, touching movie. But it’s also a lie.

The act of editing is conspicuously absent in Kill the Messenger. In the movie, we see Webb tack photos to the wall of his Sacramento office, meet with shadowy sources in California, D.C., and Central America, and then pen his opus. He emails it back to San Jose, begs his editor not to mess it up, and, voila, soon his children are viewing a website depicting the CIA logo superimposed over a photo of a black man smoking crack cocaine.

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