Jim Witt

"Kill the Messenger" is the kind of movie that gives newspaper editors bad dreams

I don’t normally review movies in my column, but if you have a chance, go see “Kill the Messenger,” which opened Friday.

It’s an entertaining movie about investigative journalism, the international drug trade and government intrigue.

I was interested in seeing it because I know some of the people who were involved in the real-life story. But it’s a scenario that gives newspaper executive editors nightmares.

Jeremy Renner, who became a star in "The Hurt Locker,” plays investigative reporter Gary Webb, who worked for the San Jose Mercury News.

In 1996, Webb wrote a three-part series called "Dark Alliance,” featuring an explosive premise captured in the lead of his first story:

“For the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

“This drug network opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a city now known as the ‘crack’ capital of the world. The cocaine that flooded in helped spark a crack explosion in urban America.”

The three most influential papers in the country at the time — the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Washington Post — apparently were embarrassed by critics who accused them of missing the story and reacted by devoting resources to essentially knock it down.

The LA paper assigned 17 people to investigate the Mercury News series, and the resulting stories concluded that “the available evidence, based on an extensive review of court documents and more than 100 interviews in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Managua, fails to support any of those allegations.”

I had just been named executive editor of the Star-Telegram, and shortly after that our paper was purchased by Knight Ridder, which also owned the San Jose paper.

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I got to know Jerry Ceppos (played by Oliver Platt in the movie), the executive editor in San Jose.

The series and the fallout caused a major rift in San Jose’s newsroom and Ceppos ordered an internal review of the stories.

Ceppos concluded that the paper made some mistakes — oversimplifying how the crack cocaine epidemic in America grew, presenting only one side of conflicting evidence, and using imprecise language regarding CIA involvement.

He decided the stories did not meet his standards and said so in a “letter to our readers” published in the paper. He was awarded the Ethics in Journalism Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his actions to clarify the situation.

It’s not pleasant to write about stories in your newspaper that are later questioned, but it’s sometimes necessary in order to maintain the confidence of readers. I had to do it in a column about some of our reporting on Obamacare earlier this year.

Speaking of clarifications:

In my last column I wrote about drones — unmanned aircraft — and didn’t make it clear that the Federal Aviation Administration must pre-approve any flight for commercial or business purposes. Simply following the special rule that the FAA has for hobbyists isn’t enough, as they reminded me!

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