By Lionel Rolfe
I surprised myself by how much the movie “Kill the Messenger” affected me. I hadn’t gone to it expecting that it would upset me. I wasn’t a close friend of Gary Webb, the journalist whose story the movie was based on. But I had made a couple of calls at his request, trying to get him a job. He was desperate after the San Jose Mercury-News dropped him when he published his powerful series, “Dark Alliance.”
At the end of the ‘60s, I did a stint as a police reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle—and then in 1981 Chronicle Books published my book Literary L.A. and in the mid-‘90s I wrote a few op-ed columns for the paper.
I had knocked around with some of the best of the ‘60s journalists in San Francisco. I hung out a bit with Warren Hinckle, editor of Rampart Magazine, he of the infamous eye patch. I dealt a few times with Bob Scheer, one of the bright spots of the Los Angeles Times during its days of glory under publisher Otis Chandler and was much awed by his talents. I was proud to count Dave McQueen, who along with Scoop Nisker made KSAN radio the first of the “underground FM stations,” one of my good friends. KSAN never really was “underground”— it was owned by Metromedia, now long swallowed up in some other corporate behemoth. But I had partied with the likes of Janis Joplin because of my friendship with McQueen.
Sometime in the mid ‘60s I worked for the Livermore Independent, a paper whose editor, Dana McGaugh, was very old school. Livermore was the home of UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Radiation Laboratory and it is said as a result there were at least 1,000 readers of the paper who were physicists. All this in a town of only 30,000 people. Most worked at the Rad Lab. And ironically, or maybe not so ironically, most of them were adamantly against the war in Vietnam, just like the paper was.
The editor was Dana McGaugh, a pint-sized Irishman who had written a biography of Parnell, the Irish revolutionary, and when I was having trouble writing a story, he’d come up behind me and order me downstairs to the bar underneath the paper’s cityroom. He said I would write better if I did. Funny thing, he was right.
McGaugh was a heroic drinker of the old school and he didn’t live much later than his 40s as a result. But he was a unique force—a fearless journalist who believed the job of a journalist was, as Mark Twain wrote, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
One of my colleagues at The Independent was Pete Carey, who later went on to work at the San Jose Mercury-News, a few miles to the south, where he has been ever since. It was he who later, much later, put me in direct contact with Webb, hoping I could help him in some way. All three of us had partook of the drink of the passionate journalist.
Webb was the journalist who wrote the story in the Mercury-News in the ‘90s of how Ronald Reagan’s used his minions and the CIA to flood the Los Angeles ghettoes with crack cocaine, to produce cash and other support for the death squads in Nicaragua fighting against the Sandinistas. Pete asked me to talk to Webb, telling him what I knew of the lay of the land.
I took a special interest in Webb’s story. He was blacklisted. I had been blacklisted for a spell in the ‘60s by the California Newspaper Publishers Association because when I was 16 I wrote for the communist People’s World—home, by the way, to the original columns of the great bard Woody Guthrie.
After Livermore, I couldn’t get a regular newspaper job anywhere until I walked into the offices of theNewhall Signal, owned by Scott Newhall, the great pioneer editor of the Chronicle in 1968.
Newhall hired me precisely because my subversive past. It turned out Newhall’s father had been president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce when Harry Bridges shut down San Francisco with this country’s only successful general strike, which occurred in 1934. He came to deeply respect Bridges—and thus did a genuine member of the California ruling class become good friends with a real live commie revolutionary. The outlines of the historic labor agreement between Bridges and Newhall was one that traded job security and good pay for a few skilled men, and in return they would stop opposing automation.
That doesn’t mean Scott Newhall was a communist—far from it. He was a swashbuckling pioneer newspaperman who wrote in grand Edwardian prose and loved Mark Twain, the great California Bohemian. But he respected people who thought and fought for their ideals. He respected truth above all, and saw journalists as belonging to a kind of priesthood, carrying aloft torches of truth told fearlessly and well. He believed that literature and journalism should be one. I’m also sure that Newhall and McGaugh would have formed some sort of brotherhood, and Webb was clearly part of the tribe. There was an extended tribe, in those days, of journalists heavily influenced by the counter culture which in turn had really been created by the war in Vietnam. The Bay Area was home to many of them.
I guess I wanted to help Webb find his Scott Newhall—but sadly, by the ’90s, few of those were left. The Webb piece caused a lot of excitement among the tribe. I remember reading with lots of anger the hatchet job that the Los Angeles Times, along with the New York Times and Washington Post, did on Webb. Especially since John Kerry, now Secretary of State, had spoken out as long ago as the ‘80s about an unholy alliance involving the CIA and the drug cartels in Nicaragua. And to show you how deadly serious this stuff was, The Washington Post last week ran a slam job on the movie, saying that despite what the movie said, Webb was no hero of journalism.
There’s a telling moment in the film where one Los Angeles Times editor said to another, how could we have missed this story, right in our backyard.?
In a way, that was an easy question to answer. The Times had a miserable history of never covering the ghetto unless it was in a racist and heavy-handed way, not dissimilar to the Los Angeles Police Department’s brutal treatment of blacks in South Los Angeles for eons. The much improved Times under Otis Chandler had a little better luck in the Barrio, mainly because of a reporter named Ruben Salazar, who wrote as beautifully about East Los Angeles as he did about Vietnam and Latin America. Otherwise, The Times had almost as miserable a record with Chicanos as it did with the Brothers.
I remember when Webb’s stories came out, they confirmed what a lot of us had been sensing for a long time. Webb was writing about events that had begun happening years before, and there is no doubt that the ghetto was being flooded with crack cocaine, a virulent form of the drug, and there had been whisperings in the underground press indicating the stuff was being sold to bring in revenue to fund the Contras, a death squad operating in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas.
One would be naive not to think the L.A. Times was quite possible of parroting the CIA line if it needed to. In an ideal world, it would have been the first one to report the story Webb wrote. It was, after all, the paper’s own backyard. But the paper had its share of connections to the CIA. The Sunday week in review in particular was produced by a crew of six or seven guys, all analytical and intelligent and sometimes surprisingly liberal who all had in common the fact they had worked for the company. Most were former analysts with the CIA—they weren’t the James Bond types, but more intellectual. Nice guys, really. And they produced a pretty good section. Still, years later, the Inspector General the CIA admitted much of what Webb wrote was true.
Now I don’t know if Webb’s death by gunshot in 2004 was a suicide or a murder—neither would surprise me.
Lionel Rolfe’s books are available on Amazon’s Kindlestore. A “Lionel Rolfe Author Tribute” is scheduled by Public Works Improvisational Theater at the Warszawa Loft, 1414 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m.