October 19, 2014 3:40 pm -

It goes without saying that a Hollywood biopic is going to aggrandize its subject — Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, General Patton, whomever. No one wants to star in, direct, fund, or produce a motion picture whose tagline would be, “Joe Shmedlap: A Real Dick.” They’re like memoirs; no former President is going to write in his memoir, “Gee, I did a really crappy job in the White House.”

So it’s no surprise that “Kill the Messenger,” a new film starring Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who broke the story of Central Intelligence Agency involvement in the cocaine trade that fueled the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, aggrandizes Webb. That’s what movies do.

What is surprising is that the film is creating such push-back against the Webb iconography by the media itself. Thanks to Renner’s performance, Webb is rapidly becoming a kind of pre-Edward Snowden — a whistle-blowing Truth-Teller — and in today’s Washington Post, Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations, tries to throw a wet blanket on what he sees as Webb’s canonization by popular acclaim. Webb, Leen insists, “was no journalism hero.”


Anosognosia. It’s a little-understood psychiatric condition in which a patient who objectively suffers from some disability — paralysis, say — not only refuses to believe she suffers from it but is objectively unable to “see” that she does.

American journalism has anosognosia.

Leen isn’t objecting to a movie. He’s objecting to what the movie implies: that American journalism is craven, cowardly, overly concerned with placating those in power — that is, those upon whom American journalism depends for access — and often does little more than perpetuate narratives that serve power, rather than challenge it.

Leen hopes to offer a cautionary note for “the younger reporters on [his] staff,” as well as the rest of us: Webb did bad journalism because “an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.” And according to Leen, Webb didn’t have extraordinary proof. Heck, Leen points out that Hollywood was making movies about CIA cocaine trafficking in the ’80s, so there! Webb didn’t tell us anything, really. No extraordinary proof, those no extraordinary claim worth paying attention to.

Really? Where was Jeff Leen when the Washington Post was breathlessly promoting the idea that the Saddam Hussein regime was a “clear-and-present danger” to the national security of the United States? Where was Leen when William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer were spewing out op-ed after op-ed in the Post asserting that “the only” strategy left to the United States for dealing with Saddam was invasion and regime change? Where was Leen when so-called “military historians” Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were pimping the idea in the Post of retaining US military forces in Afghanistan for, essentially, ever?

He was cashing his paycheck.

Leen is pushing back against a movie — a movie! — because in that movie Webb represents something far more threatening to American media’s image of itself than simply the notion that newspapers dropped the ball on an important story, and this is why it isn’t coincidental that the first blow is being struck by the Washington Post.

In “Kill the Messenger,” Webb is the anti-“Woodstein,” the portmanteau used for the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, famous for working the Watergate story. That moment 40 years ago is still (rather tragically) the high point in the history of American journalism, the touchstone for what “real” journalism can be, the namesake for every “scandal,” real and imagined, since, and the lodestar for every journalism major in every college and university in the country and perhaps the world — even the Danish television series “Borgen” pays homage to the two: the young, investigative reporter for the fictional “TV1” channel, Katrine Fønsmark (played by actress Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), displays a poster for the 1976 Woodstein biopic “All the President’s Men” in her apartment.

Professor Russell Burgos

“Borgen” (DR1, Denmark)

Regardless of how truthful “Kill the Messenger” may or may not be — and I think we can all agree that films, even documentary films, are at best defined by what the comedian Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness” — it calls our attention to the all-too cozy relationship between Power and the institution that is allegedly the citizen’s watchdog on power, the media.

But as numerous studies show, the watchdog seems increasingly tame because it’s now part of the political class: journalists marry those in power (Andrea Mitchell and former Chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan), send their kids to the same schools as those in power, vie amongst each other for invitations to sit at the knee of power (White House press corps functions and the like). Journalists want politicians to like them — after all, who doesn’t want to get along with their neighbor?

Leen, like most journalists these days, doesn’t seem to appreciate that there’s a difference between 40 years ago and today — 40 years. Forty years ago, journalists still had to get things right — when, as the informal motto of Chicago’s now-defunct City News Bureau had it, your mother told you she loved you, you had to check it out. You could do that because the newspaper came out in the morning, the three networks’ news came on that evening. And that was it.

[su_r_sky_ad]In today’s information environment, you can’t check it out because you can’t be beat by those who don’t care about checking it out.  Journalism today doesn’t have time to do journalism because the real master of journalism is the closing stock price of the corporation that owns journalism, not the Woodstein-infused dream goals of journalists. Today’s motto would be, “When your mother says she loves you, say so — especially if someone has already Tweeted it.”

So Leen can fulminate all he wants against a fictionalized portrayal of one reporter in the 1980s. He can insist that Webb wasn’t a good journalist because he didn’t have the “stuff” to support his claims. Maybe he didn’t. But by the standards of the journalism in which Leen trades, the journalism of 2014, the journalism of false-equivalency, the journalism that has been whipped into beaten-dog fearfulness by baseless whining about “liberal bias,” Webb’s reporting was rock-solid.

Perhaps that’s what so troubles Leen: in today’s corporate media, that which is “truthy” might just as well have been carried down the Mount by Moses, carved in stone, because when it has counted — Snowden, Iraq, Syria, Obamacare, Benghazi — the media has proven itself time and again to be doing stenography.

And why not? If your primary goal in life as a messenger is to not be killed — to not be criticized for “bias” or to be fired for not booking John McCain on a Sunday talk-fest when “everyone else” has booked him — then stenography is justifiable, safe, and (obviously) profitable. We shouldn’t need “fact-checker” columns in newspapers to tell us when a politician or pundit is dissembling or lying — a reporter should just go ahead and do that. That’s the reporter’s job.

But don’t expect Jeff Leen to see it that way. Anosognosia is incurable.

D.B. Hirsch
D.B. Hirsch is a political activist, news junkie, and retired ad copy writer and spin doctor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

22 responses to Our Anosognotic Media

  1. StoneyCurtisll October 19th, 2014 at 4:07 pm

    On December 10, 2004, Gary Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head.
    How many people shot themselves 2 times in the head when committing suicide?

    • ExPFCWintergreen October 19th, 2014 at 5:57 pm

      So you disagree with this article’s criticism of the media for trying to discredit Webb? You’re on the MSM’s side, then. Because some of your other comments make it seem that you agree with the author that the MSM is a bunch of corporate shills. But that must be your false-flag operation.

      • edmeyer_able October 19th, 2014 at 6:02 pm

        I, for one, fail to follow your “logic”.

        • ExPFCWintergreen October 19th, 2014 at 6:12 pm

          He calls the writer of this article a “simpleton.” So he must disagree with the article’s basic argument that the MSM is pushing back against the movie because they don’t like being called out as hucksters for corporate America. If that’s the case, then the comment must be made by someone who disagrees with that proposition. The only kind of person who could possibly disagree with the statement that the MSM is full of corporate hacks is someone who’s on the MSM’s side.

          • edmeyer_able October 19th, 2014 at 6:17 pm

            Where does Stoney call the writer of the article a ‘simpleton’?

      • Obewon October 19th, 2014 at 6:15 pm

        Why advertise you never made it past Private? How many years were you passed over for military promotions? Is “MSM” pundit contributor Palin your God?

      • StoneyCurtisll October 20th, 2014 at 9:43 pm

        My “False Flag Operation”?…
        Go back to Info-Wars.

        • ExPFCWintergreen October 20th, 2014 at 10:07 pm

          Is that where I’ll find the things you’ve written and put out for the public to read? Because I’m not having much luck turning up your contributions to public debate otherwise. Sure, you’ve generated a lot of standard Occupy/paranoid/kinda-wish-I-could-be-a-Paulite/think-I-should-get-bigger-gages? conspiracy nonsense, but nothing substantive. But I’m sure your magnum opus is just around the corner.

          • StoneyCurtisll October 21st, 2014 at 8:43 pm

            put the meth pipe down..

  2. teddy partridge October 19th, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Leen gives away his game when, while trying to minimize the growth of cocaine trafficking in the 1980s, he writes that it increased from “one ton a week” to “100 kilos by the mid-1980s.” Anytime a journalist changes the measurement system mid-sentence, it’s to obfuscate. 100 kilos, by the way, is five tons — otherwise known as a five-fold increase in half a decade. The technical term is a “shit-ton.”

    • edmeyer_able October 19th, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      100 k is 220 lb isn’t it?

    • StoneyCurtisll October 19th, 2014 at 4:44 pm

      When did 100 “kilos” become (‘five tons’) 10,000lbs?
      maybe I was dealing with the wrong people..

      • teddy partridge October 20th, 2014 at 1:43 pm

        You’re just not reading the source material carefully: not only the measurement was changed, but also the unit of time. 100 kilos a week is five tons annually, a fivefold increase in five years.

    • StoneyCurtisll October 19th, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      You should have paid attention in math class…
      A “kilo” is approx 2.2 pounds.
      100 Kilos is (close enough) to 250 lbs of dope..(no one is counting or weighing with that bulk)

      A “ton” is 2,000 lbs..
      Where you came up with “100 kilos is 5 tons” is beyond me.

      • Larry Schmitt October 19th, 2014 at 5:01 pm

        Don’t even need math class, all you need is Google.

      • teddy partridge October 20th, 2014 at 1:41 pm

        You missed the entire point of my comment, which was that the WashPost author not only changed the measure (from tons to kilos) but the unit of time (from “in 1981” to “a week”). 100 kilos a week is five tons annually. Thanks for playing, but you’d best return to reading comprehension class….

        • StoneyCurtisll October 20th, 2014 at 9:41 pm

          “100 kilos, by the way, is five tons” .(from your comment)

          Those are your words, not mine..

    • ExPFCWintergreen October 19th, 2014 at 6:08 pm

      You misread Leen’s original paragraph: “The first thing I looked for was the amount of cocaine that the story said ‘the CIA’s army’ had brought into the country and funneled into the crack trade. It turned out to be relatively small: a ton in 1981, 100 kilos a week by the mid-1980s, nowhere near enough to flood the country with crack.” In other words, in the *whole* 52 weeks of 1981, a ton was brought in by the contras. In the mid-80s, 100 kilos a week or about 4/10ths of a (non-metric) ton per month was trafficked by the contras. That’s a five-fold annual increase or 5 tons for the year. So Leen was making sense. But that’s not really the point. He’s obviously got sour grapes that Webb is being made out as a hero when, judging by Leen’s article, Leen clearly thinks HE should be heroic.

      • fancypants October 19th, 2014 at 11:12 pm

        At the end of the day ..who in the private sector has the cash for 200 lbs or even a ton of cocaine. its either corporations or the gov Ronnie Reagan eliminated the middle class with the stroke of his pen(s)
        Does that narrow it down for ya ?

  3. AAASuperPatriot October 19th, 2014 at 11:44 pm

    I read the original articles and found them convincing. I understand why the government destroyed Webb. I never understood why other media outlets also attacked Webb rather than defend him.

    • AAASuperPatriot October 19th, 2014 at 11:46 pm

      That being said… I had the dangdest time following the logic of this article.