Washington Post’s Jeff Leen Burst a Spleen When He Saw “Kill the Messenger” on the Silver Screen

By Al Giordano & Bill Conroy (Special to Narco News)

“A lot of retired DEA agents, a lot of retired prosecutors, a lot of retired people, they all want to do a book about their exploits. First question I ask them is, ‘Oky, you want to make a lot of money with a book? What do you know about the CIA and drugs? What do you got? Put it on the table. We’ll go make a million dollars. We’ll go to Hollywood! We will be stars!’”

•Jeff Leen, 1997

Back in June of 1997 when Jeff Leen debated Gary Webb at the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in Phoenix, Arizona, he spoke those words, above, that reveal so much about what he thought he’d get out of entering the newspaper business. Make a million dollars. Go to Hollywood. Be a star.

Jeff Leen.jpg

That life plan never worked out for Leen, who now directs the mediocre and forgotten “investigative reporting” unit at the Washington Post.

Leen, at the time of the gathering, was then fifteen years at the same job, a reporter for the Miami Herald, trying to make a name for himself as an alleged expert on the international cocaine trade. But he was stuck at the worst possible place to do so. The Herald is infamous among journalists as the graveyard of foreign policy reporters, because in Miami, they are forced to toe a very narrow ideological line. The newspaper’s advertising base is so dependent on the rabid anti-communist Cuban and Latin American exile business community that it’s long had to be a Johnny One Note on any coverage regarding the rest of the hemisphere. You simply can’t keep a job writing about the Americas at the Herald – what many journos have nicknamed “Oligarch’s Daily” – without pandering to the Miami Mafia. For that reason even many career journalists would prefer to work anywhere else.

And if one was foolish enough to try to use that newspaper as a fulcrum from which to report on cocaine in the eighties and nineties, the biggest story would therefore be untouchable: that the anti-communist paramilitary squads known as the Contras, who were buying weapons to overthrow the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, were funding their army by shipping planeloads of cocaine to the United States, and that US government agencies were complicit in that venture. That story could never be advanced in the Herald, not even after then-Senator John Kerry’s 1986 committee hearings proved it.

Poor Jeff Leen had to report to work each day and seek some other path to the Hollywood stardom and millions he thought being a journalist would someday bring him. How many times he sent his resume to the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Timeswhile cursing his fate in Miami is a number between him and his god. In his desperate plea for their attention, according to a book by the late Gary Webb, he cooked up a fake idea in his Herald reporting: That Miami was the birthplace of the crack cocaine explosion in the United States. In Miami, a city that would like to be first in something, anything, even crack, they inhaled those fumes eagerly.

Then along came Gary Webb, over on the West Coast, with the documents that proved Jeff Leen’s entire journalistic gambit had been a fraud.

Why are we telling you about this Jeff Leen character? You’ve probably never heard of him or read any his work or, if you did, found it important or memorable, not even during his 17 years at the Washington Post. You might be able to name other Post writers and columnists, including people who’ve been there far less time than Leen. But for good reason, you’ve never heard of this guy.

A few days ago, Leen wrote an opinion column for the Post, a newspaper whose shameful behavior in 1996 is now topic of the major motion picture, “Kill the Messenger.” Two-time Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner portrays Leen’s old imaginary nemesis, Gary Webb, and convincingly depicts the latter’s reporting of the most important investigative news story of the 1990s, and the turmoil that engulfed Webb when the big three daily newspapers in Washington, New York and Los Angeles then ganged up to destroy Webb’s career.

Leen apparently burst a spleen when he saw “Kill the Messenger” on the silver screen. There was the late Gary Webb. Although he never made the “millions” Leen said back in 1997 that he aspired to win through journalism, Webb is suddenly occupying the heroic space in Hollywood’s star pantheon that Leen told us in 1997 was his dream to fill. And so Leen took his butthurt grievance to the Washington Post editorial pages last Friday.

“Gary Webb was no journalism hero despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says,” shouted the headline on Jeff Leen’s essay.

Well, we did predict back on September 10:

“In the coming weeks we can expect more such panicked response to the Kill the Messenger movie from the same career apparatchiks that smeared Gary Webb to begin with, doubling down on their worn and rusted hatchets.“Like Wile E. Coyote, they’ll hoist the piano over their heads one last time, and predictably the piano will fall back down upon them.”

Let’s have a look at Jeff Leen’s prose to see if, making those words come true, he tattooed that target onto his own scalp.

Calling the Movie “Pure Fiction” is an Extraordinary Claim

The first words below the Gary-Was-No-Hero headline are: “Jeff Leen is the Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations.” That the words of a man who purportedly can stream out column inches in the news section had to be relegated to the opinion page is our first clue that this essay won’t reach news standards, that even theWashington Post needs that extra layer of distance from its own employee’s words, just in case, say, Leen becomes the story and then has to be, ahem, thrown under a bus. You know, like was done to Gary Webb.

The essay begins:

“An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. That old dictum ought to hang on the walls of every journalism school in America. It is the salient lesson of the Gary Webb affair. It might have saved his journalism career, though it would have precluded his canonization in the new film ‘Kill the Messenger.’“ The Hollywood version of his story — a truth-teller persecuted by the cowardly and craven mainstream media — is pure fiction.”

In fact, “Kill the Messenger” is based on, and faithful to, two scrupulously documented nonfiction books. “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion,” by Gary Webb (1999, Seven Stories Press), and “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb,” by Nick Schou (2006, Nation Books).

Gary Webb
Gary Webb

To label “Kill the Messenger” as “pure fiction” is an extraordinary claim. And as Jeff Leen lectures us in his first sentence: “An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof.”

But Leen fails to offer extraordinary proof, not even ordinary proof, of his claim in what follows. Instead, he does to himself what he and others did to Gary Webb 18 years ago. Jeff Leen unwittingly makes Jeff Leen the story:

“I was in the Miami Herald’s newsroom when the rumble came across that the Mercury News had finally nailed the CIA-cocaine story, proving that the CIA was involved in the cocaine trade and, more significantly, that the agency was responsible for the U.S. crack epidemic. I was astonished — and envious.”

Of course Leen was envious! He worked for the Herald, a paper that would never have permitted an expose of anti-communist death squads in Latin America to be featured on its pages. Its advertisers in the Miami Cuban-American chambers of commerce – to whom the guerrillas were heroes – would have gone apoplectic. This was a newspaper whose star columnist, Andres Oppenheimer, authored “Fidel Castro’s Final Hour” in 1989. A quarter century later Fidel is still kicking. But, fantasy or fact, that’s the sort of pandering “journalism” that keeps Miami Herald advertisers writing the checks.

When in August of 1996 the San Jose Mercury News published Webb’s Dark Alliance series, the Herald – although both papers were owned by the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain and the Miami daily enjoyed rights to republish – declined to print its sister paper’s big story. Leen takes some credit for that decision in his essay, but let’s not be gullible: Even if he had recommended publishing Webb’s story, the economics of Miami Herald ad sales made that an utter impossibility.

For three months, Webb’s series was the toast of the journalism town. It was only in October – after the story inspired a grassroots movement in Los Angeles and elsewhere, especially in African-American communities – that the big three dailies, practically in unison, piled on Gary Webb and “made him the story,” simultaneously deflecting the attention off the illegal activities of the CIA.

The Internet’s First “Viral” News Story

Leen wasn’t the only commercial media employee in 1997 to be made “envious” by Gary Webb’s scoop. What really freaked out the print newspaper business at the moment was that Webb’s Dark Alliance series didn’t just appear in a smaller regional daily out of Northern California. They could have simply ignored it and it would have given way to the next news cycle. That the San Jose Mercury News posted it on the Internet, complete with the supporting documents and dossiers on the major figures in the cocaine pipeline from the Contra Army to the streets of South Central Los Angeles, suddenly made the national dailies irrelevant. The paper trail was then a pixel trail and Dark Alliance became overnight the first “viral” news story in the history of the Internet, before the word “viral” was used to describe that phenomenon. Read More…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.