Gary Webb was a journalist of outsized talent. Few reporters I've known could match his nose for an investigative story. When he was engaged, he worked hard. He wrote well.
But Webb had one huge blind side: He was fundamentally a man of passion, not of fairness. When facts didn't fit his theory, he tended to shove them to the sidelines.
All that meant that Webb needed -- no, demanded -- wise and meticulous editing. In "Dark Alliance,'' the 1996 Mercury News series about the CIA and crack cocaine, he did not have enough.
I mention all this history because of the news that Jeremy Renner, a fine actor, has agreed to play Webb in a movie entitled "Kill the Messenger,'' directed by Michael Cuesta.
Renner will bring credibility to the role. In this movie, the CIA wears the black hat. The thesis is that Webb was punished for having the story essentially right in describing the agency as the catalyst for the crack cocaine epidemic.
We can argue long and hard about the precise facts: I've always thought Webb inflated a legitimate but less ambitious story that cast a smaller circle of blame.
For one thing, I've never fully understood why the CIA would want to start a crack cocaine epidemic. (Webb argued that it was to raise money for the Contras.) And I tend to think the epidemic would have happened anyway.
After the paper backed away from the story and Webb committed suicide in 2004, his tale made for an irresistible Hollywood storyline: the prophet without honor in his own country.
I can tell you a few things about Webb that may salt the Renner version with skepticism. You see, well before "Dark Alliance," I was his first editor at the Mercury News.
Hired from The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer to work in our Sacramento bureau, Webb almost immediately began producing good stories. He could also be a difficult man to work with. And I was neither wise enough nor meticulous enough.
After we had an argument over the length of a story, Webb privately compiled a long memo to my executive editor, detailing my sins as an editor. He had some points: I could be stiff-backed.
Out of context
When I came across that memo much later, however, after I had gone back to reporting, I realized he had taken things I said out of context. If he could do that to me, he could easily do it to the subjects of his stories.
In the end, "Dark Alliance" marked an institutional failure by a newspaper eager for its own prizes and stature. By then, most of us understood Webb needed very capable editing. Our best editor, sadly, was not part of that project. No one raised enough questions about the thesis. The original story didn't even have a comment from the CIA.
Webb paid a bigger price for that failure than anyone else -- and in that sense, you can sympathize with the version of the messenger hounded to his death.
Webb was a man of passion, not of fairness. He was no villain: He genuinely believed his thesis about the CIA. He was no hero either. Take it from someone who knew him well.