From ............ NEWSWEEK
November 11, 1996
S O C I E T Y
M E D I A
CRACKS IN THE STORY
AFTER CHASING A CONTRA-COCAINE CONNECTION,
THE SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS HAS TO DEFEND ITSELF
BY RICHARD TURNER
EXECUTIVE EDITOR JERRY CEPPOS presided over a staff meeting at the San Jose Mercury News last week wearing a camouflaged army helmet. He was poking grim fun at the foxhole he finds himself in lately, the big guns of the rival media trained at him over his paper's investigative series about the contras, the CIA and the cocaine trade.
The meeting was to hand out quarterly, inhouse awards. But the series in question, the most attention-grabbing piece of work in the Mercury News for years, won just one prize, for "on-line journalism." In other words, nice Web site, buddy.
Not long before, some editors thought the story might win a Pulitzer. It was a copiously researched tale of how two Nicaraguan drug dealers with connections to the CIA-backed contra army moved tons of drugs into Los Angeles.
But this otherwise valuable piece of journalism has largely been discredited because it promised more than it could deliver. It billboarded itself as having uncovered the spark that ignited the entire crack epidemic—and that was one reach too many.
Reporter Gary Webb spent a year working on his series, intent on proving that the CIA helped inflict crack on America's cities. After the articles first appeared, in August, they garnered the kind of reaction editors dream about, especially editors of well thought of but sometimes overlooked papers like the Mercury News. Though the story didn't explicitly link the CIA directly to the drugrunning, it raised serious questions, and the news raged through the Internet, talk radio and the TV chat-show circuit, with special resonance among blacks. Politicians demanded (and are getting) congressional hearings.
That the CIA might cross paths with drug smugglers isn't exactly a news flash. Manuel Noriega was, after all, on the payroll. But this story struck deep racial chords. To be sure, some of the rank-and-file reaction fell into the conspiracy-theory realm—that the government plotted to inundate black neighborhoods with crack in a systematic effort to subjugate them. But you didn't have to go that far to see the implications as poignant "People in high places were winking and blinking, and our children were dying," said Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.
Then, last month, the Merc started getting trashed — by its peers. In turn, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times poked holes in the story, exhaustively and mercilessly. What did the CIA know and when did it know it, how much drug money was used to finance the contras — the critiques were so highly detailed that the minutiae got slippery and wonkish after a while. It almost seemed as if the venerated megapapers were piling on.
But the Mercury News asked for it. By finding it necessary to strongly imply that contra drug-dealing actually launched the crack epidemic, the paper overhyped and overpackaged the story. The big papers sent swarms of reporters and trundled out reams of evidence to demolish this simplistic contention. The Post cited "arrest records, hospitals, drug treatment centers and drug user surveys." The result was that the whole story got wounded, including the notion that the CIA might have "winked" at some major drug-dealing. Which is surely still up in the air. "The only thing that troubles me about the criticism is the 'What's the big deal?' tone" about the CIA drug connection, complains Ceppos.
The Mercury News's implication that the Nicaraguan drug deals actually triggered the crack epidemic begins with the headline:
"CRACK" PLAGUE S ROOTS ARE IN NICARAGUAN WAR.
Horticulturally speaking, does this mean there were no other roots? Maybe, but it's hypey phrasing. So is calling one of the Nicaraguans "the Johnny Appleseed of crack cocaine." Or: "To understand how crack came to curse black America, you have to go into the volcanic hills overlooking Managua." These are drumroll lines, "signpost" paragraphs near the top of the story, where editors are supposed to be vigilant. But such passages are misleading.
Ceppos says that contrary to several reports, he's retracted nothing about the story. He says the paper should have said, up top, "Here's what we didn't establish, which is a little weird in journalism." (To his credit, he quickly assigned one of his top reporters, Peter Carey, to sift through the attacks on the story, which Carey did in a fair-minded story.) Ceppos has also had to apologize for some ornaments of nineties journalism, like a now extinct logo on the Web site that featured a crack smoking man superimposed on the CIA seal. But the way Ceppos describes the story now shows some quiet backtracking: he wrote in an unpublished letter to The Washington Post that the story merely claims that dealers working with the contras sold drugs "at the time that the crack epidemic was beginning ....."
This is the way the story should have been played in the first place, and this is where the editing process broke down. Some blame Webb, the reporter, for excessive zeal. But in his defense, investigative reporting is long and lonely work—reporters need fire in the belly, and the best ones tend to be crusaders, a bit obsessive, a bit conspiratorial. Webb apparently fits the profile: his book proposal says he planned to pursue the idea that the contra war was a "charade, a smoke screen" to hide drugdealing. Webb was in Latin America and couldn't be reached.
But it's the editors' job to pull reporters back. Top editors told staff members the story was "amped down" by them, but it clearly wasn't amped down enough. Some editors weren't paying attention: Ceppos says he read only part of the story, and the paper's No. 2 editor (coincidentally and perhaps presciently) left the paper a month before the story appeared. Only two editors closely oversaw the series. As for Webb, he's been told that if he wants to keep working the story, he has to put off any potential book and movie deals. The Mercury News is examining its procedures on "project" stories.
Ironically, the Mercury's mishaps have taken an issue the big papers had stopped writing about and made it timely again. Last week the Post reported new allegations from former contra leaders that the CIA knew they were raising money from drug dealers (the agency denied them). If nothing else, the Merc's series shows how flawed reporting can sometimes be the root of good new journalism.
With MARK MILLER in Los Angeles
"In the foxhole: Webb (above), Ceppos" - [picture caption]
"Via the CIA ? Crack arrest in D.C." - [picture caption]