Albion Monitor

Jokesters may scoff that "media ethics" is an oxymoron, but good journalists fret endlessly about their duty as professionals. Probably in some newsroom right now, a reporter and editor are locked in a heated argument over a story. Is the reporting fair and balanced? Are more quotes needed to present the full picture? Should a complex explanation be simplified? As (I hope) you can imagine, these are ticklish issues.

Usually, that process takes place behind closed newsroom doors. But last Sunday, May 11, one ethical debate spilled into national news.

The topic was an investigative series that appeared last summer in the San Jose Mercury News. Written by Gary Webb, "Dark Alliance" explained that millions of dollars from the sale of drugs went to support the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan years. Most newsworthy was the type of drug sold -- crack cocaine. At the cost of ruined lives in America's inner city, Ollie North funded his illegal war. For his work, Gary Webb received Journalist of the Year honors from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Northern California Chapter.

But on Sunday, Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a editorial that took almost everyone by surprise:

...My most important job is to set standards for the Mercury News. One of those standards... is openness with readers. For too long, newspapers have believed that no one can disagree with them, that they must have the last word. I want Mercury News readers to know when I have doubts about what we've done or how we've done it...

...In such complex situations, good journalism requires us deal in the "grays,'' the ambiguities, of life. I believe that we should have done better in presenting those gray areas...

...In a few key instances, we presented only one interpretation of complicated, sometimes-conflicting pieces of evidence ... We oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew... Another clear implication of our series was that the Blandon-Ross drug connection played the critical role in the crack explosion in urban America. I now believe that was an oversimplification.

Ceppos makes other key points -- we urge you to read his full editorial. To paraphrase, Ceppos' essentially said: Look, this was an extremely important story, but it was also complex and involved staggering amounts of information. It was probably the greatest challenge I've seen in my three decades as a reporter. For the record, I'd like to say that I'm not satisfied with a few points. We did a great job, but I'd change a few things if I had my druthers.

The editorial is really quite a remarkable document, and has a place in every journalism textbook. But just days after that refreshing display of candor, the New York Times produced an article and editorial as deceitful as Ceppos' work was noble. And to the Times' disgrace, these documents also belong in every textbook.

In a page one story on May 13 headlined, "Expose on Crack Was Flawed, Paper Said," the Times pounced on the CIA angle. After quoting a single CIA-related paragraph from Ceppos, the Times provides comment from an Agency spokesman: "It is gratifying to see that a large segment of the media, including the San Jose Mercury News itself, has taken a serious and objective look at how this story was constructed and reported."

Well, now; that's a pretty ho-hum quote to feature on the front page of the New York Times -- or for that matter, any newspaper, anywhere. Why print it at all? And here's another reason an objective editor may have cut that quote: Ceppos hardly mentioned the CIA connection. Only a fragment of his editorial (four of 32 paragraphs) touches upon the Agency; most debate the history of the crack cocaine epidemic.

While the first third of the Times article defends the innocence of the CIA, the closing third paints a portrait of Gary Webb as guilty of incompetence. Quoting an anonymous source, the Times says Webb's future at the Mercury News "will be determined" -- an ominous hint they're going to can the guy.

Dear New York Times: If you can't back something up with hard facts stated on the record, don't suggest it at all -- which was the main point of the Ceppos editorial.

Asked for his reaction, the Times offers just choppy gabble from Webb:

[Webb says] ...that since February the paper "has been sitting on a series of follow-up stories" that buttress his initial assertions, both about the CIA involvement and the financial scale of the drug trafficker's contributions to the rebels.

Asked why those articles had not been published, Mr. Webb, who promoted the original series extensively, replied: "That's a darn good question. I don't know, I haven't been able to get a straight answer."

Mr. Webb said he was particularly concerned that Mr. Ceppos's column would "just make it harder" for the pending official investigations into the series' charges to "get at the truth," and suggested that he was on the verge of asking The Mercury News for permission to publish his new material elsewhere.

But ... Mr. Ceppos said that Mr. Webb had so far submitted only notes and ideas for future articles...

See? Webb can't even spit out a coherent sentence -- and is a liar and also likely nutso. Clearly, the Merc-News would be well rid of this charlatan who's sullied their good name.

That theme was continued in a Times editorial the next day. "The Mercury News Comes Clean," the headline proclaimed, as if graciously welcoming the newspaper back to their legit newspaper clan.

Again leaning on the CIA part of the story, the Times editor wrote that the Mercury News "...made a courageous gesture on Sunday when it admitted that articles charging the Central Intelligence Agency with complicity in the drug trade had been poorly written and edited and misleadingly packaged..."

That's a complete misrepresentation of the Mercury News stance; nowhere did Ceppos say the series was misleading or poorly done. Nowhere did the San Jose paper suggest they were retracting part of the story.

To the contrary, Ceppos wrote in his editorial: "Indeed, one of the most bedeviling questions for us over the past few months has been: Does the presence of conflicting information invalidate our entire effort? I strongly believe the answer is no, and that this story was right on many important points."

Contrasting that statement with the Times' editorial, I'd say it's the writing from New York work that's blatantly misleading, not the journalism of San Jose. But the big question remains: why did the Times appear to work so desperately to prove the story false?

At the end of last year, the Monitor called "Dark Alliance" the top story of 1996, and presented a news feature with commentary by Mark Lowenthal and Norman Solomon. (That piece contains many links concerning this topic.)

A major part of this story is the determined efforts by the Times, Washington Post, and LA Times to discredit the series. The media watchdog group, FAIR, produced a special report on that topic, found through the article mentioned above. In that light, the recent attack by the New York Times might seem to be nothing new.

But something very disturbing is happening, here: the Times and others are trying to rewrite history.

According to that recent Times editorial, "...The goal [of the drug operation], the series said, was to help finance the CIA-backed contra rebels then fighting the Sandinista Government in Central America. There was little hard evidence to support these claims... "

Now, wait a second -- there's a great deal of evidence showing the contras were running drugs; it was proven beyond doubt ten years ago when Oliver North's diaries came to light. These reports even made network TV news. A teeny (but concise) example from Mark Hertsgaard's book, "On Bended Knee: The Press and the Regan Presidency:"

According to an April [7] 1988 report on ABC's World News Tonight, the Reagan administration also took other steps to guarantee a steady supply of weapons to the contras. From 1983 to 1986, the United States and Israel worked with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and employees of the murderous Medellin cocaine cartel of Colombia on an illegal operation that "provided arms to the contras, and then... smuggled drugs into the United States."
Want to see that report or other mainstream news about contra drug-running? Search the TV news abstracts at Vanderbilt University for "contra and drug" citings. (For a taste of depressing irony, don't overlook the February 29, 1988 NBC news report of Nancy Reagan denouncing casual drug users as accomplices to murder.)

If Webb's series is flawed, it's because he didn't delve deep enough into these bloodied waters. Yet the Times misuses the Ceppos editorial as an excuse to exonerate the Agency -- something far more deceptive than Ceppos's qualified admission that they simply couldn't link top CIA officials to the operation, or that the Los Angeles may not have been the sole American port of entry for crack cocaine.

This story is far from over. On May 15, Pacifica Radio invited Webb and other journalists to appear on "Living Room," hosted by Pacifica's long-time National Affairs Correspondent Larry Bensky.

On the program, Gary Webb said that four additional stories were completed and awaiting publication by the Mercury News. Webb claims to have new evidence linking members of the National Security Council to the scheme. But the San Jose newspaper hasn't published these articles. Why?

Some of the Mercury News' hesitance may be nerves. They've been criticized relentlessly since the series first appeared, with the Washington Post and New York Times using a tag-team attack. Anything in the series was target for criticism and/or ridicule. In an October 4th criticism of the series, the Post commented that DEA informant Danilo Blandon moved "only" five tons of cocaine. Hey, what's the big deal?

The Post also refused to print a letter to the editor from Jerry Ceppos in response to their critique. Besides showing a contemptable lack of professional courtesy to the Mercury News editor, it ensured that Post readers -- like the readers of the Times and other old-guard newspapers -- wouldn't see criticism of their criticism. Or for that matter, the original story. (We used to call such one-sided coverage "propaganda," by the way.)

Behind the Times -Post assult is their long-time defense of the CIA's reputation (and, as we noted in an earlier editorial, the FBI's tainted reputation as well).

If the Agency's fundamental credibility is suspect, so is the honor of its most vocal defenders. It's a fair question for the public to ask the Times and Washington Post: Why the hell didn't you investigate this ten years ago?

But in that decade, the debate over the CIA / Contra / Crack connection has become far more serious. Then, it was (mostly) a political scandal. Today, as one of the commentators on Bensky's program noted, crack cocaine has laid waste to our inner cities like a neutron bomb.

The better part of a generation has been lost in some neighborhoods -- anyone who has witnessed crack's aftermath would be hard-pressed to come up with a better definition of pure evil. "It is as though (McDonald's founder) Ray Kroc had invented the opium den," a medical expert testified. The outrage from minorities that emerged after Webb's first series appeared could grow a millionfold if it's shown that the CIA or NSC cynically managed the destruction of their communities for profit.

After enduring nine months of attack, I don't know if the San Jose Mercury News has the guts to continue the series. And for that matter, I don't know if Gary Webb really has the smoking gun evidence he claims. I respect both Jerry Ceppos and Gary Webb for the way that they've each handled the story so far -- but more than ever before, my faith in the integrity of the Washington Post and New York Times continues to fade like so much smoke.

The truth will out.

-- Jeff Elliott, Editor

Albion Monitor issue 30 (

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