Albion Monitor /Commentary


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Editor's note: Because of the controversy surrounding "Dark Alliance," the Monitor is pre-empting the usual letter section to present some of the discussion on this important topic. Letters from subscribers will resume in the next edition.

In brief: On May 11, San Jose Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos published an editorial about the controversial series that linked the CIA and Nicaraguan contra "drugs for guns" smuggling to the crack cocaine epidemic in American inner cities. Since the Ceppos' editorial appeared, considerable debate has arisen about the significance of his comments, and The New York Times used it as an excuse to attack the general accuracy of the series. (For more on the original story and the Times' reaction, see my "Darker Alliances" editorial.)

When I informed series author Gary Webb about my editorial, he responded like a man under siege: "It is indeed heartening to know that there is someone left in journalism who still knows how to read..." His dispirited answer isn't justified, however; Webb and the Mercury News have enormous support within the community of journalists.

Below are three recent messages penned by his colleagues that have appeared on SPJ-L, the mailing list for the Society of Professional Journalists. The first is the offical statement from Society President Steve Geimann; following that are personal comments by Northern California Chapter President Peter Sussman and a colleague of Webb's at the Mercury News. Those personal remarks are reprinted by permission.

This is an extremely important story, more so as the public is invited "behind closed doors" to consider how very difficult editorial decisions are made. We welcome your comments on these letters, my editorial, or the Dark Alliance series itself.

- Jeff Elliott, Editor, Albion Monitor

The San Jose Mercury News took a bold, and important step for journalism this week.

Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos, in a too-rare explanation to readers, admitted on Sunday that last summer's much-discussed -- and much-criticized -- series on links between the CIA and the cocaine trade in Los Angeles "fell short of my standards."

In his column, which ran on the front page of the Sunday Opinion section, Ceppos admitted "owning up to one's shortcomings" is difficult. But while he told readers the 1996 series "solidly documents disturbing information" about drug deals in the 1980s in Los Angeles, he said it reached conclusions without adequate facts and developed other information that wasn't sufficiently explained.

Ceppos didn't deny the fundamental reporting in the series, called "Dark Alliance." He supported the facts and reporter Gary Webb's efforts. Instead, he aimed his column at conclusions that became the story.

This editor's self-analysis wasn't written in a hurry. Ceppos acted after a lengthy re-examination of the original story, involving seven editors and reporters, that included retracing Webb's reporting. This is an unusual action by a newspaper. But this was an unusual series that triggered intense debate in African-American communities, in Congress and even in the CIA.

Three leading newspapers -- The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times -- devoted considerable resources, times and space to challenging the story. Journalists also hotly discussed and debated the story.

Ceppos's admission was a bold step because it opened to public scrutiny the internal reservations and shortcomings in his newsroom. Instead of adopting a defensive position, Ceppos was open and candid. He also took responsibility for the editorial breakdown he blamed on "every step" in the process. Major investigations will be handled differently, he explained, chiefly resulting from the internal review.

SPJ's Code of Ethics encourages this kind of self-scrutiny. "Be accountable," the code demands. "Journalists should clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct." It also states: "Admit mistakes and correct them promptly."

But Ceppos's column also underscores a few departures from the Code's section of "Seek Truth and Report It." For example, journalists should "test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible." Based on Ceppos's column, this didn't happen at the Mercury News.

Gary Webb received "Journalist of the Year" honors from the SPJ Northern California Professional Chapter last year for the work he did on the series, called "Dark Alliance." In the citation, the chapter recognized the controversy swirling around the story, especially critical stories in three leading newspapers, noting the self-scrutiny was good for "journalists, journalism and the American public."

The Ceppos column doesn't diminish the basic reporting for which Webb was honored. Although the ultimate "flawed" conclusions turned this regional story into a national story, Ceppos based the reporting that documents, without challenge, the drug trade in Los Angeles. That was based on Webb's reporting work.

I admire what Jerry Ceppos did. It takes guts and a commitment to "doing right" to admit such errors. Other editors and news producers could well serve their profession, and their audiences, by following Ceppos's example in similar circumstances.

Steve Geimann, SPJ President

...The Ceppos statement has been mischaracterized by some as a "retraction" of the "Dark Alliance" stories. In fact, Ceppos states in his column that "Our series solidly documented disturbing information." Elsewhere he says, "It was important work on a significant issue ...." Ceppos does indeed hedge on some of the report's conclusions and interpretations, which he says were overstated, and on estimates that were not labeled as estimates. He said that although there is evidence for some of those conclusions and interpretations and estimates, the evidence is contradicted by other evidence that often wasn't given sufficient weight, and the issue is still in doubt. He continues to stand by "the core" of the series. In short, his statement was painfully and admirably honest, and it was filled with the nuances that were sometimes missing from the original series as well as from much of the criticism of that series.

It would be a tragedy if this honest statement about the failure to meet journalistic standards in certain specified ways were to be used as an occasion for personal recriminations or for neglect of the important story that the Mercury News did indeed resurrect from undeserved journalistic and political oblivion. In fact, its reports advanced the story in important respects, showing a trail of cocaine from named Nicaraguans with top-level Contra associations to a major crack cocaine dealer, also named, operating in the black community of Los Angeles.

One point I haven't heard stated forcefully that ought to be: In my experience, very few major investigative pieces are not subject to a great deal of argument about what weight to give to specific evidence, and conflicts between reporters and editors over such issues are a frequent and welcome part of the writing and editing process that precedes publication. Very little in journalism is black and white, and Ceppos in his column rightly emphasizes that "good journalism requires us .... to deal in the 'grays.' "

It is unseemly to see editor and reporter tangling in public. Because, as Ceppos says in his column, there were breakdowns in the "writing, editing and production of our work," much of the thrashing-about that we see now is what happens on most major investigative stories, but PRIVATELY and BEFORE the stories are published.

I hope that flaws in the Mercury News' reportorial and editorial processes on this story will not be used as an occasion for the personalizing and the facile distortions that characterize so much news coverage these days.

Peter Sussman President, No. Calif. Chapter, SPJ

I wish the ardent critics of the Dark Alliance series could look past their personal dislike for its author, or their personal animosity toward the newspaper, and study closely all the words written in the Mercury News since the series began. In my 17 years in this business, I've known a number of people I didn't like, but that did not prevent me from working with them and respecting their work. I've also competed against newspapers whose editors I did not respect, yet I did not find it necessary to openly knock them down to make myself feel better.

The major dailies in the Bay Area have produced magnificent investigative work over the years -- there's a strong tradition of hard-nosed journalism in this community. Yet we have all run stories that, in retrospect, should not have seen ink, or should have been written differently. In other words, I challenge anyone in this business who has NOT sinned in print -- who has produced nothing but pristine work -- to fling the first stone. Heck, I'll even buy them the sling-shot.

I remain a firm believer in the basic findings of the Dark Alliance series. You can't come out of an American inner city without the cold-hearted view that drugs have worked their way into the deepest fabric of our communities, and that not enough people really seem to care. Further, I can't see how a reporter with the great cynicism that this work injects into our bodies, could deny that our government's agents might have at least looked the other way -- because of so-called national security interests -- when the narco-industry made the sound business decision to convert to cheap rock cocaine and target a bigger market in poor communities. There is too much past evidence of official indifference to drug trafficking by the military and government bureaucrats, going back to the Vietnam War, to believe otherwise.

I write this not because I want to believe in something that reads like an X Files script. Nor do I seek to blame the socio-economic problems of my fellow "victimized-Americans" on some external power. Just because I am Latino, and because I grew up in a poor neighborhood, does not mean that I'm predisposed to believe the government helped introduce crack to our communities. However, after reading closely what Gary Webb produced, I can't help but come away with this independent assessment: Officials in Washington, D.C., must have been aware that there was overlap in the work of some CIA contract freelancers and cartel agents who had written up a new prospectus for the marketing of cocaine. That, to me, would be enough to prompt congressional investigations of what happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Again, to the critics: please read what the Mercury News wrote. Examine the documents; you have similar access to them. Look through the Iran-Contra reports easily available via the Internet. Then re-read what Jerry Ceppos wrote this week. After that, can you still say it is a blanket retraction?

I believe that if we had simply indicated, strongly and early on, that we did not have the complete story -- but that there sure was something smelly in DC, LA, and Nicaragua -- our series might have spawned more investigation by other media with greater resources than the Mercury News.

Some years ago, after making a mistake on an investigative story, an editor at the San Francisco Examiner wisely told me that while he loved it when his reporters could stab institutions and the high-and-mighty in the gut with sharp story, he demanded that the "knife be clean when we pulled it out." That message was clear, and it made me a better, more careful reporter. I wish that this industry, chock-full of talented reporters and great writers, could examine the knife that the Mercury News used. Yes, they'll find clear stains that must be cleaned up. But they'll also find that the stories opened a wound that cries out for further exploration. We should take advantage of this opportunity to probe a disturbing aspect of our nation's recent history.

Although I do not know what's planned in the weeks ahead, I believe the Mercury News' work on this subject is not finished. In the meantime, I wish the brilliant reporters with great sources inside the intelligence business would stop playing cards or tennis with them and start asking serious questions about what they knew and when they knew it. Sure, they're not as easy as fingering welfare queens or catching workers compensation cheats lifting bricks in their back yards, but investigations into serious issues like the history of narco-trafficking will do greater service to our readers.

Thanks for the space to vent.

Ricardo Sandoval
Mexico City correspondent,
The San Jose Mercury News

[Editor's note: Sandoval was also the investigative business reporter for the Mercury News, and in 1996, participated in a series of investigative / explanatory articles about electricity deregulation, for which the Mercury was awarded this year's G&R Loeb award -- considered one of the nation's top business-writing honors. A journalist for 17 years, he has produced investigative work on the Farm Crisis in the mid-1980s, the Savings and Loan scandal, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.]

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