The Web That Gary Spun
The San Jose Mercury News' series on the CIA, the contras and crack cocaine was 1996's most controversial piece of journalism. Reporter Gary Webb broke new ground, but did he go too far?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
Continued from Part I
WHEN THE WASHINGTON POST'S article appeared, it played like a must-see movie at the Mercury News. Although quickly deemed a "knockdown" and attributed to professional jealousy by Webb's editors and supporters, it stunned the newsroom nonetheless. Here was one of the nation's elite newspapers tearing apart the foundation--not just a few facts--of the Mercury News' series, a series many had thought offered the paper a good shot at its third Pulitzer Prize.
Yet some inside the newsroom were pleased to see the Post's story because the Post raised the same questions they had after reading it. "To me the biggest thing we should have done is to point out that there is contrary evidence," says Mercury News economics reporter Scott Thurm. "We shouldn't have ignored everything that contradicts our theory."
Surprisingly, Webb's story wasn't vetted by a platoon of high-ranking editors the way many investigative stories are at the Mercury News and other newspapers. City Editor Dawn Garcia, Webb's editor, stayed with the project from beginning to end. Although the paper has an investigative projects editor, Jonathan Krim, he did not edit it because top management wanted to spread projects around rather than leave them in the hands of an elite team. Then-Managing Editor David Yarnold was also closely involved with the series from the start. While Garcia supervised Webb on a daily basis, the story was known as "Yarnold's baby."
But a month before it ran, Yarnold left the paper, accepting a job with Knight-Ridder's new media division. His oversight role was taken over by Paul Van Slambrouck, assistant managing editor for news. Van Slambrouck explained at a staff meeting when the controversy erupted that he had "amped down" Webb's initial story. Van Slambrouck and Garcia declined to comment.
Ceppos, who had been preoccupied with searching for a new managing editor, didn't read the entire series before it went into the paper. Nor was the series read by Ryan, director of the paper's Web site, who said it was not his responsibility. It was reviewed by one of the paper's lawyers.
After questions were raised about the series, the Mercury News created a committee to examine the way it carries out projects. It is considering, among other things, a formalized editing process that would ensure more top editors are involved, says editor Chris Schmitt, a committee member.
"Basically, the overall editing process broke down," says Schmitt, a former investigative reporter. "While it's true that specific people may have caught things if they'd been editing the project, that shouldn't have mattered. It was a system breakdown." Some found the internal criticism of the Webb story disheartening, prompting a Ceppos memo dated October 10--six days after the Post story appeared.
"I was spurred to do this by separate conversations with a couple of folks, one of whom hasn't been at the Mercury News very long, who expressed surprise and deep disappointment at what they perceived to be the almost gloating reaction in parts of the newsroom to the Post's criticism of the series," wrote Ceppos, who became executive editor in 1994 after 12 years as managing editor.
"As one of them put it, if this is what happens when a reporter aspires to do really high-end work, what's the percentage in sticking one's neck out to do that kind of work in the future, when his or her colleagues will try to tear it down? I found that very troubling. This person was not reacting to reasoned evaluation of the series but to the backbiting, whispering and sometimes gleeful tone of some of those conversations."
Ceppos' memo did not curtail the dissent. Nor did his comments to the press end the debate. He has been criticized for failing to read the entire series before it appeared in print and for making statements supporting the series, then appearing to change his mind. On August 28, Ceppos sent a reprint of the series and a letter to editors throughout the nation saying, "At first I found the story too preposterous to take seriously: A drug ring virtually introduced crack cocaine in the United States and sent the profits of the drug sales to the U.S.-government supported contras in Nicaragua. All the while, our government failed to stop the drug sales."
On October 18, Ceppos described the series more modestly in a rebuttal letter to the Washington Post, which declined to print it. He said the paper had "established that cocaine dealers working with CIA-sponsored contras sold large amounts of cocaine powder that was turned into crack in predominately black neighborhoods of Los Angeles at the time that the crack epidemic was beginning there, and some of the drug profits were sent to the contras to buy war supplies."
Ceppos has given dozens of media interviews on the series, including one to AJR for a November article, but says he will no longer do so. He stands by the story and says that he has been misquoted. When asked to discuss "Dark Alliance" for this story, he declined, referring a reporter to his November 3 column in the Mercury News.
"Interestingly," he wrote, "all of the articles accept parts of our core finding as fact--that drug dealers associated with the contras sold some amount of drugs in Los Angeles at around the time the crack explosion happened. Most agree that some of the money went to the contras. I continue to believe that's news, by anyone's standards, despite the what's-the-big-deal tone of our critics."
Ceppos attempted to respond to the Post's criticism in a two-page letter. The embattled editor found some support from Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, who chided her paper for not giving Ceppos the opportunity to respond.
The Mercury News has also been criticized for using a logo in which a figure smoking crack was superimposed over the CIA seal with the words "The story behind the crack explosion" underneath. Although it wasn't used as the logo for the series, the version with the CIA seal appeared on the Web site, with the original series in the paper as a teaser to the site and in some reprints.
After the Post raised questions about the logo's implications, Ceppos had it removed from the Web site and ordered hundreds of reprints destroyed. Ceppos told an L.A. Times reporter that editing standards at the paper's Web site are not always consistent with those of the print version of the paper. This angered Mercury Center staffers, and Ceppos personally apologized to them and wrote a letter to the L.A. Times modifying his earlier statement.
Ceppos says he wishes the paper had included a paragraph high up in the story stating it had not been able to conclusively prove CIA involvement (see "Spelling Out What You Don't Know," December). Webb, on the other hand, says he has problems with that approach and is glad the paper didn't do so. However, in the wake of the criticism, the paper routinely includes this sentence in followup stories: "The Mercury News series never reported direct CIA involvement, though many readers drew that conclusion."
Some journalists say the paper has adopted a "blame-the-reader" approach. Yet even its own editorial board drew the conclusions most of the public did. A headline over one editorial read, "Another CIA disgrace: Helping the crack flow."
Rob Elder, the paper's editorial page editor, says he stands by the editorial but that it might have been written differently had he read the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times articles first. "I wish I could have read them before," he says. "We all have different viewpoints after reading them."
Says the L.A. Times' McManus, "It's been hard to figure out whether they stand by everything they wrote or whether they've had second thoughts because, at different times, they seem to express different sentiments. I still hate to say nasty things about other editors, and I hope I'm wrong. But it somehow seems disingenuous for the editor to say the paper never intended anyone to get the inference that the CIA had anything to do with the introduction of crack to L.A. The readers got that point. Their editorial board got that point." To its credit, the Mercury News did not try to hide the criticism. It put the Post story and others raising questions about the series on its Web site and it assigned one of its best reporters, Pulitzer Prize-winner Pete Carey, to explore the Post's analysis.
Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive recently asked Carey how he felt checking out Webb's story. "I said I had a bad feeling in my stomach the whole time," Carey told AJR as he recounted the conversation. Kornbluh asked why. Carey responded, "Have you ever been a reporter in a newsroom? This is an awful experience." Webb, too, says it was a "very awkward" situation.
Nine days after the Post story appeared, Carey had his own front page analysis examining the criticism but reaching no conclusions. Carey acted more like an ombudsman for the paper performing an in-house audit. He did not write a correction, Carey says, but rather took note of criticisms and tried to answer them. He quoted three experts disagreeing with some of the series' conclusions about the spread of the crack epidemic.
"The big issue," says Carey, "is did we structure and mold the information we had and present it in a manner that would lead readers and the many victims of the crack epidemic to blame the U.S. government for their pain and suffering?"
At presstime Carey was trying to put together the definitive explanation of how the crack epidemic began.
IN THE END, MANY WOULD ARGUE that, by leading reasonable readers to believe the CIA played a role in the origins of the crack explosion, the paper hurt its credibility, hurt journalism, caused irreparable damage in the black community and shed little light on the question of whether the CIA looked the other way while cocaine was smuggled into this country. Webb and his reporting have become as much the issue as the CIA and crack.###
"If the holes in the story hadn't been there," says Mercury News telecommunications reporter Howard Bryant, "there wouldn't have been all this negative coverage by other newspapers. That's what, as a black person, bothers me. Those papers have twice the resources we have. Who knows what they would have uncovered had they used their resources to build on the story rather than discredit it. You read the story and there really were holes in it. I just wonder why we had to oversell it."
And the overselling had a steep price. "I believe we'll be left with no smoking gun on the CIA," says Susan Rasky, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a former congressional reporter for the New York Times. "The Mercury News, a fine newspaper, will be left with a black eye, and the black community will be left to believe that not only is the government engaged in a conspiracy but the establishment media are as well."
On November 26, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing on alleged CIA involvement in drug trafficking. Blandon had testified the day before in a closed hearing, telling committee members he had channeled $60,000 to $65,000 in drug profits to the contras, but before he had met L.A. drug dealer Ricky Ross. "In response to direct questions from the committee, Mr. Blandon stated that he had never had any contact with the CIA and that the CIA was not involved in his drug trafficking business in any way," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.).
But that information may not matter to many who have read the series. When Miami Herald Executive Editor Doug Clifton was in Boston last fall, he saw fliers on telephone poles announcing a forum on how the CIA brought crack cocaine into the black community, based on the San Jose Mercury News' series.
"So the genie's out of the bottle," says Clifton. "No amount of refinement or backtracking or setting the record straight will put the genie back in. This is probably as clear-cut an example as you can have of why newspapers have to be so careful about their revelations."