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From AJR,   June 1997  issue

The Lessons of "Dark Alliance"   

An editor makes the best of a bad situation by taking responsibility for what went wrong.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


THE SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS has been relentlessly pummeled, and deservedly so, for the flaws in its much-ballyhooed "Dark Alliance" series. It's been clear for some time that the articles went too far in suggesting that a drug ring raising money for the contras triggered the crack cocaine epidemic that devastated America's inner cities and in implying that the CIA at least knew about the operation.

It was a classic case of taking a story too far (see "The Web That Gary Spun," January/February).

And thanks to the reach of the Internet and talk radio, and the embroidery they performed on the saga along the way, it has left the apparently ineradicable notion in many people's minds that the CIA brought cocaine to black America.

That's serious damage.

But even good newspapers, like good people, make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them.

Which brings us to Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos' column.

Nobody likes to admit that they've been wrong. Journalists, and news organizations, are particularly bad at it.

When a powerful investigative story comes under siege, there's a natural tendency for journalists to circle the wagons, to denounce the critics and the judges and the juries, to warn direly of chilling effects.

But Ceppos confronted the series' shortcomings head-on.

In flat, unemotional prose that made his merciless dissection of his own paper's work even more harrowing, he chronicled the problems: leaving out evidence that flew in the face of the series' thesis; oversimplifying the question of how the crack epidemic evolved; using "imprecise language and graphics" that created the notion--unsupported in Ceppos' view--that the CIA was involved.

Much of the criticism of the series, understandably, has been directed at its author, Gary Webb, who stands by his work and had been quoted as saying that he found his boss' post-mortem "nauseating."

But in Ceppos' view there was plenty of blame to go around. "I believe that we fell short at every step of our process...in the writing, editing and production of our work," he wrote. And he saved the classiest line for last: "But ultimately, the responsibility was, and is mine."

Given the prominent play of the series and its staggering reach, the paper should have played the column on page one above the fold, not on the front of its Perspective section. And Ceppos' mea culpa came awfully late, nine months after the series ran and long after it was debunked in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times. But there was another factor: As the firestorm erupted over "Dark Alliance," Ceppos was treated for prostate cancer.

Ceppos says the paper is changing the way it handles major investigations. That's a good thing.

As contributing writer Alicia C. Shepard's incisive piece in AJR's January/February issue showed, this was no way to put together such an explosive series.

Managing Editor David Yarnold, the project's godfather, left about a month before it ran to join Knight-Ridder New Media (he has since returned to his old job). Ceppos, preoccupied by the search for a new M.E., didn't read the entire opus before it went into the paper. The investigative projects editor didn't edit the series because the paper wanted to give others experience in handling such endeavors.

But while there are specific lessons for the Mercury News, there are broader lessons for journalists everywhere. For this seems to be an example of an all-too-common phenomenon. News organizations frequently get into trouble not for stories that are entirely bogus, but for taking solid stories and hyping them, or pushing them beyond what can be firmly established.

Think of the late ABC newsmagazine "Day One" and its suggestion that cigarette manufacturers were "spiking" their products (see "Up in Smoke," November 1995). Or the same network's "PrimeTime Live" and the way it omitted contradictory evidence in its Food Lion broadcast (see "The Lion's Share," March).

At a time when news organizations need to become bolder, not more timid, this is hardly a call for softening up coverage. We need more hard-hitting investigative reporting, not less.

It just has to be right.

One final thought: There's little doubt that the media's lack of accountability and perceived arrogance contribute to the public's low opinion of the press.

Taking responsibility, a la Jerry Ceppos, and striving to do things better are two great ways to start working toward rapprochement.