AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1997

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.     

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THE AWARDS DINNER IN San Francisco last November promised to be an awkward evening. Some worried what the reaction would be when the "Journalist of the Year" award was presented. How would the crowd of 240 behave when investigative reporter Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News, author of 1996's most controversial piece of journalism, received the crystal obelisk?

Webb's three-day series in August focused on two Nicaraguans who said they had imported and sold drugs during the 1980s to raise money for the CIA-backed contras, struggling at the time to overthrow Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime. The articles said that Oscar Danilo Blandon, Norwin Meneses and a Los Angeles drug dealer, "Freeway" Ricky Ross, had started the first mass market for crack in South-Central Los Angeles, ultimately triggering a nationwide crack epidemic.

The series, "Dark Alliance," also gave the impression--although it did not flatly assert--that the CIA was involved in crack cocaine's spread. "You can't read our series any other way than to suggest the CIA, at a minimum, turned a blind eye toward drug dealing in the United States," says Phil Yost, the Mercury News' chief editorial writer and an outspoken critic of his paper's high-profile series.

When the 20-member board of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists met in August, it was searching for outstanding local work by a single journalist. Webb, who had spent 15 months on his blockbuster series, was an obvious choice. But the board's unanimous vote took place before Webb's articles were subjected to withering criticism in early October.

Skeptics questioned the wisdom of giving Webb the award after the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times had sharply challenged the series' findings. But the chapter decided to press ahead. The task of presenting the award fell to emcee Dave McElhatton, a well-known anchor for CBS' San Francisco affiliate KPIX, who handled it with characteristic aplomb.

"Elements of the Mercury News series and presentation are open to dispute, as are criticisms of Webb's stories," McElhatton told the audience of journalists on November 12. "A full airing is necessary and good for us all. But the chapter is convinced that the best journalism is that which is not afraid to venture into controversial areas of overwhelming national significance."

When Webb accepted the award, he turned to his boss, Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos, who has borne much criticism. Webb told Ceppos of a bomber pilot who said that the flak is most intense when you are over the target.

The reporter received a standing ovation from virtually everyone in the audience, with the conspicuous exception of those at the two San Francisco Examiner tables. "I'm with the Examiner, and I did not stand because to stand would have shown my approval and respect," says Managing Editor/News Sharon Rosenhause. "You don't normally give an award to someone as 'Journalist of the Year' when there are all these questions and concerns."

The questions and concerns over Webb's story are myriad. Is what he wrote true? Was his reporting responsible? Did he selectively use information that backed up his thesis while ignoring evidence contradicting it? Was the series edited with enough care? Why didn't the executive editor read the entire series before it was published? Was any consideration given to the effect that the series might have on the African American community, where many have long believed the crack plague is part of a government conspiracy?

After the Mercury News series ran, it was quickly spun in the retelling. Black talk show hosts and listeners, the black media and the alternative press touted the story as proof that the CIA allowed the U.S.-backed contras to deal drugs in America and use the profits to buy weapons, blithely ignoring the damage to the black community. This particular sentence played a significant role in such interpretations: Cocaine "was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA's army brought it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain basement prices."

There are those--among them some journalists, CIA watchers, conspiracy theorists and black leaders--who argue that, regardless of the series' flaws, Webb has performed a public service by focusing attention on whether the CIA helped set off the crack cocaine epidemic. "Even though we can criticize the San Jose Mercury News story, the net effect is that it has generated major coverage of a scandal that really was never fully investigated and fully covered before," said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the private National Security Archive, in a radio interview.

While the core of Webb's stories may be true, he has been chastised for overselling the story by writing it in a way that would lead reasonable readers to conclude that the CIA was involved in the drug trafficking, referring repeatedly to the "CIA's army." And the series' major premise--that the trio highlighted in his series alone triggered the crack epidemic--has been contradicted by major newspapers.

For his part, Webb told a group of journalism students at the University of California at Berkeley in November that "anybody that read this story would be a fool if they came away with the conclusion that we said the CIA ran this operation. We were very specific in saying who did what."

Webb stands firmly behind his story, and hints that there is a part four in the works with "tons more information." He says he can't control what others are reading into his work.

Webb broke new ground on the 10-year-old story of a contra-cocaine connection. He was able to show how cheap Colombian cocaine, brought in by Nicaraguans, was sold to a specific drug dealer in South-Central Los Angeles, who turned it into crack. "That's an advance," says Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus. "I wish we'd picked up that and pursued it."

Yet by overreaching, the well-respected Mercury News hurt its hard-won credibility and shifted the focus from the essence of its story to questions about the reporter and the paper's editing process. Some journalists argue that it was irresponsible to publish such an incendiary story without making absolutely sure all claims could be fully supported.

The level of anger among African Americans, many of whom interpreted the series as conclusive evidence that the federal government encouraged drug trafficking in their neighborhoods, was apparent when CIA Director John M. Deutch met with residents of South-Central Los Angeles at a heated public forum on November 15. Few appeared to be mollified by Deutch's assertion that the CIA had nothing to do with drug trafficking and his promise to fully investigate the affair.

"The paper, in order to act responsibly, needed to recognize this story was going to have a huge impact, not just on the black community, but on everyone's faith in the government," says Joann Byrd, who taught ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies before becoming the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's editorial page editor. "This was going to be a terrifically big story. If a journalist thinks a story is going to have a big impact, you better have an absolutely unimpeachable report, and this one wasn't."

Some of the harshest criticism has come from Mercury News staffers. "Virtually every claim in the opening paragraphs has been shown to be, at best, a disputed assertion," says editorial writer Yost. "The story takes no account of contrary evidence. The relationship between the CIA, drug-runners and black America is a sensitive topic. We have not served well the cause of getting at the truth; we have served the cause of creating a sensation." Journalists from other newspapers have also found fault with Webb's reporting and conclusions. The Miami Herald, which, like the Mercury News, is owned by Knight-Ridder, decided not to run the San Jose paper's series because it raised too many red flags.

At the Mercury News, concerns about the intellectual honesty of the series and the torrent of negative publicity virtually paralyzed the paper for a brief period last fall. Reporters who don't like Webb because of his aggressive style, and there are many, are quick to criticize his work. Those sympathetic to Webb's editors are more apt to defend it. "I've been here almost 20 years," says telecommunications reporter Mike Antonucci, "and I haven't ever seen a story touch a nerve internally as much as this one."

T HE SERIES RAN AUGUST18-20. While its allegations were breathtaking, equally impressive were the paper's efforts to place the story and scores of supporting documents on its Web site. Not only could the paper's readers examine the story, hundreds of thousands more could--and did--read it online on its Mercury Center site. Yet initially it was largely ignored by network news and major newspapers.

Lori Leibovich, assistant editor of the online magazine Salon, asked Webb a month after his series ran why it wasn't picked up by the mainstream media. "By now, journalists have read the series, and they're figuring out how to tell this story in 12 inches because that's what most newspapers have the space to do these days," Webb replied. "Secondly, a lot of newspapers--and TV particularly--they're just chickenshit."

But while the Old Media weren't interested, the New Media were eating it up. Thanks to the potent combination of talk radio and the Internet, "Dark Alliance" slowly and inexorably attracted national attention.

Black-oriented talk shows in particular played a major part in bringing the series to the fore. "I think talk radio played a very substantial role in energizing audiences on this story," says Bob Ryan, director of Mercury Center. And cyberspace helped build the momentum. "The Internet," says Ryan, "made it easy for the talk radio shows and the alternative press to read the story, process it and pass it on--often with embellishments, interpretations and conclusions not present in the story."

And while the pieces appeared in a Northern California newspaper, they resonated powerfully to the south, in South-Central Los Angeles, a prominent victim of crack's carnage. The fiery Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who represents the area, and other black leaders were outraged. They quickly secured promises of congressional hearings and a CIA investigation into the paper's charges.

Two of the nation's leading newspapers, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, both of which serve large black communities, were besieged with outraged calls. "Why aren't you covering this story?" demanded readers, some of whom accused the papers of being part of a cover-up.

Webb had predicted that the mainstream media would ignore his findings. In an effort to stimulate interest, the paper tried to take advantage of a news peg. It scheduled the series to begin just before drug kingpin Ricky Ross--a prominent figure in the articles--was to be sentenced on cocaine charges.

"That way, the San Diego and L.A. papers can use the news angles of the sentencing as a way of getting into the story themselves--without having to give the San Jose Mercury News any credit," Webb wrote to Ross in prison on July 15, adding that the series had once again been postponed because top editors hadn't read it.

Ross' sentencing was delayed, but Webb still worked at drumming up publicity. For a time, the Mercury News' Web site for "Dark Alliance" (http://www.sjmercury. com/drugs/) kept readers informed about Webb's media appearances. In September, people calling Webb at the paper's Sacramento bureau heard a message asking them to leave this information on the answering machine: "Your name or the name of your organization or show, channel, frequency, audience--including type and size--and the date and time of the requested interview or appearance."

But despite his efforts, by September's end the major papers and the networks still hadn't paid much attention to "Dark Alliance."

"I looked at it when it initially came out and decided this was not something we needed to follow up on quite the way they [the Mercury News] put it," says Karen DeYoung, the Post's assistant managing editor for national news. "When it became an issue proliferating in the African American community and on talk shows, that seemed to be a different phenomenon."

The Post then turned to reporters Roberto Suro, Douglas Farah and Walter Pincus, who covered the Iran-contra affair, to look into the Mercury News' story. Michael A. Fletcher reported on the firestorm Webb's story had created in the black community and on Capitol Hill, where legislators and prominent black leaders including Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan were demanding--and getting--investigations.

"The phenomenon of the reaction was, in and of itself, a story," says DeYoung. "But to explain and address the phenomenon, we had to report the story ourselves."

The Post reporters reached conclusions strikingly different from Webb's. "A Washington Post investigation into Ross, Blandon, Meneses and the U.S. cocaine market in the 1980s found that the available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras--or Nicaraguans in general--played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States," the paper reported on October 4.

The Post said the two Nicaraguans were small-time cocaine dealers with weak contra links and couldn't have started the crack epidemic by themselves. The paper said that, contrary to the Mercury News' assertion that Blandon was the "Johnny Appleseed of crack in California," the two men's drug deals were "only a small portion of the nation's cocaine trade."

The Post wrote that Blandon, according to his testimony in federal court, had actually stopped sending drug money to the contras before he began dealing with Ross in 1983 or 1984.

Suro and Pincus also challenged the way Webb obtained information from Blandon. Unable to reach Blandon after trying many avenues, Webb fed questions to Ricky Ross' attorney, who was cross-examining Blandon at the time. Some say Webb influenced Ross' trial by raising questions about Blandon's possible CIA connection.

Webb sees nothing wrong with this. "This was a perfect situation," Webb told journalism students at Berkeley. "You had the target of your investigation sitting up there on the witness stand under oath in federal district court.... How many people wouldn't do that if you couldn't interview him directly?"

As the Post was working on its story, the Los Angeles Times was agonizing over how to react to such an explosive story on its own turf--and in an area that the Times is often accused of ignoring. Members of the Los Angeles black community noted sarcastically that they had to rely on a Northern California paper to confirm their suspicions about government involvement in drug trafficking. Editor Shelby Coffey III wanted his paper to do something more substantial than daily stories on the uproar.

In the middle of September, Times Washington Bureau Chief McManus got a phone call from an editor in Los Angeles. "What's this all about?" McManus was asked. "What do you think we should do?" The Times ultimately decided to throw three editors and 14 reporters at the story and do a three-part series. It ran October 20-22--two months after the Mercury News' series.

The first part explored how and when crack had come to Los Angeles. "Crack was already here" before Blandon began selling cheap cocaine, the Times asserted. The second part looked at whether a CIA-sponsored operation funneled millions to the contras, as Webb had claimed. The third part dealt with why the story had such a powerful impact on the black community.

The Times could find no proof that "millions" had been funneled to the contras by Blandon and Meneses, as the Mercury News had reported. At most, Times reporters could substantiate that about $50,000 was sent to the guerrillas.

(When he asked the Mercury News' Ceppos how the paper had arrived at the "millions" figure, McManus says Ceppos put him on hold and asked one of the series' editors, who told him it was an estimate based on the volume the dealers had sold and the prevailing market price. However, while the lead of the opening story said "millions," later in the piece Webb wrote, "It was not clear how much of the money found its way back to the CIA's army....")

The Times, like the Post, also disputed the Mercury News' timeline, saying Blandon had sold cocaine and sent the profits to the contras for less than a year. Webb wrote that this arrangement was in place from 1981 until 1986, when Blandon was arrested.

Webb counters that it's the big national papers, not the Mercury News, that got it wrong. "The problem was they got the information from government officials and didn't check what they were told," he told AJR. "I had five or six independent sources saying Meneses and Blandon were dealing [for the contras] all the way through until 1986." He noted he'd spent more than a year reporting the story while the others had spent weeks.

The Times also strongly disputed the Mercury News' contention that Blandon, Ross and Meneses were the first to open the cocaine pipeline from Colombia's cartels to Los Angeles' inner city.

But the paper relied on anonymous sources to make important points that contradicted the Mercury News' findings. McManus says that may be a valid criticism of his paper's work, adding, "I wish we had been able to identify them by names, of course."

The Times also rewrote history in its series. In a 1994 series on crack, the Times' Jesse Katz described Ross as the biggest drug dealer in town. Two years later, as Ross' importance soared in the Mercury News, it plummeted in the Times. In its October series, Ross was depicted as just one of the city's major dealers. "So which one of these stories about Ross is true?" asks Mercury News reporter Pete Carey.

On October 21, the New York Times weighed in with a front page story discounting Meneses' and Blandon's contra credentials, suggesting they were more likely garden-variety drug dealers using the contra cause as a convenient cover. "What was really new was Blandon's relationship with Ricky Ross," says Tim Golden, who covered the contra saga in the mid-1980s for the Miami Herald. Among others, Golden, now the New York Times' San Francisco bureau chief, describes the Mercury News as having inflated a newsworthy story by implying that the CIA was directly involved in starting the crack epidemic.

While the big three attacked Webb's premise, they did concede he had advanced the story beyond what had been reported on the subject in the mid-1980s, when the suggestion of CIA involvement in drug smuggling was a prominent issue that warranted a Senate investigation. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the investigating subcommittee, said in 1989 that, despite suspicions, the panel couldn't prove the agency had allowed coke smuggling to help the contras.

"Webb had a good story about two drug dealers loosely connected to the contras in the early 1980s--an item to add to the list of evidence linking contras and cocaine trafficking," wrote David Corn, the Washington editor of The Nation, who has written extensively about the CIA. "But the paper went too far, claiming without solid proof that 'millions' flowed from these mid-level dealers to the contras--it may have been $50,000--and in tying these traffickers to the rise of crack, a phenomenon bigger than a mere two pushers."
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