Media Circus

The San Jose Mercury News' CIA-crack story: Anatomy of a journalistic train wreck.

Topics: CIA,

“never mind.” San Jose Mercury News editor Jerry Ceppos said it more carefully than that, but that’s what his May 11 column, which bore the headline “To our readers,” amounted to. Less than a year after his paper published a series of articles by investigative reporter Gary Webb insinuating that the Central Intelligence Agency helped introduce crack cocaine into black neighborhoods, Ceppos acknowledged that the series had oversimplified, misrepresented and deceived readers. The series, he confessed, did not meet the paper’s most basic journalistic standards.

Ceppos’ mea culpa was not entirely unexpected. The series, “Dark Alliance,” was immediately subjected to intensely critical media scrutiny, both within the paper and without, as the New York Times, Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times all disputed the series’ most newsworthy assertions. But this debunking failed to sway conspiracy theorists, Internet pundits, radio talk-show hosts and many blacks (notably Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.), who quickly embraced Webb’s apparent premise that the CIA at least countenanced the sale of crack. The story seemed to substantiate a theory long held by many people in the black community, that authorities introduced drugs (and AIDS) into the inner city as a form of racial genocide.

At first, Ceppos stood by the story, claiming that he found it perplexing that anyone could infer CIA involvement from Webb’s reporting. That, he said, was the beauty of the story.

Now Ceppos acknowledges that, however artfully the series might have avoided saying it, a credulous reader would have a hard time drawing any other conclusion from “Dark Alliance.”

But there’s one little problem. Gary Webb, who has become a celebrity, collected awards and won plaudits for “Dark Alliance,” doesn’t feel chastened and isn’t apologizing. He says his story is accurate. If readers leap to the conclusion that the CIA was responsible for the crack epidemic, that’s because, in his view, the agency WAS responsible. “We certainly didn’t pussyfoot around on that issue,” he says. “You can divert people from the issue, but somebody brought coke into this country and sold it in furtherance of U.S. foreign policy … I’ve got two years of research that shows I’m right.”



Many of Webb’s colleagues, however, say he’s wrong. Other Mercury News reporters I spoke to say they saw gaping holes in the series the day it came out. Apparently, even Ceppos had a hard time swallowing it: In a letter introducing a reprint of the series, he wrote, “At first I found the story too preposterous to take seriously.”

That a nexus of three shady individuals was responsible for the spread of crack — regardless of whether or not they had the CIA’s blessing — seemed ludicrous to many of Webb’s critics, who go on to skewer his reporting abilities. Webb made “a ton of mistakes, fundamental, beginning-journalism mistakes,” says William Rempel, a national investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. “They took two guys in the drug trade who had conversations with people in the CIA, and from that concluded that the CIA started the whole crack epidemic,” says Dan Thomasson, Washington bureau chief of Scripps Howard News Service. “I mean, give me a break!”

Why didn’t the people whose job it was to look for the story’s faults have the same apprehensions? Webb’s editors could easily have spiked it, or cut it, or demanded a more prudent rewrite — taking another look, for instance, at Webb’s assertion that cocaine “was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the CIA’s army started bringing it into South-Central [Los Angeles] in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices.”

Webb’s explanation is simple: The story has no factual faults. Period. “The thing was edited for months,” he says. “The editors were satisfied with the story. And the fact of the matter is, regardless of the quibbles, the story is true.”

Webb says that the reason his story was attacked by the big boys at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times is that those newspapers “have a long, gutless history” of dismissing the allegations and now “they’re seizing on anything they can to say, ‘See, we didn’t fall down on the job.’”

Webb declines to comment on why his own paper has now retreated from his work and hung him out to dry. He has some ideas, but says he’d need more facts before coming to a definitive conclusion.

Webb’s critics accuse him, in effect, of forcing a sensationalistic and explosive interpretation on a bunch of messy, ambiguous facts. Webb says that this interpretative process is inherent in doing journalism. “A journalist’s job is to find the closest proximity to the truth and not just dump a lot of ambiguities in the reader’s lap,” he says. “You have to make judgment calls every step of the way.”

The Mercury News reporters I talked to ultimately hold the editors responsible for publishing the story. “They were seeing nothing but Pulitzer,” says Howard Bryant, who writes about telecommunications. Chris Schmitt, a projects reporter, adds that the editors got too close to the material to see what wasn’t there. (The line of editors directly responsible for Webb’s series — city editor Dawn Garcia, assistant managing editor Paul Van Slambrouck, managing editor David Yarnold — didn’t return my phone calls or declined to talk.) Yet I was also told that Webb’s personality was a major source of the problems. The guy’s headstrong, I was told, a reporter who sees the world in black and white, with good guys and bad guys, and who seems to get his way by simply wearing editors down, fighting tooth and nail over every single editing change.

“A lot of people hate the guy,” says Bryant. “He’s like the Energizer bunny, for Christ’s sake — he just keeps on going and going.”

Ceppos, who earlier said that he hadn’t read the entire series before it ran (which was news to Webb), has been praised for owning up to the paper’s shortcomings. But beyond thinking that editors are easily cowed and confused, what is a reader to conclude from his recantation? That the series is sort of right? Or that Webb perpetuated a myth?

In any case, Webb continues his investigations of the CIA. He says he has filed four new stories since last summer that “significantly advance” his series, but he has no idea when, if ever, those stories will run. So far, they haven’t been edited.

A former newspaper reporter, Thomas Hackett is a freelance magazine writer who lives in New York.

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