CounterAttack, Part Two, Excerpted from Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press.
Despite Ceppos’s anger at the Washington Post, the unrelenting attacks from organizations that he held in great professional esteem were beginning to take their toll. It is also quite possible that he was feeling pressure from within the Knight-Ridder empire. To judge from the bleating tone of his pieces about the Webb series in the Mercury News the November 4 article, for example Ceppos may not have had quite the necessary backbone to hold up under pressure.
Ceppos assigned another Mercury News investigative reporter, Pete Carey, to review Webb’s reporting against the charges of the media critics. On October 12 the Mercury News published Carey’s findings, which backed up Webb’s work and actually added new information, particularly regarding the 1986 search warrant against Blandón and his arms-dealing associate, Ronald Lister. But though Webb’s reporting was vindicated, the assignment to Carey was an omen of the paper’s increasing defensiveness.
Another omen was Ceppos’s reaction to charges that Webb had a vested interest in the story because he had a book offer and film offers. The Los Angeles Times reported, inaccurately, that Webb had signed a deal. “This story really pissed off Ceppos,” Webb recalls. “He said it made the paper look bad.” Webb told Ceppos he didn’t have any deals. Ceppos then told Webb, “I don’t want you to sign any deals and if you sign any book deals or movie deals you can’t work on this story for us anymore.”
“That’s kind of asking a lot,” Webb says he answered. “This is what most reporters dream of.”
“Well, you’ll have to make up your mind,” Ceppos said. “You can either do a book deal or you can work on it for us.”
Webb went home to talk over the ultimatum with his wife, Sue, a respiratory therapist. She told him, “Screw them. Do the book. Do the movie and let the Mercury News worry about itself.”
“I owe it to the paper,” Webb answered. “They’re being sniped at.” So he called up Hotchkiss at Sterling Lord and told him, “Forget the books. Forget the movie deals. They want me to do more stories. Then I’ll do the book.”
Sue had better instincts about the Mercury News than her husband. Having told Webb to give up the deals and write the stories for the paper, Ceppos thus did his reporter out of book and movie advances, then failed to run the stories and finally tried to ruin his career.
The next assault was a double-barreled one from either side of the continent, on Sunday, October 17, in the New York Times, staff reporter Tim Golden was given an entire page on which to flail away at Webb. In the Los Angeles Times, an army of fourteen reporters and three editors put out a three-part series, intended to finish off Webb forever.
Golden’s piece, entitled “The Tale of CIA and Drugs Has Life of Its Own,” was remarkable, among other reasons, for the pullulating anonymity of its sources. Golden claimed to have interviewed “more than two dozen current and former rebels, CIA officers and narcotics agents.” From these informants, Golden had concluded that there was “scant” proof to support the paper’s contention that Nicaraguan rebel officials linked to the CIA played a central role in spreading crack through Los Angeles and other cities. One conspicuous common link between all the officials quoted by Golden as being critical of Webb is that they remained anonymous. Only Adolfo Calero permitted himself to be identified. Golden’s editors at the New York Times allowed him to offer scores of blind quotes without any identification. The Mercury News never offered Webb that indulgence, nor did he request it.
In truth, Golden’s story had no substance whatsoever. He got his final word on the story from that well-known Uncle Tom to the thumb-sucking crowd, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a black professor from the Harvard University Medical School. Poussaint, who is always being wheeled out in these situations, ascribed the reaction of black America to the Mercury News story as another case of black paranoia. This tendresse for the CIA’s reputation was nothing new for the New York Times. In 1987, its reporter Keith Schneider weighed in with a three-part series dismissing allegations of Contra drug trafficking. A month later Schneider explained to In These Times magazine why he took that approach. He said such a story could “shatter the Republic. I think it is so damaging, the implications are so extraordinary, that for us to run the story, it had better be based on the most solid evidence we could amass.” In other words, it would have to be approved by the Agency.
Of all the attacks on Webb, the Los Angeles Times series was the most elaborate and the most disingenuous. For two months the dominant newspaper in Southern California had been derided for missing the big story on its own doorstep. The only way it could salvage its reputation was to claim that there’d been no big story to miss. This is the path it took. It would have been extraordinary if the Times had the decency to clap the Mercury News on the back and praise it for good work, particularly given the disposition of its editor-in-chief at the time, Shelby Coffee III. Coffee came to Los Angeles from the Washington Post, where he had been editor of the Style section. He was regarded there as a smooth courtier in the retinue of Katharine Graham and not in any way as a boat rocker. It would have gone against every instinct for Coffee to have endorsed a story so displeasing to liberal elites. “He is the dictionary definition of someone who wants to protect the status quo,” said Dennis McDougal, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, in an interview with New Times, “He weighs whether or not an investigative piece will have repercussions among the ruling elites and if it will, the chances of seeing it in print in the LA Times decrease accordingly.”
The mood of the group doing the series, under the leadership of Doyle McManus, could scarcely be described as one of objective dispassion. They referred to themselves as the “Get Gary Webb Team,” as Peter Kornbluh reported in the Columbia Journalism Review, and bragged in the office about denying Webb his Pulitzer.
The most important task for the hit squad was to deal with its own backyard. They assigned Webb’s old nemesis Jesse Katz the task of undermining Webb’s assertion that the Blandón/Ross cocaine ring helped spark the crack epidemic in Los Angeles. Katz duly turned in an article claiming that “the explosion of cheap smokable cocaine in the 1980s was a uniquely egalitarian phenomenon, one that lent itself more to makeshift mom and pop operations than to the sinister hand of a government-sanctioned plot.” Katz went on to minimize the role of Rick Ross: “How the crack epidemic reached that extreme, on some level, had nothing to do with Ricky Ross.” Katz then asserted that gangs had little or nothing to do with the crack trade, stating flatly that crack sales did not “fill the coffers of the Bloods and the Crips.” He also disputed the idea that crack use had spread across the country from Los Angeles.
This was a substantial turnaround from what the Los Angeles Times and Katz had previously reported, before the task of demolishing the Mercury News became paramount. The drumbeat of the newspaper during the mid- and late 1980s was that the Los Angeles Police Department had to crush the gangs. In a 1987 news story, the Times described the gangs as “the foot soldiers of the Colombian cartels.” On August 4, 1989, another news story sympathetically relayed a Justice Department report: “Los Angeles street gangs now dominate the rock cocaine trade in Los Angeles and elsewhere, due in part to their steady recourse to murderous violence to enforce territorial dealing supremacy, to deter cheating and to punish rival gang members. The LAPD has identified 47 cities, from Seattle to Kansas City, to Baltimore, where Los Angeles street gang traffickers have appeared.”
As for Ross, on December 20, 1994 the Los Angeles Times had published a 2,400-word investigative report by Katz entitled “Deposed King of Crack Now Freed After Five Years in Prison. This Master Marketer Was Key to the Drug’s Spread in LA.” Katz pulled out all the stops in his lead. “If there was an eye to the storm, if there was a criminal mastermind behind crack’s decade-long reign, if there was an outlaw capitalist most responsible for flooding Los Angeles’ streets with mass-marketed cocaine, his name was Freeway Rick.” Katz reported that “Ross did more than anyone else to democratize it, boosting volume, slashing prices, and spreading disease on a scale never before conceived.” Katz called Ross “South Central’s first multi-millionaire crack lord” and said “his coast-to-coast conglomerate was selling more than $500,000 a day, a staggering turnover that put the drug within reach of anyone with a few dollars.”
A day later, it was Doyle McManus who tried to undermine Webb’s work on the Contra connection. One hopes that McManus felt some slight tinge of embarrassment at his newspaper’s attack on Webb for unethical behavior in signing a book deal (which, as we have seen, Webb had not in fact done). McManus himself had reported on the Iran/Contra scandal, and simultaneously put out a book on the affair, co-written with Jane Mayer. McManus went the familiar route of larding his story with unattributed quotes from Contras, CIA men and associates of Blandón, all of them naturally enough protesting their innocence. “I wish we had been able to identify them by names of course,” McManus piously told Alicia Shepard of the American Journalism Review. McManus, apparently in some sort of journalistic race to the bottom with his co-assailants Pincus and Golden, contended that Meneses gave the Contras only $20 to $30 at a time, and asserted that Meneses’s and Blandón’s total contribution was far less than $50,000. This conclusion is derived from McManus’s unnamed informants, and has to be set against court testimony, under oath, from numerous named sources cited by Webb. No less an authority than assistant federal prosecutor L. J. O’Neale, who lowballed the dollar figures for reasons noted earlier, had still produced a number of more than $2 million in a single year.
McManus tried to establish a scenario in which Blandón and Meneses gave very little to the Contras, to whom they were not connected in any official capacity, and in which Meneses’s cocaine never made it to Rick Ross to be transformed into crack. McManus claimed Ross’s crack came from Colombian cocaine and had nothing to do with the Nicaraguans. In McManus’s version, Blandón and Meneses were incompetent stooges. However, amid all this dogged effort to subvert Webb’s chronology, McManus tripped himself up badly. He alleged that Blandón and Meneses had severed their relationship “entirely by 1983.” A few paragraphs later, amid an anecdote designed to establish Meneses as head of a gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight, McManus quoted at length a description of a scene at Meneses’s house in San Francisco in November 1984. The unnamed source is identified as a member of the Blandón cocaine ring. He is describing the reaction of Meneses and Blandón to the news that Jairo Meneses, Meneses’s cousin, and Renato Peña Cabrerra, official spokesman for the FDN’s San Francisco group, had just been busted on cocaine charges. Although McManus had just said that Meneses and Blandón had split two years earlier, he now had them in the midst of a division of cash from a cocaine deal. “Danilo and Norwin had done some business deal. The deal is 40 to 50 kilos. The money was all divvied up. There was cash all over the place. Norwin had steaks on the grill. It was going to be a big party. The phone rings and Margarita shrieks, ‘Jairo’s been arrested!’ Well, everybody cleared out in a heartbeat. They grabbed the money and ran. I don’t think anyone turned off the steaks.”
It’s hard to imagine an anecdote that could more effectively rebut everything McManus had previously labored to establish.
McManus’s other objective was to assert the moral purity of the CIA. To this end he interviewed Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA officer and staffer at the National Security Council at the time Oliver North was manfully toiling at Reagan’s behest to keep the Contras afloat. Cannistraro told McManus that sometimes CIA station chiefs turn a blind eye to “misdeeds by the foreign collaborators they recruit.” Cannistraro referred to this trait as “falling in love with your agent.” Cannistraro adamantly insisted, however, that there’s “no tendency to turn a blind eye to drug trafficking. It’s too sensitive. It’s not a fine line. It’s not a shaded area where you can turn away from the rules.” (In 1998 the CIA Inspector General finally admited to Congress that in 1982 the Agency had received clearance from the Justice Department not to report drug trafficking by CIA assets.) What McManus failed to confide to his readers was that Cannistraro had a deep personal interest in denying any Agency tolerance for trafficking. He had supervised many of the CIA/Contra operations and was then transferred to the NSC, where he oversaw US aid to the Afghan mujahidin. As we shall see, the mujahidin were heavily engaged in the trafficking of opium and heroin. Perhaps the most piquant bit of effrontery in McManus’s attack was his assertion that even if Meneses had been selling drugs in California and remitting the profits to the Contras, the CIA would have had to turn a blind eye, because the Agency was prohibited from domestic spying!
Even after his pummeling by the two big West and East Coast papers, Webb felt he still retained the support of his editors. “They urged me to continue digging on the story so that we could stick to the Washington Post,” For the next two months, Webb continued his research. He flushed out more evidence of direct CIA knowledge of Meneses’s operations in Costa Rica and El Salvador. He traced how the DEA made Meneses one of their informer/assets as early as 1985. And he secured more evidence on the controversial money angle, finding that as much as $5 million was channeled back to the Contras from the Blandón/Meneses ring in 1983 alone. Webb turned the stories in to his editor, Dawn Garcia, in January 1997, and the newspaper sat on them. “They didn’t edit them,” Webb recalls. “They told me that they had read them, but they never asked me for any supporting documentation. They never asked any questions about them.”
Then Webb got a call from a friend, saying that a reporter had requested copies of all of Webb’s clippings. The reporter seemed interested in digging into Webb’s personal background. She particularly asked about an incident in which Webb had fired his .22 at a man who had been trying to steal his prized TR6 and who threatened Webb and his then-pregnant wife. (The man turned out to be a known local crook already convicted of manslaughter.) The reporter pursuing this story was Alicia Shepard of the American Journalism Review. Shepard had formerly worked as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. Her story was another smear on Webb’s journalistic ethics, but this time the smears were coming from a source much closer to home. Shepard recounted how Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner (a paper boasting Chris Matthews as its Washington, D.C. correspondent), had filed a petition with the Society of Professional Journalists to have Webb stripped of the Journalist of the Year Award that had just been bestowed on him. This had elicited a stinging letter from the director of the Society of Professional Journalists, emphasizing how Rosenhause had a private agenda, and how the society stood behind Webb.
Shepard got several Mercury News staffers to go on record with their criticism of Webb and his stories. Economics writer Scott Thrum, investigative editors Jonathan Krim and Chriss Schmitt, editorial page editor Rob Elder, and the most virulent critic of all, Phil Yost, who is the chief editorial writer for the Mercury News. The criticisms consisted mostly of hand-wringing by nervous colleagues who felt that Webb had compromised the newspaper’s “hard-won credibility.” Yost simply reiterated the charges made by other newspapers. It was a disgusting demonstration of backstabbing. And it showed clearly that the Mercury News was beginning to distance itself from Webb.
What accounts for the vicious edge to many of these attacks on Webb? One reason for the animosity of the California reporters can be traced back to one of Webb’s earliest investigations for the Mercury News. His story revealed that a number of reporters were moonlighting for the very agencies they were supposed to be covering for example, how a TV reporter in Sacramento was being paid by the California Highway Patrol for coaching officers on how to deal with the press. He uncovered a curriculum for the TV reporter’s class describing how the CHP should call up editors and complain about unfavorable stories. Webb also exposed reporters at the Sacramento Bee and United Press International, who had received state contracts from the California Lottery Commission. Webb says that after this story appeared, his colleagues regarded him as an outsider.
Another reason for ostracism by his colleagues could be what Webb describes as racist attitudes among the Mercury News staff toward the editor of his series, Dawn Garcia. “I don’t think she has a lot of friends in that newsroom, because she came in and she was regarded as one of the Hispanic hires, a quota hire. That’s unfair. She’s a good newsperson. She took a job from someone that was widely liked in the newsroom.”
With his stories sitting unpublished on his editor’s desk, some time in early 1997 Webb got a call from Georg Hodel, who had done legwork for him in Nicaragua. Hodel said that he had located four other members of the Meneses/Blandón operation who were willing to talk to Webb. Webb called his editors and said he was going to Nicaragua. They told him they didn’t want him to go until they figured out what to do with his stories. Worried that the drug dealers might disappear, Webb said he’d go anyway, on his own time and money.
Soon after he returned to Sacramento from Nicaragua, Webb got a call from Jerry Ceppos, who had spent much of the winter months being treated for prostate cancer. Ceppos told Webb that he was going to publish a letter in the Mercury News admitting that “mistakes had been made” in the “Dark Alliance” series. Ceppos originally wanted to run the apologia in the Easter Sunday edition. When Webb saw a draft of the column, he was outraged. “This is idiotic,” Webb recalls telling Ceppos. “Half this stuff isn’t even true. It’s unconscionable to run this.” Ceppos told Webb not to take it personally, that it was just a column and it didn’t mean the paper was trying to hang him out to dry.
Webb insisted that he thought Ceppos’s column was unethical for a number of reasons, including the fact that though it said there had been shortcomings in the series, it made no reference to the fact that six months of further research had substantiated and advanced most of Webb’s original findings. Ceppos replied that they didn’t “want to get into that kind of detail.”
Ceppos’s column ran on May 11. It was a retreat on every front, and a shameful day for American journalism. It accused Webb of leaving out contradictory information, of failing to emphasize that the multimillion-dollar figure was an estimate, and of not including the obligatory denials of the CIA. The series, Ceppos said, had oversimplified the origins of the crack epidemic. Ceppos also declared that the series had wrongly implied CIA knowledge of the Contra drug ring.
Predictably, Ceppos’s appalling betrayal of his own reporter was greeted with exuberance by the New York Times, where Todd Purdum used it to legitimize the New York Times’s original attack and to lash out at Webb as a paranoid. Purdum also alleged that Ceppos’s column had been based on “an exhaustive review” written by a seven-member Mercury News team of reporters and editors. Both the “exhaustive review” and the team had never existed, according to Webb. Though Webb had submitted four stories totaling 14,000 words, Ceppos told Purdum that the reporter had only submitted “notes and ideas.” Purdum also marshalled disobliging blind quotes from Webb’s Mercury News colleagues.
The Ceppos column was also greeted with glee on the New York Times editorial page, where Ceppos got a patronizing clap on the back for his “courageous gesture.” The editorial again affixed blame on Webb, saying that Ceppos’s action “sets a high standard for cases in which journalists make egregious errors.” Webb had made no such errors. Down at Langley, the CIA was quick to use Ceppos’s letter to assert that the Agency had been absolved. “It’s gratifying to see,” said the Agency’s Mark Mansfield, “that a large segment of the media, including the San Jose Mercury News, has taken an objective look at how this story was constructed and reported.”
Nor did the Ceppos letter escape notice by Nicaragua’s right wing, with perilous consequences for those who had worked on the story with Webb and who had been interviewed by him. The Nicaraguan press, chiefly La Prensa, which had been funded for years by the CIA, ran stories denouncing Webb and urging people to sue him, as well as Hodel and others associated with the story. The Nicaraguan papers alleged that the Mercury News would not mount a defense against such libel actions.
It wasn’t long before Georg Hodel became the target of harassment and a possible murder attempt. In mid-June 1997, about a month after Ceppos disowned Webb, Hodel and an attorney for several of the men he and Webb had interviewed were run off the road in Nicaragua and threatened by a group of armed thugs. Hodel and the lawyer escaped and went to a police station to file a complaint. A few days later, a story appeared in one of Nicaragua’s right-wing papers saying that Hodel and his companions had gotten drunk and driven off the road themselves.
Meanwhile, the Mercury News had told Webb that his follow-up stories were being killed and that he was being reassigned to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, 150 miles from Sacramento. Webb filed a grievance against the paper.
The New York Times continued its vendetta. In perhaps the lowest of all the attacks, Iver Peterson, one of the newspaper’s more undistinguished reporters, went back over Webb’s investigative pieces before he embarked on the “Dark Alliance” series. Peterson charged that Webb had a history of playing loose with the facts and having “a penchant for self-promotion.” He reached this conclusion after dredging up four libel suits, two of which had been dismissed and two of which had been settled. Webb says no major corrections were ever required. (The Times refused to print Webb’s letter correcting the record, which is reproduced below.) Peterson also quoted from the targets of Webb’s investigations, who, predictably, were not appreciative of the reporter. Back in his Ohio days as a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Webb had exposed Ohio Supreme Court Judge Frank D. Celebrezze as being in receipt of political contributions from organizations tied to the mob. Celebrezze had sued. There was a settlement and no retraction. Peterson dutifully cited Celebrezze’s eager comment that Webb “lied about me and whatever happens to him I think he deserves.” It was as if some reporter had used Richard Nixon as a reliable source on the quality of reporting by the New York Times.
However, the coverup and counterattacks had not yet ended. There was the delicate matter of how to deal with the CIA’s own internal probe. It’s a neat trick to get great coverage for a report you haven’t published and that no journalist has actually seen. You need accomplices. The CIA once again used its friends in the press to issue a self-serving news release on its internal investigation of charges that the Agency had connived in Contra drug smuggling into Los Angeles in the early 1980s.
In this particular piece of news management, the CIA outdid itself. In the past, it has relied on its journalistic allies to put the best face on probes that, albeit heavily censored, displayed the Agency in an unpleasing light. But in late December 1997, the CIA elicited friendly coverage, even though the report by the CIA’s own Inspector General remained unpublished and under heavy security wraps.
It will be recalled that a month after Webb’s story first appeared, the CIA’s director John Deutch announced that the Agency’s Inspector General, Frederick Hitz, was launching “the most comprehensive analysis ever done” of CIA activities in this sphere. The gambit of the internal probe was initially confined to the allegations made by Webb, but was then widened to take in any references to drug connections in the CIA’s files. Also launched in the fall of 1996 was a Justice Department review of Webb’s charges. Deutch initially pledged that the CIA report would be finished and released to the public by the end of December 1996. Sixteen months went by.
Then on December 18, 1997 came stories in the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News under headlines such as “CIA Clears Itself in Crack Investigation.” CNN picked up the Mercury News’s story immediately, telling viewers that the very paper that had made the initial charges against the CIA was now reporting that “an investigation” had absolved the Agency.
But where was the CIA report that had prompted the stories in the LA Times and Mercury News? Unavailable. Reason? It depended who one called. The stories in the LA Times and Mercury News about the mysterious report were filed on Wednesday, December 17 and appeared in print the next day. Then on Thursday, the Justice Department announced its view that public release of the CIA report would damage current criminal investigations. When called, the CIA’s press department stated that the CIA now wanted to wait until mid-January, when the second part of the Inspector General’s report was supposedly to be finished. Later that Thursday, the Justice Department stated that it would edit the CIA’s and its own probes to purge them of any compromising material.
In other words, one was being asked to believe that after sixteen months the CIA and Justice Department had somehow, entirely by accident, contrived a news “event” that exonerated the CIA in major headlines, without providing any evidence to support such a conclusion. Imagine the fury that would have been unleashed if Webb had written a news story thus shorn of any documentary substantiation.
Friday, December 19 brought stories in the New York Times by Tim Weiner and in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus, who had started the press onslaught on Webb in the fall of 1996. Weiner’s story ran under the headline, “CIA Says It Has Found No Link Between Itself and Crack Trade.” Weiner quoted no named sources and relied entirely on our old friend, “a government official who would not allow his name to be used.” Pincus quoted three anonymous officials who claimed that the CIA report shows “no direct or indirect link” between the CIA and cocaine traffickers.
Just how thorough was the CIA’s much-touted probe of itself? All indications are that the investigation was far from fierce. The Inspector General had no subpoena power. The CIA’s former chief officer in Central America, Dewey Clarridge, now retired and working for General Dynamics, told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA “sent me questions that were a bunch of bullshit.” He refused to be interviewed by the CIA’s investigators. Clarridge, it should be noted, was a central figure in CIA operations with the Contras, whom he conjured into being from an initial recruitment of Argentinian military torturers, and whose assassination schemes he boasts of having recommended. Other people interviewed by the CIA claim to have been bullied by the Agency’s investigators whenever they showed signs of supporting Webb. And what about the author of the stories, Gary Webb? He was never interviewed.
With Webb, we get to the heart of the dust storm. On Saturday, December 13, the San Jose Mercury News announced that Gary Webb had resigned from the paper, after reaching a settlement on a grievance he had filed about his transfer from Sacramento to Cupertino. In the Washington Post and New York Times, Webb’s departure from the Mercury News was flagged, with the implication that somehow it offered further evidence of the conclusiveness of the CIA’s self-examination.
It looks as though the Agency took the opportunity of Webb’s departure to leak a self-serving press release about its conduct. This item was eagerly seized upon by the papers who had been after Webb, and by the Mercury News, which had been terrorized into betraying a fine reporter.
Looking back at the series in mid-1997, Webb said he had nothing to apologize for. “If anything, we pussy-footed around some stuff we shouldn’t have, like CIA involvement and their level of knowledge. I’m glad I did the series because this is a story that gutless papers on the East Coast have been ducking for ten years. And now they’re forced to confront it. However they chose to confront it, they still have to say what the story’s about.”
The attack on Gary Webb by his colleagues in the national press was relentless. There are a lot of examples, but perhaps none more blatant than Iver Peterson’s smear on Webb in the New York Times, nearly a year after Webb’s story had appeared. The initial assault was led by four “star” reporters at the nation’s biggest papers: Howard Kurtz and Walter Pincus at the Washington Post, Tim Golden at the New York Times and Doyle McManus (Lt. Colonel of a “Get Webb Team”) at the Los Angeles Times. Once these heavyweights drew blood, the editorial pages from across the country came in for the kill. The behavior of the top editors at Webb’s own paper, the San Jose Mercury News, was despicable and cowardly. Even the so-called progressive press took shots at Webb, most notably the Nation, whose David Corn sniped that Webb’s reporting was flawed.
On the other hand, Webb had his defenders. The LA Weekly was quick to reveal the gaping holes in the Los Angeles Times’s saturation bombing of the “Dark Alliance” series. Norman Soloman’s article “Snow Job” for Extra!, the magazine of the media watchdog group FAIR, was a fine piece of work that was useful to us. Robert Parry and his colleagues at The Consortium wrote good press criticism and worked to advance the story. The Consortium also printed a harrowing account from Nicaragua by Webb’s partner, Georg Hodel, showing the dangers of writing about these forbidden topics in a hostile landscape. Similarly, Peter Kornbluh, the investigator at the National Security Archives, wrote a fine piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. Alicia Shepard’s story in the American Journalism Review is neither kind nor fair to Webb, but it does expose the biases and petty jealousies of his colleagues.
As an example of the obdurate and spiteful hostility of the New York Times toward Webb, we include here two letters to the Times correcting serious inaccuracies and exhibitions of bias in the paper’s reporting. The first is a response by Webb to Peterson’s attack noted above. The Times refused to print it. The second is another commentary, which speaks for itself, on Peterson’s story. The Times likewise had refused to print this letter.
To the editor: Since the New York Times allegedly places such a high value on accuracy, I would like to point out some factual errors and omissions in your June 3 story about me and the “Dark Alliance” series I authored last year.
@XXSERIES = The statement that a state audit “cleared” Tandem Computers for its part in a $50 million computer debacle at the California Department of Motor Vehicles is incorrect. The audit, by California Auditor General Kurt Sjoberg, corroborated the findings of my investigation and the Tandem project was scrapped at considerable cost to the state’s taxpayers. Moreover, two state officials who approved and oversaw this project and then went to work for Tandem paid large fees to settle conflict of interest charges lodged by the state Fair Political Practices Commission. These charges were filed as a result of my reporting, which won the California Journalism Award in 1994.
@XXSERIES = The statement that the Mercury News “never published a follow-up story” to the Tandem series is also false. Several follow-ups were published, including stories I wrote about the Auditor General’s report and the fines paid by the former state officials.
@XXSERIES = (It might have been useful to note that the reporter who criticized my Tandem stories, Lee Gomes, was covering Tandem while its much-ballyhooed DMV project was collapsing, yet somehow managed to miss the story entirely.)
@XXSERIES = Since your reporter, Iver Peterson, did not question me about my Tandem stories, perhaps it’s not surprising that these errors and omissions occurred.
@XXSERIES = Finally, I found it amusing that while Mr. Peterson spent many inches airing vague complaints from people I’ve investigated, he would neglect to mention that I have won more than 30 journalism awards, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize half a dozen times, and sent a number of corrupt or incompetent government officials and businessmen to jail or early retirement by exposing their misdeeds.
@XXSERIES = Granted, this kind of reporting makes few friends and prompts libel suits, but being well-loved and lawsuit-free has never been part of a reporter’s duties as I understand them.
@BODY TEXT AU = Gary Webb, June 3, 1997
To the editor: A Times reporter [Iver Peterson] has seen fit to lead a story (6/3) on the San Jose Mercury New’s “Dark Alliance” series with the stunning news that a request was placed on the agenda of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to strip the series’ author, Gary Webb, of his 1996 Journalist of the Year award. Gratified as I am, as president of the organization, to see that our monthly agenda is of such interest to a national newspaper, in the interests of ethical journalism, which SPJ is dedicated to furthering, please allow me to correct the misleading impression that you have knowingly fostered with that lead paragraph.
Putting an anecdote in the lead paragraph of a news story implies that it has some representative significance, and indeed your writer goes on to state that the agenda item “illustrates” how Webb’s series “continues to echo among journalists.”
Actually, it illustrates no such thing. One person, an editor at a competing newspaper, has been insisting for nearly a year that the award be withdrawn, and she reiterated her request after appearance of the Mercury News column clarifying (not retracting) its series. As a courtesy to that one person, the item was placed on our agenda. But as your writer was aware because he asked me that person was in no way representative. In fact, she is the only person who has expressed such a view to us, and she acknowledges that she has other reasons to be angry with the San Jose Mercury News.
When the board finally discussed the issue at the member’s request, there was no sentiment for withdrawal of the award. The discussion was brief, mostly centered on the irresponsibility of the Times’s story.
Your reporter’s determination to prove a point with a misguided example is disturbing, but even more so is the fact that he knew in advance that it was misleading and even wrote that “Chances are remote that Webb will lose the award because of one request.” The reporter knew that the person who brought our meeting to his attention had an interest in inflating the significance of her own request. In other words, his informant’s interest illustrated his informant’s interest. Period.
Indeed, if the SPJ chapter meeting had had the importance that the Times’s article implied, shouldn’t the paper have reported the results of the meeting after it was held?
If the suggestion of potential retraction of Gary Webb’s SPJ award continues to echo among journalists, it echoes because those journalists have read it in the New York Times and perpetuated the misimpression by calling us to find out what happened at the meeting, hyped by the Times and its source.
I suggested that the Times'<W0>s energy in bludgeoning flaws in the Mercury News series and personally attacking its author be matched by an equal or greater determination to explore the far more important story of the degree of US government complicity in the Contras’ dealing in drugs that have devastated so many American communities. That is the story that the major news media have downplayed for more than a decade, while newspapers such as yours devote unprecedented lineage to debunking, in the most personal terms, the efforts of a reporter at another newspaper.
Peter Y. Sussman, President, Northern California Chapter, Society of Professional Journalists June 6, 1997
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