Controversy Over Mercury News Series Continues p.13

By: M.L. STEIN THE CONTROVERSY OVER the San Jose Mercury News series linking a Los Angeles drug operation to the CIA is continuing to bubble.
FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), which often criticizes the mainstream press, has come to the defense of the Mercury News in a piece that raps the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times for their downgrading of the Mercury News series (E&P, Nov. 2, 1996). Writer Gary Webb reported that the Nicaraguan guerrilla force known as the Contras peddled drugs through intermediaries in the 1980s to finance their war against the Sandinista government. However, his articles did not directly charge the CIA with running the drug operation or knowing about it.
The three papers also were chided for their attack on Webb's report in an op-ed article in the Baltimore Sun by Steve Weinberg, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. The Mercury News report has brought expressions of anger from black officials and organizations and investigations by the CIA and a congressional committee.
An article by Norman Solomon in FAIR's publication, EXTRA, for January-February, asserts the three dailies, which knocked the Mercury News series for inaccurate and incomplete reporting, are themselves guilty of shoddy journalism.
The papers, Solomon said, "to a notable degree . . . relied for their debunking of the Mercury News on the CIA's own obligatory denials."
The New York Times, in a story by Tim Golden, "drew exclusively on interviews with nameless sources such as 'government officials with access to intelligence reports,' " he continued.
Solomon suggested the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Post were hypocritical in debunking the Mercury News' revelation of alleged Contra drug trafficking as old news.
He termed it a "particularly ironic claim coming from newspapers that went out of their way to ignore or disparage key information [on the issue] during the 1980s."
Solomon further asserted the New York Times and the Post "lent their editorial prestige" to the Contra cause in the 1980s. A sidebar headed "Our Man at the Post," said that Walter Pincus, the Post's main writer of the knockdown of the Mercury News stories, served in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps from 1955 to 1957 and represented a CIA "front" organization at two international conferences before he joined the Post.
Golden and Pincus declined to comment for the record on the EXTRA article.
Los Angeles Times metro editor Leo Wolinsky stood by his paper's blasting of the Mercury News series while characterizing FAIR as a "politically motivated organization with its own agenda."
"There is nothing in their piece that says we were wrong," he added. "FAIR believes that every bad thing in this world is the fault of the CIA."
Wolinsky asserted the Mercury News series was "basically false and has been thoroughly discredited."
Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos would say only about the FAIR report: "It speaks for itself."
Weinberg called Webb's series "praiseworthy investigative reporting," and added: "It looks to me as if many critics of Webb are holding him to a higher standard of evidence than they usually insist upon for their own stories. Many of the recent articles that criticize his work rely on sources no more reliable ? and in some cases perhaps less reliable ? than Webb's own sources."
?(San Jose Mercury News executive editor Jerry Ceppos would say only about the FAIR report: "It speaks for itself.") [Photo & Caption]


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