Editor Backtracks On Drug Series p.23

By: M.L. STEIN JERRY CEPPOS, EXECUTIVE editor of the San Jose Mercury News, told readers the paper's reporting in the controversial and widely publicized series on an alleged link between the CIA and a nationwide crack epidemic was weak in several aspects.
Ceppos, who had stoutly defended the series from various attacks on its accuracy, said that although it "solidly documented disturbing information" about drug peddling, the stories by staff reporter Gary Webb failed on key matters.
"I believe that we fell short of my standards for the Mercury News," Ceppos stated in a May 11 bylined column in the newspaper's Sunday Perspective section.
The series "Dark Alliance," published last August, received national attention. It triggered at least three official investigations, one by the CIA itself.
The NAACP, Congressional Black Caucus, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other black leaders demanded that the government look into the Mercury News' findings.
California Sen. Barbara Boxer called for a CIA explanation.
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Newsweek carried stories questioning the accuracy and conclusions of the three-part series which suggested a link between the Central Intelligence Agency and a Nicaraguan Contra group to feed tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs and across the nation.
On the other hand, some journalists, among them Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser, criticized the publications for rapping the Mercury News without doing any independent investigation to determine the truth or falsity of the series.
Ceppos insisted there is evidence to support Webb's "specific assertions and conclusions" in the series but said it did not meet the paper's standards in four areas:
u "In a few key instances, we presented only one interpretation of complicated, sometimes conflicting, pieces of evidence. In one such instance, we did not include information that contradicted a central assertion of the series.
u "We made our best estimate of how much money was involved but we failed to label it as an estimate, and instead it appeared as fact.
(The series said the L.A. cocaine operation "funneled millions in drug profits to the Nicaraguan guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.")
u "We oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew.
u "Through imprecise language and graphics, we created impressions that were open to misinterpretation."
Ceppos said in the column that Webb disagreed with his conclusions ? "He sees the issues in much clearer terms than I do."
The editor said he arrived at his determination after consulting with seven staff reporters and editors.
In an interview with E&P, Webb "absolutely" stuck by his reporting and said he has written four more stories on the subject that "confirms and advance" his original series.
New material, he added, was gathered on a recent trip to Nicaragua.
Webb, who has won 30 awards for investigative reporting, including one by the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization, said he has received "vague assurances" the new pieces will be published, "but there is nothing concrete yet."
Meanwhile, he disclosed, he has gotten numerous calls of support from Mercury News colleagues and reporters around the country.
Ceppos, in the column, contended that one of the problems in the series was the "linchpin relationship" Webb established between Danilo Blandon, Contra supporter and drug supplier, and "Freeway" Ricky Ross, a major Los Angeles narcotics dealer.
In his view, Ceppos said, the series was remiss in not pointing out that Blandon testified that he stopped sending profits from drug sales to the Contras at the end of 1982, after a year of operation.
However, Ceppos noted Webb's contention that reports of Blandon's testimony were cut out of the series in the editing process. But Ceppos differed with Webb's belief that Blandon later recanted that testimony.
The editor also found fault with the series' "implication" that the Blandon-Ross connection was a critical factor in America's crack explosion, terming it an "oversimplification."
Further, he said, CIA comment should have been included in the stories. The series never stated that the CIA directed the drug-selling scheme or knew about it.
Summing up, Ceppos declared: "How did these shortcomings occur? It might be easier for us if they were the fault of one person, but they were not. I believe we fell short at every step of our process ? in the writing, editing and production of our work. Several people share that burden. We have learned from the experience and even are changing the way we handle major investigations.
"But ultimately, the responsibility was, and is, mine."
?("I believe we fell short at every step of our process-in the writing, editing and production of our work. We have learned from the experience and even are changing the way we handle major investigations.") [Caption]
?(? Jerry Ceppos, executive editor, San Jose Mercury News) [Caption]
? E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com.
?copyright: Editor & Publisher May 17, 1997


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