Reporter Reined In p.14

By: M.L. STEIN SAN JOSE MERCURY News reporter Gary Webb, whose controversial series suggesting CIA involvement in a drug operation was largely disavowed by the paper's editor, is being transferred to a suburban bureau in what is said to be an attempt to force his resignation.
"They clearly want me to quit but I am going to fight it," he told E&P from the Sacramento capitol bureau, his current beat.
Webb, 41, a reporter for 18 years and the winner of over 30 journalism awards, said he was told, in effect, by executive editor Jerry Ceppos "that I neded to be re-educated in reporting until I regained the confidence of my editors."
The newsman, who has been in the Sacramento bureau as an investigative reporter since he joined the paper in 1988, said his reassignment to the Mercury News' West bureau at Cupertino in Santa Clara County was to become effective
July 7.
In the newspaper's May 11 issue, Ceppos used his column to tell readers that the paper's reporting of Webb's series, "The Dark Alliance," was flawed in several respects and fell short of his journalism standards.
Ceppos declined to discuss Webb's transfer, referring to it as an "internal personnel matter."
He added, "But I might have something to say later."
Webb's series stirred up a journalistic maelstrom. While politicians, both black and white, called for government investigations of his allegations, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other publications attacked the accuracy of his reporting.
The stories suggested a link between the Central Intelligence Agency and a Nicaraguan rebel group to supply tons of cocaine to Los Angeles street gangs and across the nation. However, the series did not explicitly state that the CIA ran the drug operation or knew about it.
Webb said it would be very difficult for him to leave Sacramento at this time. He explained that he and his wife have just bought a house, which they are fixing up.
"I would have to leave my wife and three children alone," he added.
Webb, who said he had been working on new material in the series, said he was especially troubled by Ceppos' order because his reporting "partner" in Nicaragua, Swiss freelance journalist Georg Hodel, recently has received death threats.
According to Webb, the Northern California Newspaper Guild has come to his aid in fighting the transfer. A call to the Guild was not returned.
A senior Mercury News staff writer described the general reaction in the newsroom about Webb's probable transfer this way: "People are not rejoicing over it, but there is a lot of feeling that he should be brought under tighter control. And he will get that control in Cupertino."
The staffer pointed out that in the Sacramento bureau, which has no bureau chief, Webb was virtually unsupervised.
"For a reporter to have that kind of freedom, management must have the utmost confidence in him," he said."If it loses that confidence, the reporter must be reined in. If Gary doesn't want to be reined in, he's free to leave."
Business writer Scott Thurm termed Webb's series "not the best journalism I've ever seen."
Still, he noted, "I have conflicting emotions about his being moved. I'm not sure whether management is doing it because of the series or because of what he has done since Jerry Ceppos'
column. But it's been a mess on both sides and I'm tired
of it."
?("They clearly want me to quit but I'm going to fight it.") [Caption]
?(-Gary Webb, reporter San Jose Mercury News) [Photo & Caption]

?( E&P Web Site:
?(copyaright: Editor & Publisher June 21, 1997)


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