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Watchdogs or Lap Dogs?

By Kathryn Olmsted

July 21, 1997:  Question: When does a major American newspaper apologize for "oversimplifying" a story?

Answer: When that story dares to criticize the Central Intelligence Agency.

When the San Jose Mercury News suggested in August that the CIA helped to cover up drug dealing by the Nicaraguan Contras, the major news media had three choices: They could expand the story, ignore it or debunk it. For the most part, they chose to debunk it.

The attacks on the Mercury's CIA series reached such a fever pitch that in May the paper's executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, took the highly unusual step of publicly apologizing for the series' alleged "shortcomings." The New York Times responded with a patronizing editorial saying that the apology "sets a high standard for cases in which journalists make egregious errors."

Gary Webb, the Mercury News reporter who wrote the series "Dark Alliance," has found his ethics attacked and his conclusions ridiculed by other journalists--and now his own employer has apologized for him (See "Webb Spite: An Interview with Gary Webb" on page 10.)

Webb's series explained how a San Francisco Bay area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to street gangs in Los Angeles and funneled the profits to the Nicaraguan Contras, the CIA-backed anti-Communist rebel group that Ronald Reagan called the "moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." Webb did not say directly that the CIA knew about the Contras' drug dealing, but he suggested that the agency helped to protect the Contras from prosecution.

The implications of the series were stunning: As two Republican presidents urged Americans to "just say no," agents of the federal government had aided and abetted criminals who were flooding the nation's ghettos with crack cocaine. One might think that many of the nation's top journalists would compete to advance the story.

One would be wrong.

The East Coast prestige newspapers and newsmagazines largely ignored the Mercury News' charges for a month, rising from their lethargy only to report reactions from official sources ("Drug director urges investigation"). Then, after months of being battered by the media giants, Mercury editor Ceppos decided to issue his mea culpa.

A CIA spokesman said he found the reaction of elite newspapers to the Mercury's stories "gratifying."

Indeed, the CIA historically has had many opportunities to be "gratified" by the establishment media's reaction to stories critical of the agency.

In 1975, CIA Director William Colby was able to convince leading newspapers and networks for two months not to report on the agency's expensive, unsuccessful efforts to raise a sunken Soviet submarine. In another incident a year later, Daniel Schorr lost his job at CBS News for leaking a secret congressional report critical of the CIA.

But perhaps the best parallel for the "Dark Alliance" stories is Seymour Hersh's exposure of the CIA's "Operation CHAOS" in December 1974.

Hersh, a famed investigative reporter, wrote in the New York Times that the CIA had operated a massive and illegal domestic spying program. The story helped to launch the Church and Pike committee investigations of the secret agencies in 1975.

These investigations later confirmed Hersh's story. But at the time, the nation's other elite newspapers and newsmagazines rushed to disparage him and his charges. "I was reviled," Hersh remembered. He was attacked and ridiculed in the Washington Post, Newsweek and on editorial and op-ed pages across the country.

Perhaps the most telling observation came from Time. The magazine reported of Hersh's charges: "Many observers in Washington who are far from naive about the CIA nevertheless consider its past chiefs and most of its officials highly educated, sensitive and dedicated public servants who would scarcely let themselves get involved in the kind of massive scheme described."

After Webb's stories ran, Time columnist Jack E. White compared the Mercury's charges to conspiracy theories that the government deliberately spread the AIDS virus and that a secret ingredient in fried chicken causes sterility in black men. He went on to report the reaction of Time's specialist on the drug war, correspondent Elaine Shannon, to Webb's series.

In an eerie echo of the magazine article that had doubted Hersh's charges, she told her colleague, "Even sources who are routinely skeptical of the official line on the Contras agree that the idea that the agency was behind drug smuggling by the Contras is fantasy."

After the disclosures of the Church and Pike committees, after the revelations of Iran-Contra, many Americans have become much more skeptical of their government. But some elite journalists still find it difficult to believe that the honorable men at the CIA would ever become involved in dishonorable activities.

Weekly Wire Tangents

  • The Truth Hurts - Why did the San Jose Mercury News recant reporter Gary Webb's story detailing the CIA's link to drug trafficking?

  • Snow Job - The Establishment's Papers Do Damage Control for the CIA from the upcoming Jan./Feb. issue of EXTRA!, the magazine of FAIR.

  • Dark Alliance - San Jose Mercury News' Dark Alliance series

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