Jerry Ceppos, the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News had a confession to make recently about his paper’s series alleging a link between the CIA, anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua and drug dealers on the streets of Los Angeles.
The confession basically amounts to this: There was no link. The story was a poorly crafted hoax. And Mr. Ceppos is sorry about all the fuss.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ceppos, the damage from your series is done. I was in Los Angeles when the story broke, and it nearly created hysteria on the streets. It was seen by many in the black community as confirmation of a genocidal conspiracy against them orchestrated by the U.S. government.
The shoddy work also hurts the entire journalistic profession — especially those who are committed to conducting serious investigative reporting. The press is held in low regard already. Frankly, this is just one more nail in the coffin.
Look at the way the Murky News exploited reporter Gary Webb’s series when it first came out. Naturally, it was played on page one, day after day. Webb did interviews on radio and television. The paper sent out reprints of the story to promote itself. The plan succeeded. The story was national news — from coast to coast.
Contrast all that with the quiet way Ceppos essentially retracted the series — not on the front page, but inside the paper’s Sunday’s forum section.
But let’s give Mr. Ceppos some credit, too. I know of one Northern California newspaper — the Sacramento Bee — which won a Pulitzer Prize for a series every bit as sloppy and slanted as Mercury News reporter Gary Webb’s. Yet the flagship of the McClatchy Newspaper chain has never re-examined its effort despite being handed the evidence on a silver platter.
“I believe that we fell short at every step of our process … in the writing, editing and production of our work,” Ceppos wrote. “Several people here share that burden. We have learned from the experience and even are changing the way we handle major investigations.”
Give him credit for candor. Ceppos found four areas in which his series fell short of an ethical high-water mark:
- The paper sometimes gave only one side of a complicated story or piece of evidence — even when it knew of other information flatly contradicting the central premise.
- Estimates of money involved in the story were reported as fact.
- The story of crack cocaine’s popularity in America was “oversimplified.”
- “Through imprecise language and graphics, we created impressions that were open to misinterpretation.”
On that last point, I would sharply differ with Mr. Ceppos. I would say that the language used was quite precise and chosen carefully to create those impressions. To suggest anything else would be disingenuous on his part.
Let’s admit what this series was. It was not a collection of news stories, but a well-crafted piece of propaganda. As such, it is hardly unique in daily journalism today — except, perhaps, for the “well-crafted” part. It was pure fantasy, conjecture, theory — not news.