The Use of the Web in Investigative Reporting: A Case Study [part 2]

(3) ANALYSIS: The ‘3C’ Controversy Strikes a Nerve

REALNews Correspondent

If the Watergate story inspired a generation of youth in the 1970s to start working as journalists, the contro-versial “3C” (crack-contra-CIA) story broken by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb may inspire a new generation to get busy and start networking as journalists.

The value of using the electronic medium known as the Internet — and as a tool to democratize the sharing of information — toward that end must not be underestimated.

Here was a story of almost unbelievable proportions, with plenty of U.S. government documentation and some tape recordings as back-up, plus statements from a few law enforcement workers and other witnesses who were willing to talk. There was an abundance of circumstantial evidence — but no smoking gun — to suggest CIA and Drug Enforcement Administration complicity and condoning of illegal international drug operations.

As shocking as Webb’s three-part “Dark Alliance” series was, it seemed destined to die a quiet death soon after being published in the pages of the
Mercury News in August 1996. (Reporters from three other major U.S. newspapers reportedly knew of the story at the same time as Webb, but they chose to ignore it.)

What ensured that Webb’s story would live on indefinitely, however, was putting the news on the Net — along with all the evidence accumulated in the course of his year-long investigation. As Webb says, it was then up to Internet readers to decide for themselves whether or not to believe all the evidence.

Keep in mind that most of the documentation cited as evidence in Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series originated inside government circles and was never meant for public eyes. If it is to be believed, then people at the highest levels of our government agencies are guilty of helping to condemn generations of youth to ill-health, desperation, even death — both on American streets through the spread of crack cocaine and in the burgeoning of the prison “industry” that has resulted.

Recall, also, that the events as outlined in Webb’s investigation were taking place at a time in our nation’s history when then-First Lady Nancy Reagan was reassuring us the “war on drugs” could be won if we would “just say no.” This at a time when, according to evidence presented in “Dark Alliance,” tons of cocaine were being smuggled into U.S. cities, with at least the foreknowledge (and perhaps more) of people at the highest levels in our intelligence agencies. Yet nothing was stopped.

The fact that the CIA and the DEA, among other government agencies, would be involved in such a scandal is no surprise. We have seen decades of documentation supporting our intelligence agencies’ “complicity” in the international drug trade (for example, CIA involvement in maintaining the drug trade in Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle” in exchange for political and financial cooperation). So why was this time so different?

Because in this case the evidence clearly showed that the emperor had no clothes — that the war on drugs is a sham and perhaps always was a sham. That is something our government apparently is not ready for the American people as a whole to see or hear yet.

It has become clear in the 1990s that serious news coverage and substantive discussion of the “war on drugs” — in any country — can no longer happen without considering some degree of government complicity. That’s how deep and dirty the problem is worldwide.

But even more importantly, it has become abundantly evident that as journalists we can no longer realistically expect either the “mainstream” mass media or our respective governments to tell the whole truth about what drugs like crack cocaine can do to people’s lives and to a nation’s soul. We seek that truth ourselves. To do that, we need the power of the word, backed by the power of modern global technology.

We need the Internet.

The wrap-up: For any story of this magnitude, amidst potential for cover-ups either deliberate or inadvertently created by an unhealthy journalistic atmosphere, no journalist should expect or can reasonably ask people to take her/his word for any story. We need to show them the evidence, if at all possible, and to show it to as many people as possible. “Let the People Decide” should be posted on every desk of every journalist in the world. The power of the Internet is helping us make that a realistic goal, in the most literal sense.

About the Authors
Brian Covert is an independent journalist living in the Kansai region of Japan’s Honshu Island. He has reported from Asia for a major wire service and served as a staff member of virtually all of Japan’s nationwide English-language dailies. We look forward in the future to his reports from Japan and elsewhere for REALNews.

Scott Gorman is Managing Editor for REALNews. Primarily a columnist, critic and editor for a number of publications, he has written for the Boston Globe, Seattle Times, Florida Times-Union and other publications. While a member of the staff of the Everett Herald, he was honored for environmental investigative reporting by the Society of Professional Journalists.

REALNews ‘Dark Alliance’ Coverage: An Update

REALNews Managing Editor

The fallout from Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News continues to generate news and heated comment.

REALNews is not so much interested in the facts of the original story, which detailed activities surrounding the marketing of crack cocaine on the streets of America to finance activities of the Contras, who were seeking in the ’70s and ’80s to overthrow the leftist (and freely elected) Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Instead, we are watching with intense fascination the impact the World Wide Web has had on this controversial story and the implications for the future of journalism.

Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos, after first vigorously defending Webb and his series against attacks from establishment newspapers, published a mea culpa acknowledging “mistakes” made in the presentation of the story. That had led to two things: a crowing among its critics, and an angry response from Gary Webb, who stands by his story in every aspect.

Webb has maintained all along that anyone who doubts his story can review documents and even oral testimony on the Internet. Now, because he feels undercut by his editors, who apparently will not print his current point of view, he and a [Nicaragua-based Swiss] reporter with whom he worked have issued the statement that follows for free electronic distribution.

The move shows once again the power of the Internet in modern journalism. In another day, Webb would have been effectively silenced; now, without the benefit of the backing of his newspaper, he can still be heard.

REALNews welcomes your comments on this story, our coverage, and any thoughts on how it impacts the art, craft and science of journalism.

The statement, in its entirety:

The only “shortcoming” in our Dark Alliance series is that it didn’t go far enough.

What Mr. Ceppos’ column fails to mention is that, as a result of our continuing investigation, we DO have evidence of direct CIA involvement with this Contra drug operation. We have evidence that at least one top CIA official in Washington was aware of the drug ring’s activities in El Salvador. We also know that these traffickers were more deeply involved with the U.S. intelligence community than we reported last year. Perhaps one day Mr. Ceppos will allow us to share this information with the public.

Despite the efforts of the biggest newspapers in the country to discredit our work, our central findings remain unchallenged: After being instructed by a CIA agent to raise money in California for the Contras, two Contra drug dealers began selling vast amounts of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles, primarily to the Crips and Bloods. Some of the profits went to pay for the CIA’s covert war against the Sandinistas. We wrote last year that the amounts were in the millions and we stand by that statement. We have confirmation from an eyewitness that our figure is accurate. The drug ring’s main customers, the LA gangs, introduced crack to more than 110 cities across the U.S. by the end of the 1980s, according to federal reports. Only a fool could argue that this wasn’t a critical factor in the spread of crack from South Central to the rest of the country.

If we as journalists have to take a beating for publicly exposing these truths, so be it. We believe it is a beating worth taking.

Gary Webb, reporter, San Jose Mercury News
Georg Hodel, journalist, Managua, Nicaragua