California's Newspaper War Confuses Readers - and Facts

John Deutch enters a den of pacing lions today.

In an unprecedented step, the CIA's top spymaster will ascend the podium at Locke High School in Watts to face a deeply stirred citizenry. Their passions have been aroused by charges that the CIA was involved at least peripherally in the crack cocaine epidemic here in the early 1980s.

But part of the frustration in these largely African-American neighborhoods may stem, too, from a seeming inability to divine the truth - a task made more difficult by the unleashing of an old-style newspaper war between two of the state's media giants.

What has emerged from the feud are conflicting accounts of how much the CIA knew about the drug pipeline that brought crack to Los Angeles from Latin America. The war, which has spilled over into broadcast, talk radio, and the alternative press, began Aug. 18 with the start of a San Jose Mercury News series. In it, the northern California paper implied that CIA-backed supporters of Nicaraguan contras had raised money for weapons by importing crack cocaine and selling it to L.A. street gangs.

Apparently scooped in its own backyard, The Los Angeles Times put eight reporters on the story for two months and concluded the Mercury News had overstated its case. Now, with the two newspapers caught in a war of prestige, self-justification, and journalistic ethics, both residents and the facts are trapped in the middle.

"There is a great deal of displeasure across the African-American community in the way this story has been treated in the mainstream media," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a prominent black media critic, author, and political analyst. Noting that other top American newspapers, from The New York Times to The Washington Post, have also weighed in on the subject belatedly, Mr. Hutchison says, "there has been the veil of dismissiveness and tones of condescension about an issue that should have broad interest well beyond minority communities."

Entitled "Dark Alliance," the year-long investigation by San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb pointed to a "drug network [that] opened the first pipeline between Colombia's cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles." It told of an alliance between a "US-backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the Uzi-toting 'gangstas' of Compton and South Central Los Angeles."

Hutchinson and several other leading African Americans have lauded the Mercury News for its coverage of a story that no mainstream paper had tackled substantively since allegations of the CIA, contras, and drug links first surfaced more than a decade ago. Virtually every African-American leader from South Central Los Angeles said the expos is evidence that further investigations are warranted from Congress, the US Justice Department, and the CIA itself.

Director Deutch, for his part, said in a statement that a preliminary investigation had concluded the CIA "neither participated in nor condoned drug trafficking by contra forces." He is expected to elaborate on that today, although most do not expect he will be forthcoming with information that indicts the CIA.

Pushed into action by the Mercury News, the L.A. Times on Oct. 20 released the conclusions of its eight-week investigation: "[The crack epidemic] was not orchestrated by the contras or the CIA," wrote the Times. Rock cocaine had been around a half-decade before the Mercury News said it was, claimed the Times, and was "a uniquely egalitarian phenomenon, one that lent itself more to makeshift mom-and-pop operations than to the sinister hand of a government-sanctioned plot."

But many here are suspect of the L.A. Times' findings, not only because the paper was beaten to the original story, but also because it has long been criticized for weak investigative reporting and day-to-day coverage of minority issues.

"The Los Angeles Times has had a long history of reporting only the status quo without dipping beneath surface, especially where people of color are concerned," says Joe Saltzman, journalism professor at the University of Southern California. "Here is an instance where they were scooped in their own backyard, then have had to do double time to justify their earlier inaction."

The so-called "knockdown" of the Mercury News series by the L.A. Times has been the grist for numerous articles in the state's alternative press.

Rick Barrs, a nine-year Times editor, now editor of the weekly New Times, calls it "deplorable" that his former employer "did not go out to find the facts about the contra-CIA connection but rather instructed reporters to cast doubt on [reporter Gary] Webb's credibility."

One key discrepancy between the two newspapers' reports is the amount of money that allegedly went from drug profits to the contras, who were working with US support to overthrow the communist-backed Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Mr. Webb of the Mercury News claims it was several million dollars, and he bases the figure on court testimony by a key drug dealer. The L.A. Times claimed an unnamed source had said only $50,000 went to the rebel cause.

"On one hand the Times claims the Mercury News selectively chose facts to support its contra-crack thesis," says Mr. Barrs. "Then on the other, the Times just as selectively chose its facts to refute that thesis."

The other large point of debate is that the Mercury News series seemed to imply CIA involvement without proving it. L.A. Times metro editor Leo Wolinsky says that suggesting complicity by the CIA was overstepping the bounds of journalistic ethics, an assessment that fueled anger and conspiracy theories in black communities across the country.

"There is nothing the Mercury News has to prove its case," says Mr. Wolinsky. "But for many that allegation has become fact, and so people are angry at us for reminding them that it hasn't been proven."

For now, both sides continue to stick by their stories. The Mercury News' Webb says more specific information will be released on sources and CIA contacts by Christmas. The L.A. Times' Wolinsky says his paper is monitoring current investigations by the CIA and Justice Department.

Meanwhile, both sides advise readers to examine both series and draw their own conclusions. Because of classified information which surrounds many key players, many feel the truth will never be known, barring the appearance of some rogue CIA insider.

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