Let us look today at a tale that at times seemed to earn the title “The Washington Post vs. the San Jose Mercury News,” a case of misdirected zeal.
The story begins in late August, when we started to get impassioned phone calls from readers telling of a Mercury News series on the Nicaraguan contras, the introduction of crack into Los Angeles and the possible involvement of the CIA. Why weren’t we taking up this story, the readers wanted to know.
For weeks the calls poured in, fed by local talk shows and the story’s presence on the Internet. Soon the CIA ordered an investigation. So did the Justice Department and Congress. The debate raged especially among African Americans, many of whom have long harbored suspicions about a government role in the ravages brought upon black communities by drugs.
During these weeks, The Post carried only tidbits: a protester arrested, a probe ordered. Finally on Oct. 4, The Post came out with its own investigation. (Similar pieces in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times came even later.) The thrust of The Post piece was quite critical of the San Jose work, making many Post readers furious.
Here is one key point: The San Jose series was seriously flawed. It was reported by a seemingly hotheaded fellow willing to have people leap to conclusions his reporting couldn’t back up - principally, that the CIA was knowingly involved in the introduction of drugs into the United States. It failed to include denials by the CIA, continuously used the unclear and suggestive term “the CIA’s army” and, in its electronic version, reached so far as to carry a logo with the CIA seal on it.
All of that is unforgivably careless journalism, a dangerous thing - which is surely what drove The Post and other papers to print critical pieces in response.
But there is another appropriate response, a more important one, and that is to ask: Is there anything to the very serious question the series raised? Did the U.S. government play any role in supporting or condoning drug smuggling into the United States? Yet The Post (and the others) showed more passion for sniffing out the flaws in San Jose’s answer than for sniffing out a better answer themselves. They were stronger on how much less money was contributed to the contras by the Mercury News’ villains than their series claimed, how much less cocaine they introduced into L.A., than on how significant it is that any of these assertions are true.
In fact, as Post editors and reporters knew (and a later Post story said), there was strong previous evidence that the CIA at least chose to overlook contra involvement in the drug trade. Yet when those revelations came out in the 1980s they “had caused little stir,” as the later Post story delicately noted. Would that we had welcomed the surge of public interest as an occasion to return to a subject The Post and the public had given short shrift. Alas, dismissing someone else’s story as old news comes more naturally.
In the heat of the controversy came an extremely thoughtful phone call. “This is an American tragedy,” this reader said of the drug scourge. “I’m not particularly gullible. I teach my 14-year-old son to base his opinions on fact. But I won’t settle for answers from somebody who won’t let me see behind the door. I need you to answer these questions, for myself and for my son. Was the government at all involved?”
The final chapter concerns an effort by Jerry Ceppos, executive editor in San Jose, to respond. Ceppos says he wrote a response to The Post’s series, revised it at the request of Stephen Rosenfeld, deputy editor of the editorial page, but subsequently received a letter from Rosenfeld saying that The Post could not publish it. Rosenfeld told me that Ceppos failed “to take account of the principal thrust of his series,” as exemplified by the headline on the first piece, “Crack Plagues’ Roots Are in Nicaraguan War,” and that the result was “misinformation,” which he was reluctant to print.
I sympathize with Rosenfeld’s concerns about fueling emotions amid the charges and countercharges. But I think that The Post should allow Ceppos to frame his own answer and that we owe it to him and our readers to print it.
Overall, The Post’s focus seems to have been misplaced. A principal responsibility of the press is to protect the people from government excesses. The Post (among others) showed more energy for protecting the CIA from someone else’s journalistic excesses. Not an invalid goal, but by far a lesser one. Perhaps there is better to come.