The executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday admitted to shortcomings in the newspaper’s controversial series on the crack cocaine explosion in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
In an open letter to readers in the newspaper’s editorial section, Jerry Ceppos said the newspaper solidly documented that a drug ring associated with the Contra rebels in Nicaragua sold large quantities of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles, and that some of the profits from those sales went to the Contras.
However, he said, the three-part “Dark Alliance” series, published last summer, occasionally omitted important information and created impressions that were open to misinterpretation.
“I believe that we fell short at every step of our process - in the writing, editing and production of our work. Several people here share that burden,” he wrote. “We have learned from the experience and even are changing the way we handle major investigations.”
The series, written by reporter Gary Webb, reported that a San Francisco Bay area drug ring sold cocaine in South Central Los Angeles, then funneled profits to the Contras for the better part of a decade. The series traced the drugs to dealers Danilo Blandon and Ricky Ross, leaders of a CIA-run guerrilla army in Nicaragua.
The reports sparked widespread anger in the black community toward the CIA, as well as numerous federal investigations into whether the CIA took part in or countenanced the selling of crack cocaine to raise money for Contras.
The investigations never found that the CIA had any link to drug dealing. Several newspapers also disputed the Mercury News report.
Ceppos wrote that while the newspaper did not report the CIA knew about the drug operations, it implied CIA knowledge.
“Although members of the drug ring met with Contra leaders paid by the CIA and Webb believes the relationship with the CIA was a tight one, I feel that we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship,” he wrote. “I believe that part of our contract with readers is to be as clear about what we don’t know as what we do know.
“We also did not include CIA comment about our findings, and I think we should have.”
Ceppos also said the series omitted conflicting information that Blandon testified he stopped sending cocaine profits to the Contras at the end of 1982, after being in operation for a year. That information, Ceppos said, “contradicted a central assertion of the series” and should have been included.
The editor also said the series reported the profit figures from the drug sales as fact when they were estimates, and unfairly suggested the drugs funneled to Los Angeles played a critical role in the crack problem in urban America.
Ceppos said Webb disagreed with the paper’s re-examination of the series.