CIA-Crack Story Implodes: Where are the Network Retractions?
by L. Brent Bozell III
May 22, 1997
Something very strange happened at the San Jose Mercury News. Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos wrote a column telling readers that the paper's explosive, overwrought series "Dark Alliance" - which alleged the CIA helped hook American blacks on crack - wasn't exactly accurate. "We fell short of my standards for the Mercury News...I believe that we fell short at every step of our process...in the writing, editing, and production of our work."
Corrections don't usually come in prominent corners of the newspaper. Ceppos showed rare courage, especially after the "Dark Alliance" series brought the Mercury News a large dose of prominence and a raging interest in its Web site.
The New York Times and The Washington Post, each having filed numerous pieces on this story, correctly put the renunciation on their front pages. But where were the networks? Last fall, the four networks had aired 26 stories on the allegations. The very least the networks could do now is devote one full story each to the retractions. But they haven't. And so the lies stand in television land.
These lies enraged the black inner city community, and the networks fanned the flames by giving the story credibility. ABC's Alexander Johnson said of the CIA-crack theory: "That idea does not surprise some people in communities from Los Angeles to New York City, which have felt the devastation of crack firsthand....For the last month, Joe Madison has devoted every edition of his daily Washington, DC talk show to this story. Also in Washington, more than 1,200 people attended a recent town hall meeting to discuss the allegations, and on Friday law students protested on Capitol Hill. Yesterday in Los Angeles, another community meeting drew over 1,000 people....And on the Internet, the newest pipeline into the African-American community, the response has been overwhelming. There are more than 100,000 inquiries a day into the San Jose Mercury News Web site."
CBS began with Pentagon reporter David Martin suggesting Democrats worked hard to prove CIA drug links in the 1980s, and came up short. But nights later, Dan Rather took out the matches: "In tonight's Eye on America, accusations, underscore the word 'accusations,' that are nothing short of explosive. They are that the CIA knowingly and intentionally did what amount to pump crack cocaine into Los Angeles to help fund rebels in Nicaragua. Whether or not these claims prove true, the anger they've produced is very real."
Reporter Bill Whitaker claimed: "There is no evidence directly linking the CIA to the drug sales and the CIA says its own internal investigation has found no connection. Yet here at Ground Zero of the crack explosion the story simply won't go away, and new circumstantial evidence raises new questions."
NBC's Andrea Mitchell announced: "It is a rage building and building. Anger burning through black America. Rage about an old and ugly war. And fears about its consequences today. Spread by talk radio the conspiracy theory goes like this: The CIA pumped drugs into America's inner cities. Using the proceeds to finance the Reagan administration's secret war against Nicaragua's communist regime." Mitchell claimed "top U.S. officials" knew drug money was funding the contras, "but did nothing to stop it." She ended: "Will any investigation satisfy the people who've been devastated by crack cocaine?" All four networks aired long reports on CIA Director John Deutch's town meeting in Los Angeles, where angry blacks screamed at him. ABC's "Nightline" devoted its entire broadcast to the town meeting that night. Documenting rage, not truth, became the standard for newsworthiness.
In Time, columnist Jack E. White did question the Mercury News stories last year, but ended up sounding like Timothy McVeigh: "Deutch reiterated last week that he has asked the agency's Inspector General to review the Mercury's charges. The Justice Department has also launched a probe. But if Deutch thinks anyone in black America is going to take the word of those two organizations, he's mistaken. Black Americans have been the targets of so much hostility that many of them would not put it past their own government to finance the war against communism by addicting thousands of people."
Now, White is on the defensive, claiming black reporters were sent out to underscore black paranoia: "Obviously, the popularity of conspiracy theories in black America is a valid subject for journalistic inquiry; obviously, blacks have no monopoly on wacky ideas (Remember those militia groups fantasizing about black helicopters?)"
But the black-helicopters story became media shorthand for militia wackiness. Reporters did not place themselves halfway between reality and fantasy, maintaining "We have no proof, but this story just won't go away." Now that the Mercury News has renounced this story, the networks have a moral responsibility for the damage they caused, and a journalistic responsibility to expose those who fabricated and continue to promote these lies.