Magazine article Editor & Publisher

An Editor with No Regrets: Former San Jose Mercury News Editor Jerry Ceppos Reflects on "Dark Alliance" and the Importance of Accurate Reporting

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

An Editor with No Regrets: Former San Jose Mercury News Editor Jerry Ceppos Reflects on "Dark Alliance" and the Importance of Accurate Reporting

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"Kill the Messenger" is very good movie fiction about an investigative story accused of being fictionalized.

But this is not a movie review. And the investigative reporting at the center of the film was not fiction--it just concluded more than it could prove.

So much has changed since the 1996 publication of "Dark Alliance" by Gary Webb for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. Taking a reader back to the first real investigative piece of journalism with a significant presence on a newspaper's website is like taking Steve Jobs back to meet Alexander Graham Bell.

"Dark Alliance" contended that the CIA allowed Nicaraguan drug dealers to bring Colombian cocaine into the United States. According to the story, the drug dealers used the profit from those sales to fund the war fought by the Contra rebels, supported by the CIA, against the Nicaraguan government, which was propped up by Communists. Further, it contended that the cocaine shipments were the catalyst for a major outbreak of crack cocaine in American ghettos.

African-American leaders and politicians protested against the CIA and waved "I told you so" fingers. Other major news organizations, who had never been able to prove such a story, took the unusual step of dissecting another newspaper's work. Other journalists concluded that the Mercury News' reporting was thin and lacked critical attribution and proof. In other words--no smoking gun.

Their reports troubled Jerry Ceppos, Mercury News executive editor. For one thing, it was the first major online investigative effort by an American newspaper. The Mercury News posted the entire article online and many of the supporting documents. It also offered to mail (through the United State Postal Service) a CD of the story and documents to interested readers. This was cutting edge stuff for 1996.

As the fissures in Webb's story began to emerge, Ceppos ordered a team of reporters and editors to do a post-mortem on "Dark Alliance." In a frontpage letter to readers published nearly 10 months after the series, Ceppos said the Mercury News team found the story's conclusion over-reached the facts it reported; the newspaper had created a graphic that left a false impression; made an estimate of the cocaine traffic appear as a fact; and overly simplified complex information that ignored contrary facts.

Like many editors of that era, Ceppos has moved on to a life the daily newspaper business. …

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