Date: Thu, 24 Oct 1996 12:41:42 -0500
> S * IN ACTIV-L
Media war erupting over CIA and cocaine
By Norman Solomon, Creators Syndicate, 22 October 1996
A nationwide media war has broken out this fall, several weeks after a California newspaper reported a chilling story: CIA operatives helped cocaine traffickers introduce large quantities of low-cost crack into poor neighborhoods of urban America during the 1980s. Much of the profits went to the U.S.-supported Contra army fighting to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.
The well-documented revelations in the San Jose Mercury News presented a challenge to national media. Major news outlets had failed to uncover the story. More importantly, influential publications -- such as Time magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post -- had actually gone out of their way to pooh- pooh or suppress earlier information about drug smuggling by the CIA-backed Contras.
Accounts of the Mercury News findings appeared in quite a few daily papers. But the most powerful national media ignored the story...and continued to look the other way for a full month.
Meanwhile, cyberspace provided broad access to the Mercury News series and supporting documents via the World Wide Web (www.sjmercury.com/drugs/). Some talk-radio programs sizzled with outrage. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus kept demanding federal investigations. Protests mounted.
After four weeks of strong signs that the CIA-Contra-crack issue wasn't going to fade away, the nation's "newspaper of record" finally got around to covering the story. Sort of. The New York Times broke its silence on Sept. 21 with a shoddy news article that featured denials by CIA Director John Deutch and unnamed "former senior CIA officials."
Soon, America's biggest news weekly also ended its silence. The Sept. 30 Time printed a one-page piece laced with gratuitous asides about "conspiracy theorists" and "bizarre fantasies" -- which had nothing to do with the somber Mercury News disclosures.
Central to the Time salvo was a 120-word quotation from one of the magazine's Washington correspondents, Elaine Shannon, who declared: "Even sources who are routinely skeptical of the official line on the Contras agree that the idea that the agency was behind drug smuggling by the Contras is fantasy."
Simultaneously, the slickly conservative Weekly Standard -- bankrolled by mogul Rupert Murdoch -- jumped into the fray with three pages assailing the Mercury News series as "a disgrace." The magazine rejoiced that "few major media outlets have validated the series by reporting on its charges in any detail."
The Weekly Standard approvingly quoted "a senior foreign editor at one prestigious East Coast daily -- one of the newspapers that have done their best to ignore the Mercury News series." The editor was unwilling to have a name attached to his or her arrogant words: "It doesn't move me. I don't see anything to follow up."
Attacks on the Mercury News articles commonly fault the newspaper for failing to prove charges it never made. Written by staff reporter Gary Webb after a 13-month investigation, the series does not claim that the CIA directly smuggled cocaine and sold crack. What the series does assert -- and substantiate -- is that CIA-employed Contra financiers arranged drug deals bringing tons of crack to the streets of Los Angeles.
Fortunately, as autumn began, some of the national media started to take the evidence seriously. Newsweek ran a brief but decent summary of the controversy. "NBC Nightly News" aired a report explaining that "newly uncovered documents show that money from drugs sold in the inner cities did help finance the war in Nicaragua. Top U.S. officials knew it at the time and did nothing to stop it." On Sept. 29, ABC News added a straightforward account.
Missing from the current furor, however, is media self- criticism. Cocaine revenues were still streaming into Contra coffers when Associated Press exposed key aspects of the story in December 1985. Three years later, a report by John Kerry's Senate subcommittee blew the whistle on U.S. government complicity with Contra cocaine trafficking. Yet, for more than a decade, most mainstream media dodged the visible links between the CIA's Contra army and illicit drugs.
This month, the coast-to-coast media crossfire over the Mercury News series is likely to intensify. If evidence and journalism can prevail over assumptions and ideology, the CIA's defenders will continue to lose ground.
Compass Communications Inc.