Beast of the Month - August 1997
Jerry Ceppos, Editor, The San Jose Mercury News
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
"Et tu, Brute?"
Sir Francis Bacon (aka William Shakespeare), Julius Caesar
The Konformist loves anniversaries. In fact, we love them soooo much, we're really looking forward to the big Elvis comeback this month after the Martian's release him from a twenty-year exile (an exile punctuated, of course, by random purchases of Cheetos at mini-marts and Double Bacon-Cheese Whoppers with extra peanut butter across the country.) Never mind Kiss, The Sex Pistols, and The Eagles, this is one comeback that will actually be worth hard cash.
There is, however, another anniversary happening this month that should be worthy of celebrating, but unfortunately is not, and that leads us to our Beast of the Month Trophy.
Last year in August (on a date suspiciously close to the King's "death"), the San Jose Mercury News released what will go down as a landmark in the history of journalism: Gary Webb's "Dark Alliance" series, which documented the connection between the Central Intelligence Agency, the Nicaraguan Contras, and the rise of the crack epidemic in the 80's. To explain the entire thesis and evidence in this piece can't do justice for the great job that Webb did, and The Konformist won't try to; then again, none of the many well-connected critics of the piece tried either. Instead, they used dishonest attacks involving half-truths (as well as pure lies) to discredit his piece, often using as "proof" statements from the very Contra and CIA operatives who would be implicated if his charges were true. The writers for the pieces in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times all had strong associations with the intelligence establishment, and the L.A. Times had the gall to use a man fairly well-established as being a CIA mind-kontrol experimenter as a source. Even worse, the main focus of these hit pieces were on debunking the claim that the CIA was the primary source of the crack epidemic... a claim that neither Webb nor the Mercury had made in the first place.
The irony, of course, is if they had made such a claim, it certainly would have been backed up by much of the evidence presented and some logical inference. In the end, "Dark Alliance" merely stated that the CIA had gotten involved in the drug market to finance the war in Nicaragua, a claim which is hardly earth-shaking as far as CIA dirty deeds goes. In fact, some in the alternative press would argue that, if anything, "Dark Alliance" didn't go far enough, a claim that Mr. Webb would agree to with his usual modesty. But no matter, the fact was, this was a legitimate newspaper, and a very respectable journalist, making these claims, not some poorly edited underground rag filled with paranoid, incoherent rants. That is why the piece was so important, and that is why it was so viciously assaulted.
The big three's assault could be chalked up as business as usual, no matter how disgusting it was. But the shocking display of cannibalism by Jerry Ceppos, the Mercury's editor, is what is worthy of this month's trophy.
In his May 11 column, Ceppos, the executive editor of The Mercury News, admitted to "flaws" in the story and in the newspaper's own editing process, claiming that the newspaper's implication about the CIA and the crack explosion was an "over-simplification". Although members of the drug ring did meet Contra leaders paid by the CIA, the paper had no proof that senior CIA officials knew of the relationship, Mr. Ceppos wrote. He added that the paper did not include agency comments in response to the paper's findings, as it should have done. (Apparently the huge CIA disinformation budget of paying for "reporters" and "news" - the greatest portion of it, unsurprisingly, spread by the three newspapers which engaged in the "Dark Alliance" smear - doesn't qualify as "balance.")
"Our contract with readers is to be as clear about what we don't know as what we know," he wrote. That being the case, perhaps Mr. Ceppos should be clear that his editorial came not too long after the snubbing of the Mercury with no Pulitzer Prize. This was but one of many signs that made it clear that if any Mercury staff wanted to ever find jobs with other big-money newspapers in the future, an "admission of error" would first have to be made to "clear the air."
At least one fellow Mercury editor joined the opportunistic glee in ritual Webb-slaughter. "I think it's clear that a lot of people came out feeling dispirited and troubled," Steve Buel said of the staff's reaction to Ceppos' announcement that he would publish his column. "You could hear a lot of people saying, 'I know if I did something like Gary did, I'd be out the door."
Webb called the Ceppos editorial bizarre, misleading and nauseating. He then stated:
What Mr. Ceppos' column fails to mention is that, as a result of our continuing investigation, we DO have evidence of direct CIA involvement with this Contra drug operation.
We have evidence that at least one top CIA official in Washington was aware of the drug ring's activities in El Salvador. We also know that these traffickers were more deeply involved with the U.S. intelligence community than we reported last year.
Perhaps one day Mr. Ceppos will allow us to share this information with the public.
Despite the efforts of the biggest newspapers in the country to discredit our work, our central findings remain unchallenged: After being instructed by a CIA agent to raise money in California for the Contras, two Contra drug dealers began selling vast amounts of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles, primarily to the Crips and Bloods. Some of the profits went to pay for the CIA's covert war against the Sandinistas. We wrote last year that the amounts were in the millions and we stand by that statement. We have confirmation from an eyewitness that our figure is accurate.
The drug ring's main customers, the LA gangs, introduced crack to more than 110 cities across the U.S. by the end of the 1980s according to federal reports. Only a fool could argue that this wasn't a critical factor in the spread of crack from South Central to the rest of the country.
If we as journalists have to take a beating for publicly exposing these truths, so be it. We believe it is a beating worth taking.
But the attempt to silence and discredit Webb continues, and the first week of July (right next to Independence Day weekend, to add to the insult) the newspaper transferred him from the state capital to Cupertino, 150 miles away from his home, a move that requires him to be apart from his wife and three children. "This is just harassment," Webb said. "This isn't the first time that a reporter went after the CIA and lost his job over it."
Others have, and will continue, to lose more. Georg Hodel, a co-reporter located in Nicaragua, wrote the following in a piece for Robert Parry's Consortium on-line magazine:
Just as Webb has been under personal attack in the United States, I have faced efforts from former contras to tear down my reputation in Nicaragua. Ex-contras also have harassed Nicaraguan reporters who have tried to follow up the contra-cocaine evidence.
In one paid advertisement, Oscar Danilo Blandon, a drug trafficker who has admitted donating some cocaine profits to the contras in the early 1980s, called me a "pseudo-journalist" and accused me of having some unspecified links to an "international communist organization." Blandon also accused Nicaraguan reporters from El Nuevo Diario of "trying to manipulate" members of the U.S. Congress looking into the contra-cocaine charges.
Former contra chief Adolfo Calero declared in an article in La Tribuna what he thought should be done to these politically suspect Nicaraguan and foreign reporters. He used metaphorical language that refers to leftist Nicaraguan journalists as "deer" and fellow-traveling foreign reporters as "antelopes." "The deer are going to be finished off," Calero wrote on Feb. 2. "In this case, the antelopes as well." As a Swiss journalist, I would be an "antelope."
Less subtly, there have been threatening phone calls to my office. In late May, a male voice shouted obscenities at me over the phone and threatened to "screw" my wife who is a Nicaraguan lawyer representing Enrique Miranda, one of the Nicaraguan cocaine traffickers who has spoken with congressional investigators."
Mr. Ceppos has yet to publish any of Mr. Hodel's letter.
There are many examples in mythology of the Beast being a tragic figure. In the Koran, Lucifer is at one point described as God's most loyal servant, and his fall from grace caused by a desire to serve no other master. There are versions of the Christ tale which indicate that Judas was overtaken not by greed but rather a passion to do what he thought was right. Anne Rice's vampire tales describe the bloodsucker's as stuck in an existential trap which leaves them no choice to behave as they do. Even many modern day self-described "Beasts" - Friedrich Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, and Anton LaVey (not to mention dear John Rotten) - are viewed by many not as icons of evil, but rather critics of a modern false self-proclaimed "Christian" ethic that is morally bankrupt and loaded with hypocrisy.
The Konformist wishes it could include Mr. Ceppos in this category of Beast, as he doesn't appear to be an inherently vile fellow. After all, he is the one who okayed the "Dark Alliance" series in the first place. And, even before the series, the Mercury was considered one of the few papers with any daring coverage by the alternative press (perhaps fueled by the competition of the local alternative weekly San Jose Metro, former home of Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen.)
The Konformist wishes it could include him, but it can't. Whatever bravery Mr. Ceppos has shown in the past hardly excuses his current behavior. Watching Mr. Ceppos is like watching a Don Knotts film backwards - where a small man who seems racked with fear ultimately stands up for what is good and does the right thing. No, Mr. Ceppos actions are not tragic, but rather a pathetic display of cowardice and lack of spine, and, as Beasts go, he certainly is a sorry-ass excuse for one. About the only silver lining in this is that any illusion of an "independent press" garnered from the Woodward and Bernstein years can be thoroughly dismissed as a thing of the past.
In any case, we salute you, Jerry Ceppos, as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Jerry!!!
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