Thursday, December 22, 2005

When is a story not a story?

When is a story not a story? When the mainstream media does not care to cover it.

My girlfriend Kate points out that I shouldn't assume other people know the historical context of the Gary Webb saga. Nutshell: in 1996, Webb wrote a series of articles connecting the CIA, via the Contras, to crack sales in the 1980s. There was a storm of negative press criticizing Webb for shoddy journalism (which I think was unfair) and saying the story was unsubstantiated (which I think was wrong).

Then came the government denials. From a December 2004 Alexander Cockburn piece about the case:
True to form, after Webb's series raised a storm, particularly on black radio, the CIA issued categorical denials. Then came the solemn pledges of an intense and far-reaching investigation by the CIA's Inspector General, Fred Hitz. On December 18, 1997, stories in the Washington Post by Walter Pincus and in the New York Times by Tim Weiner appeared simultaneously, both saying the same thing: Inspector General Hitz had finished his investigation. He had found "no direct or indirect" links between the CIA and the cocaine traffickers. As both Pincus and Weiner admitted in their stories, neither of the two journalists had actually seen the report.
The classified, 361-page report was later released, censored down to 149 pages. Cockburn again:
The actual report itself, so loudly heralded, received almost no examination. But those who took the time to examine the 149-page document--the first of two volumes--found Inspector General Hitz making one damning admission after another.
Webb wrote in a November 1998 story about these CIA admissions:
Among other things, the declassified cables reveal:

The CIA knew from the very beginning of the war that the men it had hired to run its main contra army were narco-terrorists, but it continued to finance and protect them. In September 1981, just as the CIA was becoming formally involved with the contras, the agency learned that a faction called the Legion of September 15 "had made a decision to engage in drug smuggling to the United States in order to finance its anti-Sandinista operations." ...

A few months after discovering the Legion's involvement with drugs, the CIA put the group's senior commanders in charge of the agency's newly formed contra organization, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN). "No information has been found to indicate any action to follow up or corroborate the allegations concerning 15th of September Legion drug smuggling into the United States," the CIA report states.

That would prove to be no small oversight. According to the testimony of former LA drug kingpin Danilo Blandon, the contra middleman who sold Norwin Meneses' cocaine to South-Central's crack dealers, it was the Legion's commander in chief, Enrique Bermudez, who recruited him and Meneses in late 1981 to raise money for the contras in California. As part of their fund-raising efforts, they began selling cocaine to the street gangs of South-Central and, in the process, helped touch off the crack-cocaine explosion there....

CIA agent Felipe Vidal, a Cuban the CIA says "served as a logistics coordinator for the contras" in Costa Rica, was a convicted drug dealer and was working for a Miami company that was importing cocaine into the U.S. from Costa Rica. Top CIA officials knew of Vidal's drug-dealing associations... In the midst of the Iran-contra probe, the CIA shut down an internal investigation of Vidal because "narcotics trafficking relative to contra-related activities is exactly the sort of thing that the U.S. attorney's office will be investigating." The CIA's lawyers fretted that any information the internal probe turned up "could be exposed during any future litigation."

How much more of a smoking gun could the CIA possibly release? (Though I would like to see the context of those short, unspecific quotes.)

Between September 1996 and October 1998, the NY Times ran 14 articles that countered Webb's view of the evidence, including one staff editorial, six stories on the Mercury News's retraction and Webb's fall, five stories about agencies exonerating themselves, and one particularly slimy story of 2393 words headlined "Though Evidence Is Thin, Tale of C.I.A. and Drugs Has a Life of Its Own" (October 21, 1996) which compared the popularity of the Webb series among blacks with groundless paranoia such as the belief that AIDS was created to target blacks. Other headlines included "C.I.A. Says It Has Found No Link Between Itself and Crack Trade" and "C.I.A. Report Concludes Agency Knew Nothing of Drug Dealers' Ties to Rebels".

Together, the Times's 14 pieces which maintained a stance critical of Webb or reported the self-proclaimed innocence of government agencies he mentions ran 15,026 words.

When the report was actually released in 1998--heavily redacted and shortened by half, but still filled with shocking revelations the CIA hadn't mentioned the previous December--the Times coverage showed far less gusto than the paper's prior coverage. The headlines were "C.I.A. Says It Used Nicaraguan Rebels Accused of Drug Tie" and "C.I.A. Reportedly Ignored Charges of Contra Drug Dealing in '80's". While these headlines do mention that CIA beneficiaries are being accused of drug ties, and that someone is reporting that the CIA ignored contra drug dealing, they fail to make clear that the group doing this accusing and reporting is the CIA itself.

Combined word count for the CIA mea culpa? 1479 words. That's about 10% of the size of the coverage that had maintained the opposite was true--that the CIA had not ignored Contra drug dealing, and that Webb had been wrong and was disgraced. This time there was no staff editorial. When volume II of the CIA's report was released, the Times didn't even bother to cover it.

Similarly, the LA Times first ran "CIA Probe Absolves Agency on L.A. Crack" on page 1, and then later ran the shorter "CIA Admits to Using Nicaraguan Rebels With Drug Ties" on page 3. Who would view the second story as the less newsworthy of the two?

The NY Times did print an excellent letter in October 1998 from one James Lafferty, who laid it down:

"One need only look back to the C.I.A.'s role in Cuba or Vietnam or Chile or Afghanistan or dozens of other countries over the years to understand how truth is discovered in such matters. At first, the C.I.A. always denies the sordid charges. Then, after the passage of many years, investigations are reopened in the light of 'new evidence.' Finally, the truth comes out and is printed on the back pages of the same newspapers that, when the charges were first denied, carried the denials on their front pages. I would suggest that [Times writer] Adams and the rest of the nation stay tuned."