Apology Not Accepted

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
May 16 1997 3:30 AM

Apology Not Accepted

Crack and the Contras: A newspaper retracts, but the Web stands firm.

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Mercury Center, the interactive online site of the San Jose Mercury News, is buzzing with anger at a new target--Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos. The subject was the newspaper's controversial series of last August, "Dark Alliance," which alleged that the CIA had promoted the sale of crack cocaine to Americans as part of the U.S. government's support of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s.

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Sunday, Ceppos wrote that the series had been irresponsibly written and edited, and that it had failed to prove any wrongdoing on the part of the CIA. Online scandal-mongers immediately labeled Ceppos a turncoat. The reporter who wrote the series, Gary Webb, called the column "nauseating," and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said that it shed "nothing new" on the debate over the credibility of the allegations. Meanwhile, the mainstream media and the CIA heralded the end of an irresponsible story.

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T he Internet is being blamed--and praised--for allowing this story to gain so much stature. Despite being dissed and then shot down by such standard-bearers as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, the Mercury News allegations spread like cocaine had in the 1980s, causing national leaders to scurry around with concern. Two months after "Dark Alliance" appeared, CIA Director John Deutch made a rare public appearance in South Central Los Angeles to answer the charges of an angry mob.

The Web enabled "Dark Alliance" to bypass the mainstream media and enter the forefront of national debate. The Mercury News began touting its upcoming series on Internet newsgroups weeks before it was completed. The electronic version was published simultaneously with the print version, with the added features of hypertext links to cited documents, audio tracks from wiretaps and hearings, and an image (which was later removed) of the official stamp of the CIA, superimposed on a crack smoker. Within days of the story's appearance, more than 2,500 other Web sites had linked directly to Mercury Center, causing 100,000 additional hits a day for weeks afterward.

For example, Final Call Online, the Nation of Islam's journal, linked to the piece with a short commentary titled "The CIA Drug Pipeline: How the U.S. Government spread cocaine in the Black ghetto." ParaScope, one of several online journals rich in conspiracy-theorizing, attached this headline: "CIA's Contras Linked to Crack Trade." The Webzine Salon headlined its interview with Webb "Your worst fears are true--the CIA did help smuggle drugs into American ghettos, says an investigative reporter." Robert Parry, co-author of a 1985 AP news story that first reported that some groups of Contras had engaged in drug trafficking, is now the editor of an online news magazine, the Consortium, and has been promoting the story. Although the Consortium charges for access, Parry's editorial in The Nation, endorsing Webb's story, is available at no charge.

But it was the chat groups that really whipped people into a frenzy. Although Usenet newsgroups--a hotbed of discussion on the topic--may be accessed by members only, the topic spawned independent forums with such titles as "The CIA-Crack Connection" and "Black Experience: CIA and LA's Drug Connection." These sites were filled with stinging indictments of the government and the mainstream media as well as gleeful cheers for the Web. One reader in the Mercury Center's Reader Forum (the original responses to the series are all still available) wrote: "We have to raise hell! ... The power of the Web cannot be underestimated." The overwhelming majority of chat-room participants seem to accept the premise of "Dark Alliance," and to spend their time arguing over the connections to other perceived conspiracies like the JFK assassination or that more recent fave, Arkansas land dealings. One reader submitted this helpful tip: "If you enjoy this conspiracy, you may want to visit the Squirrel Conspiracy Home Page."

The contagious hyperbole of the Internet clearly had an impact on the life of "Dark Alliance." As one Web surfer noted: "The outrage of the freshly exposed readers is refreshing to see." Gary Webb himself joined the fray on the Mercury Center's Reader Forum, and was clearly energized by his online fans. His first posting, dated Aug. 19, reads thus: "Since I've been living with this story for so long, it ceased to shock me long ago. I'm glad to see it still has some punch." This was mild compared with his Sept. 1 attack on a lone Web surfer who raised questions about "proof" of CIA involvement: "That's like saying there's no proof of General Motors' involvement in making Chevrolet," Webb raged. "I also heard a great line while I was doing a radio show in Florida yesterday: Now we know what CIA really stands for--Crack In America."

The feedback on the Web and on radio talk shows fed each other, creating an alternative media alliance that shouted down the objections of the mainstream press and catapulted the series to national prominence. Anger at the mainstream media overwhelms anger at the government in many of these forums. "How long will Koppel and co. dance away from this one?" asked one Internet chatter. Black-oriented radio-show hosts repeatedly plugged the Mercury News Web site in their broadcasts, and it became, in the words of Richard Prince of the National Association of Black Journalists, "the buzz of Black America." From there, political leaders like Sen. Barbara Boxer and the NAACP's Kweisi Mfume began calling for investigations, and the mainstream press was forced to write metastories with headlines like this one, from the Oct. 21 New York Times: "Though Evidence is Thin, Tale of CIA and Drugs Has Life Of Its Own." Other news sites and respected political organizations like the NAACP began to link to the series.

The widespread attention merely fueled the "us vs. them" sentiment of most Internet discussions on the topic. When Ceppos wrote his apologetic column, he was merely saying what "they" had been saying all along. "Granted, there may be inconsistencies, there may be fallacies, but why not take up the banner of truth and march on?" argues one Webhead. The impact of the Internet has been twofold: Not only has it allowed the series to leapfrog the mainstream press, but it has also made the mainstream press as much the enemy as the CIA. The fact that Ceppos has defected to the dark side merely fuels the fire.

Karenna Gore was an editorial assistant at Slate.

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