In This Drug War, Truth Was the First Casualty
In songs, books, and now movies, the fable of Dark Alliance rolls on.
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Alas, editing was also missing from the real-life process of how “Dark Alliance” was published. That’s why Webb’s legitimate scoop about how a handful of California coke distributors also gave money to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels was allowed to be published as a bloated three-day series that purported to tell “The Story Behind the Crack Explosion,” which the Merc pimped as “the union of a U.S.-backed army attempting to overthrow a revolutionary socialist government and the Uzi-toting ‘gangstas’ of Compton and South-Central Los Angeles.”
Webb’s story described no such union, just a couple of drug dealers who sent some of their proceeds to Nicaragua. Nor did it really tell us much about the Contras or these “Uzi-toting ‘ganstas.’” Instead, “Dark Alliance” peddled the worst kind of racial conspiracy theory, the notion that the U.S. government was actively complicit in the spread of crack cocaine into black communities across America. Given some of the very real historic injustices perpetuated by our government against African Americans, this idea was bound to attract adherents even though there was no evidence that it was true.
Kill the Messenger dishonestly makes the journalists at the Washington Post and elsewhere out to be CIA dupes because they put Webb’s stories under the microscope and found them wanting. (Yes, this is the very same Washington Post that has so courageously confronted the CIA and NSA in dozens of more recent investigations about surveillance, foreign prisons, drone warfare and much more.)
In fact, the Post had once courageously unleashed this same kind of scrutiny on itself when one of its own stories blew up in its face, its 1980 account of a supposed 8-year-old heroin addict, for which the paper received a Pulitzer Prize until the story was revealed to be fiction. The Mercury News was never remotely as honest. Although the paper did publish a column by Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos admitting that some of its assertions were not grounded in evidence and that several of its key accusations were a lot squishier than it had suggested, the paper’s errors were far more widespread than it ever conceded.
The paper’s headlines described a “cocaine-for-weapons trade,” but its stories never once mentioned one. It asserted that the “Crack plague’s roots” were in the Nicaraguan war, but its own reporting later suggested that crack was invented right here in the Bay Area, years before. The paper never even named a single one of the “Uzi-toting gangstas” it had warned about in the third paragraph of the main story. Most notably, it drenched its reporting in wholly undocumented racial innuendos that it never even set out to document.
Kill the Messenger conveniently ignores the very widespread internal disagreement within the Merc’s newsroom about the reliability of Webb’s series. I worked there when the series was published, and was a vocal internal critic of the series. But many Mercury News journalists pressed our paper to reassess Webb’s reporting—not because we were CIA toadies or insensitive to the impacts of crack cocaine on black America, but because we could see that it was wrong in many, many ways. As the editor in charge of race and demographics coverage, I was troubled most by our completely unsubstantiated implication that the U.S. government had deliberately helped to disseminate crack cocaine across black America.
Even then I suspected that one day these lies would be repeated in songs, books, and movies. Alas, some people like a conspiracy too much to let the truth get in the way of the tale.