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Yet this recantation--as unusual as it was--did not knock the struts out of the story entirely. Ceppos noted that Webb's reporting was "right on many important points." The series did, for example, establish a link between one of the most notorious L.A. drug dealers--"Freeway Rick" Ross--and Nicaraguan suppliers who were admitted supporters of the contras. And while strongly hinting at CIA knowledge of the drug connection, the story never explicitly made that claim.

Nor is the paper's mea culpa likely to change the minds of those who want to believe that the U.S. government was behind the introduction of crack into the inner city. Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who was among the first to take up Webb's reporting as a political cause, has reaffirmed her belief that the basic story is sound and has vowed to continue pressing for congressional hearings. Says Los Angeles city councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas: "There is a lot of suspicion that there was some truth associated with the claims in the story. Frankly, those suspicions will not go away."

Another who continues to stand by the series is reporter Webb, whose disagreement with some of Ceppos' criticisms were explicitly noted in the editorial. Webb, who has spent eight years at the Mercury News, mostly reporting from Sacramento, the state capital, maintains that the paper "is not backing down from the central assertion of the story"--that cocaine sold in Los Angeles in the 1980s produced money for the contras. He says he has written four follow-up stories that bolster his allegations: one featuring an eyewitness interview that, Webb claims, confirms some dollar figures, and another based on documents that allegedly show "how far up in the CIA this thing went." (Ceppos, who will not comment beyond his published statements, has characterized Webb's new material as only "notes," and won't say whether he is going to run them.) "The nature of this story is a very dangerous idea," says Webb. "Once you go down this trail, you challenge the moral authority of the government, which is why I believe other media shied away from it."

The wrangle over the article highlights the creative tension that often exists in newsrooms between investigative reporters and their editors. The former are by nature advocates; they work for many months on their lonely quest, become passionate about their story, and sometimes promise more than they can responsibly deliver. The latter must act as the voice of caution, tamping down enthusiasms and reining in excesses. At the Mercury News, Webb played his assigned part with gusto, but it's not so clear that the editors adequately performed theirs. Though Ceppos did not directly edit the story, he has taken responsibility for it.

Yet according to insiders at the paper, many staff members are now embarrassed by the story and resentful of Webb's self-promotional efforts on its behalf. Indeed, the lure of talk-show celebrity, maybe even a Hollywood deal, may have played a role in letting a promising investigative piece get out of control. The Mercury News has made an admirable effort to face up to its journalistic lapses. But it would be a shame if the incident discouraged editors from supporting the kind of aggressive reporting Webb has done--or muffled the serious questions that his series has raised.

--With reporting by Elaine Lafferty/Los Angeles

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