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If there was any gloating at The New York Times, Washington Post or Los Angeles Times over executive editor Jerry Ceppos' abject pullback from the San Jose Mercury News's series about the crack-contra link, there shouldn't have been. Gary Webb's stories were seriously flawed, but so were the stories those papers produced in an attempt to debunk him. All three, to a greater or lesser extent, committed the same journalistic sin for which they indicted the Mercury News: playing up evidence that Webb was wrong while burying proof to the contrary.

Take the highly selective coverage of a Senate hearing last October at which Jack Blum--former chief investigator for Senator John Kerry's two-year-long Senate probe of charges that the CIA had been in cahoots with contra drug smugglers--appeared. Blum testified that while the Kerry committee found no evidence that the CIA had targeted black Americans for drug sales, its investigation had been stonewalled by William Weld, then an Assistant Attorney General and now the Governor of Massachusetts. Coming at the height of the furor over Webb's allegations--and in the middle of a tight Senate race between Kerry and Weld--Blum's testimony was news, you would have thought. But neither the New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times mentioned Blum in its stories about the hearings, and only the Washington Post covered his testimony in detail. Though the Los Angeles Times reported some of what Blum had to say in an earlier story, the noncoverage of the Senate hearing, says Peter Kornbluh, of the National Security Archives, based in Washington, "raised the specter of a government-media collaboration to bury the contra-cocaine story."

Instead of asking what the government knew about contra drug dealing and when it knew it, the big papers set out to prove, in the words of L.A. Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus, that "most of the things that are new [in Webb's stories] aren't true, and most of the things that are true aren't new." Part of that effort entailed assigning black reporters to write stories implying that blacks believe the worst about government actions because they're paranoid. Obviously, the popularity of conspiracy theories in black America is a valid subject for journalistic inquiry; obviously, blacks have no monopoly on wacky ideas. (Remember those militia groups fantasizing about black helicopters?) But to many blacks, pushing the paranoia angle looked like a plot to write off their suspicions as delusions.

And black reporters, including myself, quickly discovered how difficult it was to hold the middle ground. Some of my colleagues say white editors chastised them for insisting that Webb's series, while overblown, raised disturbing questions that needed investigation. At the same time, some African Americans pressured black reporters to forget their qualms and swallow the series whole hog. A lot of us were vilified on black talk-radio shows for arguing that the wild speculations of conspiracy theorists like Dick Gregory deserve no more credence than the CIA's self-serving denials.

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