The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Light shed on the Dark Alliance?

We have an order of journalistic causes célèbres that sticks in the mind much like a genealogy of kings might have done in ancient days: Isikoff (SouthCom/Guantanamo), 60 Minutes (Killian memos), Jack Kelley, Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke - er. Go back more than a year or two and the folk memory blurs.

If you're looking for them, these suckers take some digging out - as I found when checking into previous 60 Minutes snafus at the time of Memogate (there were several that I got - September 17 2004 - many more, I'm sure, that I missed).

All the better, therefore, when serendipity does her thing.

Thus, I read on Narconews a piece announcing that the site was to republish the 'Dark Alliance' series of Gary Webb's first printed in the San Jose Mercury-News in August 1996.

This was the reporting that suggested (or was taken as suggesting) that an operation had been organised by the CIA to distribute crack cocaine in Los Angeles the profits from which were to finance the activities of the Nicaraguan contras.

The story spawned an equally complex and controversial meta-story about the pieces themselves - on the quality of the reporting and editing, use of sources, professional hostility within the Mercury News and without (at the Top Papers, which, after some delay, mauled Webb's series), spineless management, leading eventually to the guy's suicide.

It seems that the the series was one of the first pieces of journalism to have an independent online life, with much background material as well as the pieces themselves. The site was canned by the paper when the controversy got too hot.

Both the AJR and CJR have pieces - here and here - on the controversy dating from January 1997.

From an initial reading, I'd say they agreed that the journalism in the pieces, though of value in raising an issue thitherto largely ignored by the Top Papers, was seriously flawed. And that the take-out allegation - that, as far as the LA crack operation was concerned, the CIA dunnit - was not made directly but implied and teased; and was not supported by available evidence.

As told in the 1997 pieces, few of the actors in the Dark Alliance drama come out of it untarnished. Whether the conclusions would be the same today, I know not.

Next time we have an unprecedented reporting scandal, this may be a precedent to come back to.


Whilst the URLs are to hand: DOJ Inspector-General's Report from December 1997 (covering DOJ actions, not those of the CIA!); a critical David Corn Nation piece; the 1987 report and transcripts - or rather parts thereof - of hearings on CIA connections with Latin American narcotics by the Kerry Committee, the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Communications and International Economic Policy, Trade, Oceans and Environment (!).

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