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Oct. 25, 1998

iF's goal is to write about this age with independence, through investigative journalism that will tell the truth, without fear or favor.

Editorial: A Media Disgrace

Nothing could better explain why this publication exists than the shocking neglect that the big media has shown toward the CIA's new contra-cocaine report.

The report by the CIA's inspector general described how the Reagan administration tolerated cocaine trafficking into the United States under the umbrella of the contra war in Nicaragua during the 1980s. The report established that cocaine smugglers penetrated the contra operation at all levels -- and that the CIA hid the evidence.

Rarely, if ever, has a U.S. agency made such a devastating set of admissions about its own activities. The CIA's inspector general effectively confirmed the contra-cocaine allegations which the Reagan-Bush administrations had denied for more than a decade.

Yet, the readers of America's major dailies will know little of this history. The document was released onto the CIA's Internet site on the afternoon of Oct. 8. But the admission of a serious crime of state drew barely a yawn from the national press.

The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- two papers which had long pooh-poohed the contra-cocaine charges -- ignored the inspector general’s findings altogether.

Two days later, The New York Times kissed off the CIA's findings in a brief story on page A5, below the fold. It noted, accurately, that the report was "blunt and often critical" and that the CIA "repeatedly ignored or failed to investigate allegations of drug trafficking by" the contras. [NYT, Oct 10, 1998]

But the reality detailed in the report was much worse. The CIA had confirmed many of the allegations and withheld the evidence from both law enforcement and Congress.

The nation's dominant newspapers seemed to have finally reached the absurd juncture where the CIA was admitting guilt on a serious offense, but the major news outlets were determined to protect the CIA's image.

In one strange way, however, the editorial decisions made sense. Today, more senior journalists in the big media have a career interest in down-playing contra crimes than do the current senior officials at the CIA.

Many of the CIA top brass responsible for the contra operation are long gone, but many of today’s star reporters rose to prominence by going along with the propaganda fed to them by the Reagan-Bush administrations.

Since the contra-cocaine charges were first raised in the mid-1980s, the major newspapers have been consistent in dismissing the allegations. When Sen. John Kerry confirmed many of the charges in a 1989 Senate report, his findings were buried deep inside the big papers -- and he was ridiculed as a “randy conspiracy buff.”

When Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series revived the scanda in 1996, the major media lashed out at him and the black community for not accepting the long-standing conventional wisdom.

Since then, the big papers have grudgingly admitted some substance to the charges, but the admissions are quickly forgotten -- or even reversed.

When the outlines of the new CIA report became known over the summer, The New York Times admitted that the CIA had found evidence of widespread contra drug smuggling, with about 50 contras and allied entities implicated in the cocaine trade. [NYT, July 17, 1998]

But it was a fleeting admission. On Sept. 27, when the Times published a combined review of Gary Webb's Dark Alliance book and a second book, Whiteout, by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, the old conventional wisdom was back in place.

Reviewer James Adams termed the two books "unsatisfactory" and mocked their suggestions of a CIA cover-up of contra-cocaine crimes as "laughable."

Adams's review then misstated what was already known about the upcoming CIA report. “It matters little,” Adams wrote, “that the CIA's own inspector general said he found no evidence to support allegations of agency involvement in or knowledge of the drug trafficking in the United States."

Even based on the Times’ own mild admissions, the summary wasn’t true. Still, the Times published it, discrediting the work of other journalists who had seriously addressed a tough story.

When the CIA report was released on Oct. 8, it became even clearer how wrong Adams’s review had been.
As for the “laughable” cover-up, a CIA station chief explained the thinking: “There was derogatory stuff [about the contras], but we were going to play with these guys,” that message had been delivered from CIA director William J. Casey and other senior officials.

But why won’t the Times and other big newspapers just “come clean” now that the facts are so overwhelming?
The reason seems to be that they don’t have to. The editors know that no one can or will hold them accountable, as long as they stick together. If the public doesn’t know how devastating the CIA’s admissions were, then no one will know how poorly the major newspapers performed.

The Times, which likes to call itself “the newspapers of record,” apparently believes that it controls -- and can manipulate -- that record. If anything, the behavior of the Post and the Los Angeles Times has been worse.

This betrayal of the public trust is one of the principal reasons this publication exists. Our goal is simple: it is to write an honest first draft of our recent history.

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