At the crossroads of journalism and technology.

Gary Webb, The San Jose Mercury News, and a Dark Alliance

"Conspiracies for sale! Cheap!"

by Jean Wang


From August 18-20, 1996, the San Jose Mercury News ran a series of articles about the introduction and spread of crack cocaine in Los Angeles - "Dark Alliance." The graphic identifying this series was a picture of a man smoking crack superimposed on the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency. This series was also placed on "Mercury Center," the online component of the Mercury News. The Mercury News' use of the world wide web to "publish" this story has been hailed as a revolution in the way "news" is distributed. As of October 22, 1996, this story is still going strong.

The Internet cheering squads have indicted large newspapers for being elitist, complacent, and "slack-jawed" for having failed to pick up the story and run it in their papers. Some believe that Webb's story (which never explicitly accuses the CIA of aiding, abetting, or knowing about the crack dealing,) would never have been spread to so many people without the Internet. It has become a story about little people empowering themselves and forcing the big guns (government, major media corporations) to respond. The people use democratizing technology, the Internet, to access information -- power in today's information age.


REALITY CHECK.

The San Jose Mercury News is a regional paper with a restricted circulation, but it is owned by Knight-Ridder which also owns the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire service. The major papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Washington Post did not carry the story soon after it was published, but the Associated Press put a report about the Mercury News series on their wire service and several regional papers reported on the series or republished it within the week the series broke.

The reporter behind this "huge, groundbreaking story," Gary Webb, has been very active in promoting it. He's been on radio and television to spread his story to all those who don't read the Mercury News or haven't seen the online version of the series. His belief is that the major papers didn't pick up his story right away because they didn't want to admit that a regional paper had beat them to a groundbreaking story, and Webb attributes the spread of the story to distribution via the Internet. Webb, of course, let people know through these traditional media the address for the web site. The Mercury Center continues to keep the series online because of the phenomenal hits the site has been receiving.

While Webb may never be rewarded by having the CIA announce their involvement in a conspiracy to undermine black communities through crack, he has been rewarded for his efforts. He recently sold the movie rights to his story and a book deal is allegedly "in the works." Whatever happens, no matter how the investigations into his allegation regarding the CIA turn out, Webb walks away with cash in his pocket. And, this money isn't coming from democratic-minded denizens of the net, but from major media corporations.

Webb's self-promotion may be supported by the Mercury Center. One newspaper has alleged that the Mercury Center heavily promoted the series before it broke by posting on newsgroups devoted to such topics as drugs and conspiracies. One has to wonder how much ad revenue the Mercury Center is making from the ads on the "Dark Alliance" site.


NO ONE'S INNOCENT

However, the "major newspapers" that Webb et al slam are not as objective as they would like the public to believe. Most of these papers have investigated Webb's claims and concluded that they are not supported by the source material. Their immediate doubts about the validity of the claims does seem to stem from an elitist belief that regional papers don't break major stories. Their response to the growing effects of the Mercury News series also indicates their distance from the public at large. Papers such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times have reported on the "misguided" belief by black communities that the Mercury News series proves that there is a government conspiracy to undermine these communities through drugs. They implicitly blame the Mercury News and Webb for being irresponsible in spreading unfounded allegations and causing turmoil in communities throughout the nation. They don't seem to understand how seriously many people take these claims or how strongly these claims resonate with many people. Their "editorial" decision to not pick up the story in the beginning is an indication of how these "major papers" are out of touch with the public they're supposed to be serving.


CASE IN POINT

Rather than being an example of how the Internet will revolutionize the way information will be distributed, and how the traditional "gatekeepers" of journalism will be by-passed, this "case study" shows us instead how different media are irrevocably bound together. No medium will become the only medium through which information is distributed. In this case, traditional media (newspapers, wire services, radio, television) were instrumental in spreading the "Dark Alliance" story. The hits for the "Dark Alliance" web site shot up after Webb did television interviews. How many people would have seen the site if they hadn't found out about it through the radio, television, or newspaper?

There isn't one "dark alliance," but many dark alliances. Every puppet's got strings, no matter how much it hypes its independence. (Me included.)