The executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday wrote an open letter to readers, admitting to shortcomings in the newspaper's controversial series on the crack cocaine explosion in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Jerry Ceppos said the newspaper solidly documented information that a drug ring associated with the rebel force in Nicaragua known as the Contras sold large quantities of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles. Some of the profits from those sales went to the Contras.
However, he said the newspaper fell short in some areas concerning the "Dark Alliance" series, published last year. After reexamining it with the help of seven other reporters and editors, Ceppos concluded that the series did not meet the newspaper's standards in four areas:
* "In a few key instances, we presented only one interpretation of complicated, sometimes conflicting pieces of evidence. In one such instance, we did not include information that contradicted a central assertion of the series.
* "We made our best estimate of how much money was involved, but we failed to label it as an estimate, and instead it appeared as fact.
* "We oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew.
* "Through imprecise language and graphics, we created impressions that were open to misinterpretation."
Ceppos, who would not comment further on the letter on Sunday, noted that Gary Webb, the reporter who wrote the series, disagreed with his conclusions.
Ceppos elaborated on a primary assertion of the series, that a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold cocaine in South-Central Los Angeles then funneled profits to the Contras for the better part of a decade. The two major players in the effort were Danilo Blandon, a Contra supporter and drug supplier, and Ricky Ross, a Los Angeles drug dealer.
Ceppos said the newspaper omitted conflicting information that Blandon testified he stopped sending cocaine profits to the Contras at the end of 1982, after being in operation for a year.
The executive editor maintained that the testimony should have been included in the story. Webb agreed, saying that a reference to the testimony was cut by editors. But Webb also believes that Blandon recanted that testimony, while Ceppos wrote that he didn't see later testimony in the same way.
The evidence also suggested that millions in profits were sent to the Contras from cocaine sales to Ross and others, Ceppos wrote.
He said Webb believes the figure is accurate, although it depended on the newspaper's best estimates based on interviews, trial testimony and other documentary information.
"We didn't know for certain what the profits were, and I feel that we should have made it clear that our figures were estimates," Ceppos wrote.
He also said the series implied that the Blandon-Ross connection played a critical role in the crack epidemic in urban America. He said he now believes the newspaper oversimplified the issue.
"Because the national crack epidemic was a complex phenomenon that had more than one origin, our discussion of this issue needed to be clearer," Ceppos said.
He wrote that while the newspaper did not report the CIA knew about the funds going to the Contras, it implied CIA knowledge.
"Although members of the drug ring met with Contra leaders paid by the CIA and Webb believes the relationship with the CIA was a tight one, I feel that we did not have proof that top CIA officials knew of the relationship," he wrote. "I believe that part of our contract with readers is to be as clear about what we don't know as what we do know.
"We also did not include CIA comment about our findings, and I think we should have."
Ceppos said that if the Mercury News were to publish the series today, it would be edited differently: It would state fewer conclusions and certainties, and be clearer as to how conclusions are drawn.
He pointed out that the investigation found additional corroboration on some points of the series, and conflicting information on others. However, he said he believes that the conflicting information does not invalidate the newspaper's effort, and that the story was correct on many important points.
He concluded the letter, published in the newspaper's Perspective section of commentary and editorials, by insisting that the shortcomings of the series could not be pinned on any one person.
"I believe that we fell short at every step of our process--in the writing, editing and production of our work. Several people here share that burden," he wrote. "We have learned from the experience and even are changing the way we handle major investigations.
"But ultimately, the responsibility was, and is, mine."