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Watching the Washington Post play catch up on a story is a little like watching an elephant pick up a marble. The elephant first tries to stomp the little bugger to smithereens, then attempts to roll it out of sight, and then finally—when the elephant realizes that the marble will not go away—begins the onerous task of trying to pick it up. That’s been the graceful arc of the paper’s response to a San Jose Mercury News August series suggesting that the CIA winked at drug dealing among U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels and shared culpability for the influx of cocaine into South Central Los Angeles.

The stories, written by Merc reporter Gary Webb, rippled for weeks around water coolers, talk radio, and the Internet before the Post deigned to comment. The buzz, especially in the black community, became impossible to ignore, but instead of trying to match or advance a story everybody was talking about, the Post decided to tear its arms and legs off in a 5,000-word autopsy. On Oct. 4, Roberto Suro and Walter Pincus investigated the investigation, raising questions about the piece’s framing, reporting, and conclusions. Other big-city dailies followed suit: In the span of a few days, the Merc series was stapled by the Post as “lacking,” by the New York Times as “lurid,” and by the Los Angeles Times as “hyperbolic.” (The Los Angeles Times critique sucked up six-and-a-half pages of newsprint, more than the Merc’s whole series.)

The Merc’s biggest sin seems to have been breaking a story without the permission of the big boys. The paper took some well-deserved whacks for its overheated packaging—CIA logo overlayed on a crackhead—and overreaching conclusions. But judging from the hindsight treatment exhibited by the big three, the Merc’s lapses in editorial judgment were the whole story. The biggies ignored the fact that the series featured a juicy and thoroughly reported example of the extremes to which the CIA went to fund the dirty war on the Sandinistas. The Merc’s bigger competitors were more interested in exploiting holes in the series than in the new information it unearthed.

The Post’s reaction story first made it clear that the Post was there first. “A Washington Post investigation into Ross, Blandon, Meneses [the contras implicated in the Merc story] and the U.S. cocaine market in the 1980s found that the available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras—or Nicaraguans in general—played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States.” That may be true, but the Post’s investigation doubtless turned up plenty of CIA duplicity that never saw the light of day in the daily paper.

Suro and Pincus went on to sniff that the Merc series “echoed decade-old allegations.” What the story didn’t mention is that the Post ignored those allegations back then, burying small items far back in the A section even though congressional hearings at the time yielded massive evidence that many contras were deep in the drug trade. Of course, the Post has a history of staring at snakepiles of CIA misdoings and seeing nothing amiss, but that’s the nature of life in a Company town.

The cycle of journalistic enterprise and envy-filled sniping is familiar to veteran investigative journalist Bob Parry. Back in 1985, Parry and Brian Barger wrote a series of stories for the Associated Press documenting links between CIA-backed contras and cocaine trafficking. Their stories kicked up a hail of criticism, both from the Reagan administration and major media players like the Post. Parry, who works for the Nation Institute and runs his own newsletter called The Consortium in Virginia, watched with interest as the Merc and Webb were hazed by the major media fraternity.

“They dumped all over the story back then and pretty much ignored it even when [Sen. John] Kerry’s subcommittee came forward with all the evidence [in 1989]. Now the Post is writing stories which suggest that it’s old news and they dealt with it back then. They didn’t deal with it. The stories we did were ignored and attacked. What they are saying and doing now is very disingenuous,” Parry said.

Parry recalls that when he wrote his first story about Ollie North’s involvement in contra funding, he was written off as a conspiracy nut until it became clear that North was up to his epaulets in shady wire transfers. The Post and other national papers, Parry said, have a massive blindspot when it comes to covert operations and the CIA.

“It’s almost bizarre, because we all understand that there are dirty cops, but when you try to say the same thing about the CIA, all of the fences go up. People still think of the Washington press as the Watergate press, but that’s not the case. Ronald Reagan broke our backs in the ’80s. People are more afraid of being ridiculed as conspiratorialists than they are of getting beaten on a good story,” Parry said in a phone interview.

Although the Merc didn’t expect a warm reception from the national press, it was shocked by the venom oozing from the counterattacks. After the Post’s attempt at putting the series in perspective, Merc Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos sent a letter to the Post requesting an opportunity to respond to the Post’s story. The Post seemed amenable and asked him to revise his letter for publication, but on Oct. 24, he received a one-paragraph fax saying the Post had decided against it because the letter “defended some positions you had backed away from elsewhere.” Ceppos, writing on the Merc’s web page, says, “I suddenly lost access to the newspaper that first bitterly criticized our series.”

Grudgingly, the Post has moved from denial to acceptance and is now struggling to pick up a story relegated for years to back-page blurbs. On Oct. 31, Post writers Pincus and Douglas Farah produced a new set of narco-contras—Octaviano Cesar and Adolfo Chamorro, who took delivery on planes and cash from George Morales, an international drug dealer, with the express permission of the CIA. So the story that didn’t exist when the Merc wrote it has taken on sudden credulity now that the Post has a few bad guys it can call its own. Critics at the Post and elsewhere are right to argue that the CIA was probably not looking for a two-fer by allowing some of its co-conspirators to flood inner cities with crack cocaine, but the permissions from the agency no doubt played a significant role in broadening the availability and lowering the price of crack cocaine.

Not everybody has played along with the major dailies’ blackout. U.S. Rep. from Los Angeles Maxine Waters has been screaming bloody murder about the revelations, and a Senate select committee is holding hearings on the charges. And unlike in the bad old days, the major media blackout hasn’t buried the series, in part because the Merc compiled a massive web version of the series for the paper’s oft-praised Mercury Center. Along with the series, the site serves up a lot of interesting B matter, including real-time audio of testimony and links to bios, motions, and indictments. And the site has filtered all the dust kicked up by the series, including a critique done by the Mercury Center staff and links to the critical coverage in the big three (check out the entire series at http://spyglass.sjmercury.com/drugs/start.htm).

While the news side of the Post dripped contempt for Webb’s story, the editorial page at the paper decided that the bottom line was worth a look.

“For even just a couple of CIA-connected characters to have played even a trivial role in introducing Americans to crack would indicate an unconscionable breach by the CIA. It is essential to know whether the agency contributed to this result or failed to exercise diligence to block it,” read an Oct. 9 editorial. Maybe the editorial staff should place a call to the guys over on the national desk.

Giddy Finish The Washington Times, in its own inimitable fashion, broke ranks in the last two days of the presidential campaign, running successive headlines reading, “Presidential race tightens in campaign’s final days” and “Race draws closer as it draws to a close.” Sunday’s Times had Bob Dole within 1.4 percent. Apparently, Page One editors at the Times decided that they too would stay up for the final 96 hours of the campaign and see just how punchy they could get.

Rowan’s Flamethrower Given the flood of overwrought books on race relations in America published over the past couple of years, columnist and author Carl T. Rowan was probably looking for a way to jump-start sales of The Coming Race War in America. In an elegant stroke of salesmanship, Rowan tosses the Post’s Richard Cohen into a chapter titled “The Hatemongers” that includes Louis Farrakhan, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh. Cohen played along, snatching the race bait in a nuanced response headlined “I Am Not a Hatemonger.” In his column, Cohen defends Newt before calling his fellow pundit’s opinion “a libel and an outrage.” Libel is a term of art, but Rowan might use truth as his defense, perhaps explaining that he is merely dining at a table Cohen has been busy setting for most of his career.

Cohen may not have earned “hatemonger” status, but thousands of black people tried to get Cohen fired back in 1986, when he penned a column defending storekeepers who made a habit of putting the hairy eyeball on blacks who came into their shops. He has whined aloud over the virtual affirmative-action embargo on the hiring of white guys at the Post. Cohen writes that “when a prominent African American journalist calls a white colleague a hatemonger, he is suggesting nothing short of racism.” Uh, yeah, that’s the general idea. It’s not as if Cohen hasn’t swung the old tar brush around himself. Every time Farrakhan or one of his race warriors gets on the soapbox, Cohen is there to play the race card. Now that it’s popped out in front of him, he’s complaining that it should have stayed in the deck.

Bucking a Trend The Post is not participating in a minor renaissance taking place at many major dailies. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, circulation at seven out of 10 of the countries’ biggest dailies is up, including USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, Newsday, the Houston Chronicle, and the Chicago Sun-Times. The Post’s circulation dropped 0.5 percent in the six months that ended Sept. 30, compared with the same period the previous year. It was joined by the New York Times, down a full percentage point, and the Chicago Tribune, off 0.6 percent. The Post is the nation’s fourth-largest newspaper, with USA Today leading at 1.6 million and the LA and New York Timeses both hovering just over a million. The Post’s average circulation for the period was 789,198.—David Carr

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.