Albion Monitor /News

CIA - Contra Drug Deal Named Top Story

by Jeff Elliott

Wondering what was the most important news story of 1996? Although election-year politics and scandals danced most frequently in headlines, the top news story was a newspaper series about early-1980s drug smuggling -- also significant because other media aggressively tried to discredit the story, and that the newspaper used the Internet to distribute it to an immense global readership.

Notable because the first "mainstream" media report on the CIA Contra-Coke trail

The investigative series written by Gary Webb, "Dark Alliance," appeared in the San Jose Mercury News in August, and explained that millions of dollars from the sale of crack cocaine went to support the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan years.

Besides funding the Contras, the drug deal brought misery to America's inner cities, as described in an Albion Monitor summary of the series. It was crack that turned many casual drug users into hard-core addicts -- a "substance that is tailor-made to addict people," as the Mercury News quoted Dr. Robert Byck, a Yale University cocaine expert testifying in 1986. "It is as though (McDonald's founder) Ray Kroc had invented the opium den."

The Mercury News series is notable because it marks the first time that a report on the CIA Contra-Coke trail has appeared in "mainstream" media, although basic details of the drugs-for-guns arrangement has been known for over a decade. As described in "The CIA, the Contras, and Crack Cocaine" found elsewhere in this edition, Senator John Kerry's 1986 Congressional Subcommittee uncovered significant evidence of Contra-connected drug smuggling.

"The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times did not change character in October"

Perhaps most surprising about the investigative report was the vitriolic criticism from mainstream newspapers and television news. A report to be published in January by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), focuses on three newspapers -- the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times -- which have printed lengthy articles attacking the Mercury News series.

FAIR's report, "Snow Job: The Establishment's Papers Do Damage Control for the CIA," also highlights a history of national media suppression and marginalization of the Contra-cocaine story in the 1980s, according to primary report author and syndicated columnist Norman Solomon. He also believes it demonstrates how powerful media sources work to protect the status quo.

"The mass media response to the Mercury News series provides us with a terribly important window into the ongoing realities of news management in the United States," Solomon says.

"The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times did not change character in October, 1996. They responded to a potential crisis for the national security elite by getting down to business with a triple-barreled assault on the Mercury News series. As FAIR's 'Snow Job' report points out in some detail, this response is consistent with the overall approaches taken by such powerful media outlets.

"By way of a parallel: During the Gulf War, the blatant role played by National Public Radio was an eye-opener for many people: NPR appeared to stand for 'National Pentagon Radio.' The usual mask slipped at a time of crisis. But the essential function of NPR had not changed, it merely became more direct."

Internet important in drawing public attention

Also significant in the San Jose Mercury News series was its dramatic presentation on the Internet.

As noted by Daniel Brandt of Public Information Research in an October commentary in the Albion Monitor, the newspaper's Internet version presented sound files, copies of original documents, and pictures not available in any other form. Downloading only the text files results in a 225-page printout.

According to Brandt, the Mercury News web site recorded as many as 860,000 per day once interest in the story picked up.

Brandt wrote, "While the sort of clout demonstrated by the Mercury News cannot be ascribed to the Web site directly, as opposed to the compelling nature of the story itself, it has the big boys worried. Freedom of the press for those who can afford to own the presses is precisely what they've always supported. But this story suddenly raises suspicions that the Internet has changed the equation in support of democracy."

The importance of the Internet in the distribution of this news story is not to be diminished, Brandt and others believe. Although the New York Times and other media sources appeared to snub the story at first, the story was reprinted widely around the country by October, and Congress and the CIA director were forced to announce investigations.

More backround on the Contra-Crack scandal is available from a special website provided by Extra! the bimonthly magazine published by FAIR, as well as additional "Snow Job"sidebars.
Previous Story Next Story

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor December 24, 1996 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page