WASHINGTON — The controversy that began with the San Jose Mercury News' publication of a series on cocaine and the Nicaraguan Contra rebels has become a case study in how information caroms around the country at whiplash speed in the digital age.
In its printed version, as the paper's editor has pointed out, the stories were careful never to claim that the Central Intelligence Agency condoned or abetted drug dealing to support the Contra movement.
Reporter Gary Webb has said that his research into the CIA-crack connection "ended at the CIA's door," but did not firmly establish a link between the agency and the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
But that unproven link has become established as fact in the minds of many Americans, and the Mercury News' executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, says the way the paper used the World Wide Web to disseminate its material may have contributed to that misinterpretation.
Even before the stories were published in mid-August, managers of the paper's Web site, Mercury Center, were alerting Internet users to a coming bombshell.
The electronic version of the series appeared with a logo--a figure smoking crack superimposed on the CIA seal--that was more prominent than in the newspaper series. Underneath were the words, "the story behind the crack explosion."
Many Americans believed that the Mercury News had finally proved what had been a long-running rumor of government complicity in the scourge of drugs in American cities.
As Internet publication becomes more common, with newspapers rushing to enter the electronic age, news organizations will increasingly have to confront these same issues about the volatile effect of combining reporting, high-decibel promotion and the global reach of the World Wide Web.
Ceppos said Monday that editing standards at the paper's Web site are not always consistent with those demanded for the print version of the paper. He said the paper deleted the CIA logo from the Web site after it became controversial.
"We changed the logo because, for a day or two, it seemed to be the focus of attention," Ceppos said. "You have to make sure you're keeping your standards high, and we're going to have some more conversations about that."
But the logo controversy and other questions that emerged after the series was published in mid-August have led a number of media critics to wonder about the validity of the project.
"The problem was they went to press with what was still essentially a work in progress," said Martin Schram, who writes a column on the media for Scripps-Howard News Service. "They had indications and allegations but nothing really nailed down about what the CIA did, what the CIA knew, what the CIA was condoning or, more importantly, what the CIA was involved in."
Ceppos said the paper did not rush into print with the series, but said he would have "done some things differently" if he were embarking on the project now.
"But do I regret running the series? Not for one second," Ceppos said. "We have advanced a 10-year-old story that is clearly of great interest to the American people."
The series has provoked startlingly different reactions in different media.
It ignited a storm of controversy on black-oriented radio programs and in such newspapers as Louis Farrakhan's "The Final Call," which headlined its account of the Mercury News story "How the U.S. government spread crack cocaine in the black ghetto."
Washington talk-radio host Joe Madison, who is also black, is threatening a hunger strike to protest the CIA's alleged role in cocaine trafficking. The newspaper series was seen by many as confirmation of what had long been suspected in black neighborhoods. "We've always speculated about this, but now we've got proof," Madison said.
On the other hand, in addition to The Times, other large newspapers have devoted substantial resources to stories that have been skeptical about the allegations.
The Washington Post ran a two-page article earlier this month casting doubt on the idea of a direct link between the cocaine trade and the CIA's support of the Contras. The New York Times on Monday carried two long articles minimizing the roles of the two central players cited in the Mercury News series and stated that the articles contained "little evidence" to support their premises.
The reaction on the "new media" of the Internet has opened an additional dimension. The Mercury News' Web site received 100,000 additional "hits" a day for weeks after the series was posted, the paper reported.
The paper invited Internet readers to comment, and hundreds replied. Many indicated that they believed the paper had finally proved that the CIA was trafficking in cocaine in ghetto neighborhoods.
Conspiracy theorists "are well-represented in the online world," said Bob Ryan, director of the paper's Internet operation.