In the insular world of Manhattan media, there's much handwringing over the latest blow to print publications as New York Magazine scales back from a weekly to a biweekly. But the real lesson might be the commercial failure of snarky writing, the kind that New York demonstrated in its recent hit piece on "conspiracy theories."
What was most stunning to me about the article, pegged to the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, was that it began by ridiculing what is actually one of the best-documented real conspiracies of recent decades, the CIA's tolerance and even protection of cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s.
Author Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes: "The wider the aperture around this theory, the harder its proponents work to implicate Washington, the shakier it seems: After several trials and a great deal of inquiry, no one has been able to show that anyone in the CIA condoned what Blandon was doing, and it has never been clear exactly how strong Blandon's ties to the contra leadership really were, anyway...According to New York Magazine, the Contra-cocaine story -- smugly dubbed "the last great conspiracy theory of the twentieth century" -- started with the claim by "crack kingpin" Ricky Ross that he was working with a Nicaraguan cocaine supplier, Oscar Danilo Blandon, who had ties to the Contras who, in turn, had ties to the CIA.
So, it was all a goofy "conspiracy theory." Move along, move along, nothing to see here. But neither Wallace-Wells nor his New York Magazine editors seem to have any idea about the actual history of the Contra-cocaine scandal. It did not begin with the 1996 emergence of Ricky Ross in a series of articles by San Jose Mercury-News investigative reporter Gary Webb, as Wallace-Wells suggests.
The Contra-cocaine scandal began more than a decade earlier with a 1985 article that Brian Barger and I wrote for the Associated Press. Our article cited documentary evidence and witnesses -- both inside the Contra movement and inside the U.S. government -- implicating nearly all the Contra groups fighting in Nicaragua under the umbrella of Ronald Reagan's CIA.
Our Contra-cocaine article was followed up by a courageous Senate investigation led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts who further documented the connections between cocaine traffickers, the Contras and the Reagan administration in a report issued in 1989.
Yet, part of the scandal always was how the Reagan administration worked diligently to undercut investigations of the President's favorite "freedom fighters" whether the inquiries were undertaken by the press, Congress, the Drug Enforcement Administration or federal prosecutors. Indeed, a big part of this cover-up strategy was to mock the evidence as "a conspiracy theory," when it was anything but.
Big Media's Complicity
Most of the mainstream news media played along with the Reagan administration's mocking strategy, although occasionally major outlets, like the Washington Post, had to concede the reality of the scandal.
For instance, during the drug-trafficking trial of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in 1991, U.S. prosecutors found themselves with no alternative but to call as a witness Colombian Medellin cartel kingpin Carlos Lehder, who -- along with implicating Noriega -- testified that the cartel had given $10 million to the Contras, an allegation first unearthed by Sen. Kerry.
"The Kerry hearings didn't get the attention they deserved at the time," a Washington Post editorial on Nov. 27, 1991, acknowledged. "The Noriega trial brings this sordid aspect of the Nicaraguan engagement to fresh public attention."
Yet, despite the Washington Post's belated concern about the mainstream news media's neglect of the Contra-cocaine scandal, there was no serious follow-up anywhere in Big Media -- until 1996 when Gary Webb disclosed the connection between one Contra cocaine smuggler, Danilo Blandon, and the emergence of crack cocaine via Ricky Ross.
But the premier news outlets -- the likes of the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times -- didn't take this new opportunity to examine what was a serious a crime of state. That would have required them to engage in some embarrassing self-criticism for their misguided dismissal of the scandal. Instead, the big newspapers went on the attack against Gary Webb.
Their attack line involved narrowing their focus to Blandon -- ignoring the reality that he was just one of many Contras involved in cocaine smuggling to the United States -- and to Ross -- arguing that Ross's operation could not be blamed for the entire crack epidemic that ravaged U.S. cities in the 1980s. And the newspapers insisted that the CIA couldn't be blamed for this cocaine smuggling because the agency had supposedly examined the issue in the 1980s and found that it had done nothing wrong.
Because of this unified assault from the major newspapers -- and the corporate timidity of the San Jose Mercury-News editors -- Webb and his continuing investigation were soon abandoned. Webb was pushed out of the Mercury-News in disgrace.