Unspun

Serial Soccer Mom
Maybe the Contra Costa Times wire editor, whose job it is to pick which stories from out-of-town papers and news services run in the paper, was feeling in a contrarian mood last Friday, but whatever the reason, readers were treated to a welcome antidote to the political/demographic stereotype that's currently being played to death -- the Soccer Mom. (Yes, it does sound like a sequel to John Waters' Serial Mom, the farce about the dark side of suburban motherhood.)

While jogging on the beach at the ritzy Hotel Del Coronado, just across the inlet from San Diego and the sort of place where the boutiques stock Barbara Bush-style blazers and tweed skirts that run to four figures, President Clinton was confronted by one Valerie Parker, from Bloomington, Ill., a thirtysomething, white, middle-class (well, she was staying at the Hotel Del) mom with something more on her mind than soccer.

The encounter was haphazardly noted in otherwise run-of-the-mill post-debate stories including Carla Marinucci's in the Examiner. But the reference seemed to disappear between editions. Happily, the CCT, which picked up the Chicago Tribune's version, gave it prominent play. In what the Tribune termed "a bizarre, expletive-laden attack," Parker "walked alongside the president and yelled insults at him for about 10 minutes, calling him, among other things, 'a draft-dodging, yellow-bellied liar.' " (The Hartford Courant's account added her delicious twist on Clintonspeak: "How come you don't feel Mr. Dole's pain? He has a disability.")

The AP photo the CCT ran was pretty eerie: A nervous-looking Clinton, hemmed in at one side by the waves, glances sideways at the woman, whose back is to camera, her left hand drawn back to her hip, gunslinger-style, as a Secret Service agent, earphone visible and a gun suggested by the bulk under his billowing T-shirt, eyes her uneasily.

Message to candidates who see target groups instead of people: Not all Soccer Moms are lined up on the same side of the field.

A Tangled Webb
Six weeks ago, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb was burning up the airwaves and the Internet. Webb complained that national news organizations were ignoring the "revelations" in his three-part series "Dark Alliance," which alleges that CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras were a major factor in introducing crack to South Central Los Angeles and other American inner cities.

On Oct. 4, the Washington Post obliged him -- with a damning 5,000-word critique. And this week the Los Angeles Times, with its own three-part series, and the New York Times, with San Francisco Bureau Chief Tim Golden's front-page story, finally weighed in to echo the Post. They also belatedly observed that Webb's tale had taken on a life of its own among African-Americans long suspicious of the U.S. government. (We were wondering when anyone else would get around to that.)

But nowhere has the "Dark Alliance" series fallout caused more consternation and soul-searching than in the Merc's own newsroom. A vocal group of Merc reporters and editors, troubled from the beginning by a flawed story compounded by the paper's zealous Internet promotion, now worries that the Merc's credibility has been compromised. At the same time, some of the Merc's black staffers argue that the series made valid points.

Last Friday, about 100 people in the newsroom showed up for an extraordinary two-hour meeting called by Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos to discuss the series and the findings of a subsequent story by Merc reporter Pete Carey, who had been assigned the thankless task of answering the criticisms and explaining how it was handled from start to finish. Several of those who attended agreed to talk afterward on the condition of anonymity. They described the session as an intense, earnest affair that included complaints about general weaknesses in the paper's approach to publication of a major investigative project, not the least of which was that some of the most experienced editors were not in the loop. Others wondered if the series had been hyped or pushed with an eye toward a prize. Webb himself was not present.

"There was no consensus," one Merc staffer said, "and while critics of the series were the most vocal, they did not necessarily represent the majority opinion."

As for Carey's piece, it is a startlingly candid story at times (even if the need for its writing is a measure of how badly the Merc screwed up). In the process of trying to salvage some of Webb's tantalizing but overreaching conclusions, Carey hits squarely on the story's biggest hole: Were the two Nicaraguans featured in the tale really Contra officials who became drug smugglers and dealers to support their guerrilla army, or were they simply drug smugglers and dealers who for a time sent money to the Contras? Carey appears to tilt in favor of Webb's contention that the two were indeed major Contra figures.

On the more fundamental issue of whether his own newspaper went too far, Carey holds the story to a tougher standard: "Would a reasonable person reading the series think that the agency either sanctioned or directed the drug-selling efforts? Did the story make it appear the CIA had been caught acquiescing to illegal acts?"

Carey concludes that "Dark Alliance" failed expressly to state that the newspaper had found no evidence that the CIA ordered or sanctioned the distribution of cocaine. Nor did the series -- at least in the original version -- carry any comment from the CIA denying the allegations. Carey also notes that the logo appearing on the Mercury Center Web page and Merc reprints depicted a crack smoker superimposed on a CIA seal and below it the words "the story behind the crack explosion." Following the criticism of the series, the CIA seal was removed from the logo on the Web site, and the reprints were discarded and redone.

We still wonder why it took major national news organizations nearly two months to render critical judgments that might have nipped Webb's speculations in the bud. And why is it that other Bay Area papers, particularly the Ex, which did some of the groundbreaking investigative stories on the California crack trade a decade ago, have yet to rouse themselves to do more than pick up the wires?

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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