He’s the dean

UNR’s new journalism dean is no stranger to controversy

Jerry Ceppos is the new dean of UNR’s Reynolds School of Journalism.

Jerry Ceppos is the new dean of UNR’s Reynolds School of Journalism.

Jerry Ceppos, the newly appointed dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, says he plans to push “ethics education and critical thinking” when he begins his new job in early February.

During his newspaper career, Ceppos, 61, was a high flyer. He worked in a variety of editing jobs at the Miami Herald and the San Jose Mercury News before being named executive editor at the Mercury News in 1995, a position he held for four years.

“His name carries great recognition among the country’s leading journalists,” University President Milton Glick said earlier this month in the news release announcing Ceppos’ appointment to replace Cole Campbell, who died in a car crash almost one year ago.

Without a doubt, Ceppos will have plenty of newsroom “war stories” to share with students in Reno. One in particular—the “Dark Alliance” saga—clearly helped define the futures of two men: Jerry Ceppos and a former colleague named Gary Webb.

Webb and Ceppos worked together at the San Jose paper. Webb was a self-assured—some would say arrogant—reporter, a member of the newspaper’s staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Ceppos was the paper’s executive editor when, in August 1996, Webb stirred up a hornet’s nest—both in the San Jose newsroom and the halls of power in Washington—when he wrote a three-part series called “Dark Alliance.” The first sentence defined the work:

“For the better part of a decade, a Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerilla army run by the Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found.”

Webb’s assertions made headlines in papers across the country. “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 U.S. cities,” the Los Angeles Times would later print.

Webb never actually said that leaders at the CIA knew of or condoned supporting the Contras in Nicaragua with money from countless crackheads in L.A., but that was the clear impression. Black leaders in L.A. and other cities rejoiced that the truth finally was being told. Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice—including then-Attorney General, Janet Reno—vehemently denied Webb’s claims.

The reporter’s credibility began to unravel as three heavyweight newspapers—the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post—all printed in-depth reports challenging some of Webb’s key revelations. At first, Ceppos stood foursquare behind his reporter.

“He got something like a $50 bonus check from Ceppos and a note saying, ‘Great job,'” says Nick Schou, the author of Kill The Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, a 2006 book that dissects Webb’s stories and the fallout.

Ceppos even wrote to the editor of the Washington Post, saying that “no one—including the Post—has proven that our conclusions were wrong.” That was in October of ‘96.

Things, however, changed dramatically over the next few months. Ceppos assigned a different reporter to further investigate Webb’s claims. On May 11, 1997, the Mercury News ran a column by Ceppos on the front page of the opinion section, which was viewed widely as a retraction.

Ceppos wrote that the paper had “oversimplified the complex issue of how the crack epidemic in America grew,” and that the Mercury News created “impressions that were open to misinterpretation.” He added, “I believe we fell short at every step of the process … several people here share that burden.”

While Ceppos now says he is one of those who shared the burden, Webb clearly shouldered the majority of the blame, despite his continuing defense of the crux of his reporting—that U.S. government agents were complicit in the funneling of drug money to support Central American rebels.

Ceppos transferred Webb from the paper’s bureau in Sacramento to a tiny office in Cupertino, which the reporter described as “the newspaper’s version of Siberia.” The one-time Pulitzer Prize winner found himself relegated to reporting mundane stories, such as one about a police horse’s constipation. Eventually, he quit the Mercury News to work at a succession of smaller newspapers.

Ceppos, on the other hand, was lauded by his fellow editors for re-investigating Webb’s claims and publicly admitting the mistakes. But, a key question still lingered: Why didn’t Ceppos or another editor catch the errors before the stories ever made it into print?

“The editors are supposed to be the gatekeepers,” wrote Tim Graham, the editor of the Oakland Tribune, in a 1997 article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). Graham—who’d known Webb for nearly 20 years—added, “I’m seeing Gary made out to be a pariah, and I just don’t get it.”

Graham wasn’t alone in his criticism of Webb’s bosses.

“There are always reporters who push the envelope, and it is the editors’ jobs to pull them back,” Jim Mulvaney, the projects editor for the Orange County Register, told the CJR.

“What I’m proudest of is that we re-reported the entire series and then publicly acknowledged that we hadn’t solidly made the case,” Ceppos says. “The main lesson is, if you make a mistake, you don’t walk away from it, which we easily could have done.”

That doesn’t wash with author Nick Schou, who’s now the news and investigative editor for the Orange County Weekly.

“Even critics of ‘Dark Alliance,’ especially other reporters at the Mercury News who didn’t particularly like Webb, told me that Ceppos was a nice guy, but a journalistic lightweight,” Schou says. “Like the rest of the Mercury editors, [he] probably thought ‘Dark Alliance’ was Pulitzer material until the shit hit the fan, and they basically caved.”

Ceppos is now reticent to discuss Webb and the “Dark Alliance” saga. “We’re talking more than a decade ago. … I think I’ll let my [1997] column speak for itself,” he says.

Clearly, though, Ceppos disagrees with his critics. He cites with pride the Ethics In Journalism Award given to him in 1997, just months after his “mea culpa” column appeared. He talks about the award—from the Society of Professional Journalists—as tangible vindication of his actions.

“In the complex process of reporting complicated stories, you’re absolutely going to make mistakes,” he says. “Be transparent and acknowledge them. That’s how you restore all your credibility problems.”

Two years after Ceppos publicly acknowledged his paper’s mistakes, he was promoted to vice president of news at Knight-Ridder, the parent company of the Mercury News. Ceppos left that job two years ago, saying he hoped to teach young people about journalism and, in particular, ethics.

Ceppos is leaving a teaching job at San Jose State University to move to Reno. In the days just before Christmas, he graded the finals of his last batch of students at SJSU.

“They wrote some beautiful papers,” he says, expanding on how a number of his students scribed eloquent works about the all-too-common trend of journalists to ignore complex stories in favor of fluff.

“We’ve seen all sorts of messes,” Ceppos says. “The most obvious, I guess, was the uncritical look at our government’s move into Iraq. … It’s tremendously frustrating to me that we had probably the story of the decade, and it got underplayed because lots of readers and lots of editors were on a different wavelength.”

Those “messes” help explain why Jerry Ceppos now wants to nurture aspiring journalists at UNR to do the right thing. “If we teach, for example, critical thinking, I think our kids can navigate those shoals,” he says.

Ceppos’ former colleague, Webb, never managed to successfully navigate his life following “Dark Alliance.” Recently divorced and with his career sinking, Webb killed himself three years ago this month. He worked for the Sacramento News & Review at the time of his death.