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Wednesday, Sep 25 1996
Heard It Through the Grapevine
If ever a story had "legs," as the cliche goes, it would be the San Jose Mercury News' three-part series in August on CIA-linked, contra crack rings in the Bay Area in the early '80s. Whether it pans out in the end, it's been percolating for about a decade -- congressional hearings in the mid- and late '80s and, locally, Ex reporter Seth Rosenfeld's work on and off in the same period. But the mainstream press let the matter die.

One place it wasn't allowed to wither, rightly or not, was "The Vine," the urban black, word-of-mouth network that dates back to slave times. Oakland writer Ishmael Reed was the first to make the connection in print. "Now it seems that the Vine's rumor about government involvement in the cocaine trade as a means of fulfilling foreign policy objectives has some foundation in fact," Reed wrote in an essay in the Washington Post's Outlook section of Sept. 15.

By the time his story appeared, Washington politicians, among them the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Congressional Black Caucus members, California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and South Central Rep. Maxine Waters, had demanded an investigation.

Still, San Francisco's two dailies remained mum. Finally, much too late, the Chron acknowledged its home state delegates with a brief, out-of-date report from another paper on Sept. 21. (Needless to say, local mainstream TV and radio news hasn't been much better.)

The New York Times, L.A. Times, and Washington Post largely ignored the story, too, in its early weeks. They seem not to have bought Merc reporter Gary Webb's breakthrough allegation that the CIA was more directly linked to drugs than previously thought.

At the Chron and Ex, however, either key editors didn't know about the series (we guess they don't read their suburban competition) or didn't pay it close enough attention to make an informed news judgment.

The Chron's national editor pleaded ignorance last Friday and referred calls to Managing Editor Dan Rosenheim. Ex Executive Editor Phil Bronstein said Friday Webb's work was "fascinating," but passed the buck to his ME, Sharon Rosenhause. Neither ME returned calls.

For Bay Area readers in general, there're local angles galore. Part of Webb's narrative is set in Nob Hill; the crack, guns, and cash traveled along an S.F.-L.A. axis; and, amazingly, Webb posits S.F. as the 1974 birthplace of crack.

But the people to whom the Chron and Ex are doing the most profound disservice with their silence are the black community.

When, finally, the Chron belatedly got into the act last Saturday with commentary from a black perspective, it used a reprint of an over-the-top essay by Atlanta Constitution Editorial Page Editor Cynthia Tucker. Her wild denunciations of the CIA and the feds must have left most Chron readers puzzled, after the paper's scanty coverage.

With the mainstream press shirking its responsibilities, the job of telling the story behind the story once again devolves to the Vine.

"Typically," Reed wrote in the Post, "the Vine's rumors about the government's sinister designs upon inner-city neighborhoods have been dismissed as paranoid or the result of conspiracy theories."

Now the Vine's listeners can wonder, legitimately, who should be dismissing who.

The Importance of Being Dow Jones
We were all set to say something friendly about the Oct. 2 launch of a six-page weekly California section the Wall Street Journal will be adding to the papers it sells here. "Hallelujah," we thought, "a national news organization prepared to pay serious attention to the world's seventh-largest economy" -- something the papers based in this state can't be bothered to do.

But there's a sour note to this new Dow Jones venture. Seems the marketers and senior editors are determined to call their creation "California Journal," despite the fact that the name is already taken. It belongs to a 26-year-old Sacramento-based monthly. Though its circulation is small (15,000 copies), it reaches a disproportionately influential audience. It's required reading for statewide California politicos and lobbyists in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. (In the interest of full disclosure, Rasky is a regular contributor.)

Danforth Austin, general manager of the WSJ, says readers and advertisers won't confuse his California Journal with the other one. "It's a descriptive, not a marked, separate publication. It's like a column," he says. Well maybe in the pages of the WSJ itself, but the radio, billboard, and subscriber advertising blitz Dow Jones has under way is built around a logo that very boldly says "California Journal" (with a minuscule The Wall Street Journal at the top). Besides, that seems to miss the bigger point. If you're entering the market with the promise of savvy and aggressive California reporting, needlessly bullying a well-established publication is not a good sign.

Tom Hoeber, publisher of California Journal, and Austin have exchanged phone calls and lawyerly letters. Austin says he'd like to resolve all this amicably. We'll be watching.

On a related note:
Confused as ever about where to find California news, and concerned about competition from the WSJ, the venerable L.A. Times is readying for the Oct. 29 launch of its own new weekly business section feature -- Wall Street coverage with a California angle. It will be called, what else, "Wall Street California.

About The Authors

Phyllis Orrick


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