Judas Retires: Jerry Ceppos and the Burning Memory of Gary Webb

See this man with an affable smile and the face of an aging nerd? His name Jerry Ceppos, he is 58 years old, on the verge of retiring from the profession of journalism… and he is the Judas that abandoned Gary Webb in the middle of a great journalistic investigation in the United States during the 1990s: “Dark Alliance.” This tall, skinny guy, who until August 31 will still working for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, is the traitor who stabbed Webb in the back at the San Jose Mercury News years ago. So don’t be fooled by his appearance in this official company photo; Ceppos was the first in a long line of traitors and assassins that pulled the trigger long before Gary did one sad night in December of 2004, as Al Giordano said at the time.
On Monday, as our own dear Bill Conroy reported, the Knight Ridder news company announced Jerry Ceppos’ early retirement. A few pieces of information stand out in the official press release on this, which are worth commenting on.

Ethics and Journalism, Ceppos Style

This suit-and-tie cynic who shares a name with a certain cartoon mouse says: “I would like to devote more time to aspects of journalism that I care about most  – journalistic ethics, education and overall improvement – and I might like to do some of it in academic settings as well as newsrooms. I may also, finally, try to plant the backyard vineyard in Saratoga that I have talked about for 18 years ... but I’m more certain about the journalism than the vineyard!” How nice – Jerry Ceppos plans to spend the rest of his life between ethics as academic study and a vineyard….

In fact, Ceppos is already on the board of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. He even participated in a forum titled “Behind the Ethics Agenda,” where no, kind readers, he didn not say anything about his betrayal of Gary Webb. And, of course, it is possible that Ceppos thinks that with Gary dead no one else will bother to remember it, while he peacefully gives classes to young journalist aspirants… but we’re here, Jerry, to give you a little help with you class… so here we go with “Applied Ethics and Journalism 101,” with Jerry Ceppos at the front of the lecture hall…

In the book Dark Alliance, Gary Webb says (open your books to page 444, please): “The Mercury News’ executive editor, Jerry Ceppos, called and congratulated me. The TV networks were calling the paper. We were getting phone calls from all over the world. ‘Let’s stay on the top of this,’ he said. ‘Anything you need, you let us know. We want to run with this thing.’ A few days later, I got a $500 bonus check in the mail and a note from Ceppos: ‘Remarkable series! Thanks for doing this for us.’”  

What, you don’t remember, Ceppos? How curious; Webb’s series began publication in the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday, August 18, 1996 (barely more than nine years ago), and according to my calculations, you must have sent the check and your congratulations between Friday, August 23 and Monday, the 25th of that month…

Later, in early October, 1996, the offensive against Gary Webb’s brilliant work began. The Washington Post circulated a story, signed by a pair of mercenaries, that put Webb’s entire investigation in doubt. In those days, Webb was in New York, on the long tour that brought him to hundreds of radio and television programs to tell the story. “About 2:00 a.m., Jerry Ceppos called,” recalls Webb on page 448 of his book. “He asked me to take a look [at the Post piece] and give him my reaction.” During the conversation, Ceppos mentioned that the Post’s “journalists” had uses, as evidence, ‘a lot of unnamed sources, mainly. It’s really a strange piece. I’ll send you a fax of it, and we can talk in the morning.’”

Gary followed up by refuting the Washington Post story’s content, and was also able to identify one of the authors (Walter Pincus) as having worked as an informant for the CIA, which could not have been a coincidence. And, well, Jerry did what an editor should do in these cases: he backed his reporter and sent a letter to the Post (which of course was never published).  In that missive, Jerry Ceppos stated, “We strongly support the conclusions the series drew and will until someone proves them wrong.”

But the attacks on the investigation continued and grew, nearly all of them launched by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. And that scared Gary Webb’s bosses. One morning, Ceppos invited Gary to a meeting with the Mercury News’ other editors… who asked Webb to quit the investigation and see if they could respond to the attacks from these three horsemen of the apocalypse. What you said that morning, Jerry Ceppos, is a phrase for the history books: “I don’t want to get into a war with them.” Because it was then that you began to pull back your troops, and ordered all copies of the CD-ROM that had been made with all Gary’s documents and notes destroyed before it was released.

But Gary Webb was an authentic and stubborn journalist. Together with his colleague Georg Hodel he began investigating and proving everything he had said in the “Dark Alliance” series. Those months of work were not in vain for the pair… until, on March 25, 1997, Jerry Ceppos called Webb to communicate to him “a very difficult decision” (p. 459).  According to Ceppos, there were various errors in the series of reports, because of which the Mercury News planned to publish a letter to the readers acknowledging the supposed faults.

Still on the phone, Gary asked if  “I get a chance to say something.” “The decision has been made,” Ceppos responded… and in the weeks after that call the executive editor’s support transformed into rejection. Ceppos published his column on May 11, 1997, and, as Gary wrote, “if there was ever a chance of getting to the bottom of the CIA’s involvement with drug traffickers, it died on that day.” The big U.S. dailies’ pressure on Ceppos had its desired effect: his column was correctly interpreted as a retraction, as acknowledgement that Webb’s investigation was “wrong.” It never mattered that the CIA’s own internal investigation, some time later, confirmed most of what Gary had written and discovered; as far as I know, Ceppos never wrote a column about that.

“We need a real-time ethics class that deals with the down and dirty issues of fairness, because whatever we're doing in our classrooms and newsrooms isn't working,” said a conference attendee in the spring of 1998, before an auditorium of students and professors of the University of Oregon. It was Jerry Ceppos, who not only was not sorry for having betrayed Gary Webb, his own reporter, but even publicly acknowledged the latter’s “flaws.”

Did you understand the lesson, kind readers? When you work for one of the commercial media, if you’re going to stick that dagger in, push it up to the hilt, and, once it’s there, your hand full of blood, move it around as much as possible. Only then will your personal prestige (and salary) be safe… Solidarity and truth are just two little words that can be scorned and forgotten in commercial journalism. All right, any questions? Ask Jerry Ceppos…

Professional Harassment from Jerry

I have always known that a coward, a traitor, with power and authority, is more dangerous than anyone else. That little mouse with the surname of Ceppos is one of those… a good example, the best Judas I have found lately. Because his betrayal didn’t end with that story; he had still more dirty tricks to play on Gary Webb, our colleague, our teacher and friend…

Let’s turn to page 464 in Dark Alliance:

Ceppos, who’d not spoken to me since his column ran, call me at home in early June (1997). He was killing the follow-ups, he shouted. I was off the story for good. He couldn’t trust me anymore because I’d “aligned myself with one side of the issue.”

“Which side is that, Jerry? The side that wants the truth to come out?”

…I was to report to his office in two days “to discuss your future at the

Mercury News.”

Gary Webb’s future, according to Judas, I mean, Jerry Ceppos, was to work in the San Jose Mercury News’ central office. The editors had lost confidence in Webb, said Ceppos, and he needed more supervision. If he refused, he would be sent to the Western Office in Cupertino, California, “the newspaper’s version of Siberia,” according to Gary. And yes, kind readers, Gary, being the kind journalist he was, refused to go, and in fact sent the decision to the Newspaper Guild for its consideration…

While the labor dispute was being resolved, Gary had to abandon his family for several months and work in the Cupertino office. There, the editors had express orders not to give him any decent stories. But in fact, he wrote so well that he was published on the newspaper’s front page. And that made you angry, remember, Jerry? Because you had also given express orders not to publish the name “Gary Webb” with that article…

On November 19, 1997, the labor dispute was settled. The Mercury News decided to accept his terms and recognize that Gary Webb had been right, but demanded that he sign an agreement not to make the settlement’s terms public, which hurt Gary’s pride and made him decide to quit the paper that day. Did you breath easy, Jerry, because your professional harassment had the desired effect and you managed to unburden yourself of a brilliant and honest journalist?

Because of all this, kind readers, I must confess that I strongly disagree with Bill Conroy in his note about Jerry Ceppos’ retirement: the mouse should not produce wine, because it would be the bitter wine of a traitor, and could poison people… and personally, I don’t think we should stop at “throwing mud” on him just because he’s retiring (don’t be so polite, Bill). Personally, I’d like the chance to send at least half the shit that Jerry Ceppos produced from 1997 till today back at him – to send it stinking to his house, to the school where he plans to train more lowlifes like him in his “journalist’s” ethics. But here at Narco News, where we do not forget (memory is a tool for journalists), where we know that Gary Webb was one of ours and deserves to be vindicated, we are open to your suggestions. What should we do with this Judas, Jerry Ceppos and in memory of Garry Webb?

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