The San Jose Mercury News knew it had a big story when it published a series of reports in August on the alleged connection between the crack drug trade in California and a Nicaraguan guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
But the Mercury News and various media watchers are crediting the Internet, not newspaper reporting, for turning the story into one of this year's biggest journalistic sensations.
Beginning August 18, the San Jose newspaper began publishing its three-part story called "Dark Alliance: The Story Behind the Crack Explosion." In the story, staff writer Gary Webb reported that a San Francisco drug ring financed a CIA-backed military group in Latin America for nearly ten years using profits from crack cocaine sales in Los Angeles.
Initially, the "Dark Alliance" series caused a stir among the Mercury News's readership. But despite its dramatic allegations, or perhaps because of them, the stories were virtually ignored by national newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post.
"The story broke in early August, but almost no other print publication picked it up," said Patricia Sullivan, an online editor at the Mercury Center, the Web site sibling of the San Jose Mercury News.
According to Sullivan, the online Mercury Center, which posted all of the "Dark Alliance" stories, plus sound bites of related court testimony and images, kept the series from disappearing immediately into the news dust bin. Initially, the Mercury Center's traffic went up noticeably, but within weeks the Web site was receiving an additional 150,000 hits because of the stories, Sullivan said.
"The buzz on the Net was incredible through newsgroups and email," said Sullivan. "Readers demanded that other papers pick it up. We believe the impact of the story was greatly magnified because of the Internet."
Eventually, most major U.S. daily newspapers had run their own versions of the "Dark Alliance" story, many of which refuted the salient points of the Mercury News's story, namely the connection between the CIA-backed group and California drug dealers.
Whether the stories were true or not, the Internet played an unprecedented role in elevating an issue onto the national media stage, said Jon Katz, media critic for The Netizen, the politics section of HotWired.
"The fact is that the story is out there and you can return to it and visit it," said Jon Katz, media critic at the Netizen. "There's a way of keeping it alive."
Katz also believes that the Internet played an especially significant role in bringing the story to African-Americans, a community that has been seriously affected by the crack trade. Katz said that he received a number of email messages from African-Americans regarding the Mercury News's story and that newsgroups used largely by African-Americans vigorously debated the issue.
"This is a good example of readers insisting that the establishment media must pay attention to a story they think is important," Sullivan said. "Without the Web, it probably would have died a quiet death after a week or so."