SAN JOSE, Calif. - Some found it unbelievable - literally. A newspaper was reporting that the CIA played a role in the spread of crack cocaine to black neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
There was immense interest in the San Jose Mercury News series, and blacks nationwide turned to a medium they had not explored - the World Wide Web.
Within days after the Mercury News "Dark Alliance" series began, more than 2,500 other sites had linked directly to the page featuring the story.
"We're a paper located in Silicon Valley and we've never had the daily national reach of The New York Times or the Washington Post. But the Mercury Center (the paper's online version), has allowed the stories to get to many millions of people that would never have seen the ink on paper product," said Bryan Monroe, assistant managing editor of the Mercury News.
White users have long touted the incredible reach and freedom of the Internet. Now, blacks have begun to take advantage of that same power.
"People talk about the Internet being as significant as the Gutenberg press. But maybe it's even more significant," said Stafford Battle, co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Web site The City of New Elam.
"I think many people have been surprised at the speed and depth and breadth with which the story has spread in the community. In essence, it's because they didn't think black folks were online," said Mr. Monroe, who spoke at a forum on the black community's response to the series.
They have been, but in numbers almost too small to measure. In April, the Georgia Institute of Technology found only 1.3 percent of Web users were black, compared to 2.7 percent Asian and 88.6 white.
While no one has been able to track specific numbers of blacks who might have come online because of the Mercury News series, many think it has been a watershed event.
"It's definitely affected the community. It's led to an awareness of the power of this medium. It's only part of a much longer process, but this is definitely a very important step," said Malcolm CasSelle, chief technology officer of NetNoir, a San Francisco-based Web publisher that focuses on black concerns.
In the past, some have said blacks weren't caught in the Web because there was little to entice them.
"It's always a chicken and egg situation. Are black people not on the Web because there's no content for them, or is there no content for them because they're not there?" said Farai Chideya, author of Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation about African Americans.
But the Mercury News series changed all that.
The series began on Aug. 18. Reporter Gary Webb alleged that right-wing Nicaraguan exiles had introduced crack in Los Angeles in the early 1980s to fund U.S.-backed Contra guerrillas - with the full knowledge of the CIA.
Subsequent reports by The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and other news organizations have questioned whether the exiles were in fact leaders of a CIA-backed group, whether they were primarily responsible for the crack explosion, and whether the CIA knowingly played a role in cocaine trafficking.
But the Mercury Center not only gave readers the entire four-part series, it also included links direct to court documents, police reports and huge amounts of corroborating evidence.
"We've .°.°. shown our goods in a way that only the Web would allow us to do. If you have a question about the testimony, here's the transcript. Read it and see what you think. The New York Times didn't do that. The Washington Post didn't do that. We backed everything up," said Mr. Monroe.
Meanwhile, electronic mailing lists, Web sites and newsgroups have been full of discussion of the series. In fact, several newsgroups, or Internet discussion topics, have sprung up specifically to address the issue.
In fact, racism in online discussion groups, nurtured by the anonymity of many sites, is cited as one reason blacks have avoided the Internet.
News groups and bulletin boards are awash with posts demanding that "All blacks go back to Africa" along with other, less printable, scrawls.
In a hopeful note, the discussions of "Dark Alliance" have included both blacks and whites. And the anonymity of the Net that makes racism easier also seems to ease real dialogue.
Dwight Ellis of the National Association of Broadcasters sees the online coalitions being built by like-minded but different people as being one of the more positive signs for the future.
"During the activism of the civil rights movement, white kids were very active with the blacks in the South. You don't see that anymore, but I think we're witnessing a bit of cyber freedom riding," he said.
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