- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007

Finding a ‘peg’

It was a little more than two years ago that I learned Citgo gas stations in the United States are wholly owned by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela.

This must have been common knowledge within business circles because the sale was made in the 1990s, although it was not widely known by the public.

But with Hugo Chavez becoming increasingly hostile toward the United States, I thought our readers would like to know that the bellicose Venezuelan president had a measure of direct control over what they were putting in their gas tanks.

The trick was to get that information into the paper without appearing to be reporting it for the first time, making ourselves look foolish to readers who had been aware of the fact for years.

We began looking for what is known in the industry as a news “peg” — that is, a topical news development that can serve as a hook on which to hang the older information.

That presented itself when Mr. Chavez made a speech saying he was looking to sell off Citgo’s eight refineries in the United States. The news in itself could have been a minor business page item, but freelance correspondent Kelly Hearn in Buenos Aires turned it into a wider exploration of Venezuela’s influence over the American gasoline market and ways in which that influence might be used for mischief.

Since then, stories related to the Chavez-Citgo link have proliferated in this and other news outlets, dealing with the sale of discounted heating oil to poor Americans and with a rupture between Citgo and 7-Eleven stores over Mr. Chavez’s fiery speech to the United States last fall. As these events unfolded, hopefully, Washington Times readers were able to say to themselves, “I saw that coming.”

‘The real thing’

We found ourselves in a similar situation last week when freelance correspondent Martin Arostegui in Bolivia sent us a story saying some 200 tons of coca leaves are shipped every year to the United States, where the cocaine is extracted before the detoxified leaves are passed on for use as a flavoring agent in Coca-Cola.

This was a shock to me. Since childhood — and I am not a young man — I have heard rumors that there is cocaine, or some other secret ingredient, in Coca-Cola. Could it really be true?

Mr. Arostegui’s story contained quotes from the U.S. State Department, repeated in a book published in 2000, confirming that coca leaves were used to flavor the soft drink. But that was too old; what if it were no longer true?

The story also said that U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials closely supervise the process in which the cocaine is extracted from the leaves by a company in New Jersey. We asked national desk reporter Jerry Seper, who talks daily to top Justice Department and law-enforcement officials, to see if he could get it confirmed.

Mr. Seper came back a few hours later to say he had heard back from an authoritative source and that there was only one thing wrong with our story: There are two companies where the cocaine is extracted from the leaves before they are passed on to Coke.

Meanwhile, we had been searching around on Google and found that, while little known in the United States, the use of coca leaves by Coca-Cola was common knowledge in coca-growing countries like Bolivia.

There had also been occasional obscure mentions of the fact in the American press, including a back-page item a year ago in the international edition of Newsweek.

Again, we were in need of a news peg, and it was not hard to find one. Mr. Arostegui had already reported in his story that Bolivian coca growers were themselves looking for ways to legally commercialize the leaves as an ingredient in products such as shampoo and toothpaste.

If Coca-Cola could do it, why couldn’t they, argued the farmers. That became our lead.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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