Feb. 17, 2007 will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous interviews in the history of journalism. On that date in 1957, Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times first interviewed Fidel Castro, then leading a small, ragtag group of insurgents fighting against Cuba’s corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista. To this day, we are living with the consequences of that interview.
By 1957, Castro had already been fighting Batista for several years and had mounted a failed coup against him on July 26, 1953, for which he was jailed and later deported. On Dec. 2, 1956, Castro re-entered Cuba with an armed force of 80 men. This mini-invasion was crushed by the army, which claimed that Castro had been killed.
Thus the most important news coming from Matthews’ interview, which took place deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Cuba, was simply that Castro was still alive. Knowing that this fact would be denied by the Cuban government, Matthews documented his interview with photographs and even had Castro sign his interview notes.
After his three-hour interview, Matthews quickly headed for New York to file his story, which ran on Page One of the Times on Feb. 24, 1957. It was nothing short of sensational. Matthews painted Castro in glowing terms, as a legitimate heir to the revolutionaries who established the United States in 1776.
Of Castro, Matthews said, "He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections."
Matthews quoted Castro as saying, "You can be sure we have no animosity toward the United States and the American people. Above all, we are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship."
Castro’s movement, Matthews said, "amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist."
Although an experienced foreign correspondent, at this point in his career Matthews was no longer reporting for the Times. He was, rather, a member of its editorial board, who normally wrote unsigned editorials. Consequently, when the Times ran Matthews’ report on its new pages, it was violating one of its own journalistic principles — separating news from opinion. Matthews blurred that distinction, which was decried by many editors at the Times, but supported by its publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.
Current Times reporter Anthony DePalma examines the Matthews case in a new book, "The Man Who Invented Fidel" (Basic Books). He finds that the paper’s indulgence of Matthews was extremely costly in a number of ways.
The problem was that Matthews clearly became smitten for Castro, whom he viewed as one of history’s great men. This blinded him to Castro’s faults. For example, even after Castro admitted publicly in 1960 that he was and always had been a Communist, Matthews continued to deny it. To his death in 1977, Matthews maintained that Castro was not a Communist at the time of his interview, but only became one subsequently due to mistaken American policy.
Even when Castro began slaughtering his enemies by the hundreds, after overthrowing Batista in 1959, Matthews defended him. In a Jan. 18, 1959 news story in the Times, Matthews wrote that Castro was "by any standard a man of destiny." To criticize him, Matthews said, one must criticize all Cubans, "as there are very few Cubans indeed who would disapprove of the executions that have been and are taking place."
The mass murders were justified, Matthews said, because Cuba had just "lived through the most brutal reign of terror in recent history." To be sure, Batista was a bad guy. But calling his regime the most brutal in recent history was extraordinary hyperbole, given that the genocides of Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin were still fresh memories.
Once Castro came out of the closet, so to speak, and admitted he was a Communist, Matthews came under severe attack. His uncritical reportage — not to mention the many supportive editorials he wrote for the Times — were widely blamed for paving the way for Communist penetration of our hemisphere. Matthews was the subject of numerous congressional hearings and often hounded by demonstrators.
Although Matthews remained an editorial writer for the Times, the paper began distancing itself from him, and he was prohibited from writing any more news stories. In 1967, Matthews retired from daily journalism and devoted his remaining life to defending Castro and every word he had ever written about him. Matthews is considered a hero of the revolution in Cuba.
DePalma tells the tragic story of Matthews thoroughly and objectively. I think his portrait of Matthews as a softheaded idealist rather than a left-wing ideologue is right, but DePalma is insufficiently critical of the Times, which handled things badly from beginning to end. Nevertheless, "The Man Who Invented Fidel" is well worth reading by journalists and non-journalists alike.