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Anatomy of an unethical, sensationalized smear job

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The Miami Herald’s Scandal That Wasn’t

Anatomy of an unethical, sensationalized smear job

With the sudden resignation of Miami Herald Publisher Jesus Diaz on Tuesday, and the offer to reinstate the Herald’s three journalists unjustly fired on September 8, the newspaper’s “Castro-gate” scandal takes an added twist. What began as an alleged scandal involving Cuban American journalists who were “taking pay from the U.S.” government, quickly has devolved into a real scandal involving an unethical, sensationalized smear job by the Miami Herald.

With Fidel Castro’s decrepit dictatorship on its deathbed and the communist island on the cusp of radical change, the Miami Herald chose a strangely strategic moment to discredit Castro’s democratic opponents in Miami. On September 8, the Herald published a front-page pseudo expose,’ “10 Miami journalists take U.S. pay,” which listed me among those 10.

This hit piece tried to sully the reputation of any commentator who has ever been paid to appear on TV Marti (the U.S. government’s TV news station aimed at Cuba), implying they are all U.S. government shills.

Predictably, Castro’s regime immediately began touting it as proof that all its Miami-based critics are “U.S. mercenaries.” Suspiciously, in the weeks prior to this article’s publication, Castro’s spokesmen and “El Comandante” himself, had publicly taunted the Herald to write just such a story.

Far from the impression the Herald created, its reporters Oscar Corral, et al, are not Woodward and Bernstein, nor did they uncover Watergate. Look closely at their story, and there is little there, and the reporters look more like Keystone Cops. The real scandal is how this unprofessional smear was ever published.

Begin with the grotesquely misleading “take U.S. pay” headline that falsely implied a dirty or secret arrangement between my journalistic colleagues and the U.S. government. The headline insinuated that we all were “on the take” or being “paid off.” This patently is false and borders on libel. Predictably though, left wing media quickly used the “on the take” spin in their follow-up stories. “Journalists on the take Defend Cuba Bashing,” screamed the September 15 headline in PoliticalAffairs.net, a Marxist website.

A more accurate, less sensational headline correctly could have read: “10 Miami journalists also consult for TV Marti,” but that wouldn’t have been front-page news. Many prominent journalists get paid to appear on government funded media such as the Voice of America, NPR and PBS. Are they all unethical, government shills?

For added effect, the Herald immediately fired three of its Cuban-American reporters for “conflict of interest.” Expressing his righteous indignation, Herald Publisher Jesus Diaz proclaimed that, ”Even the appearance that your objectivity or integrity might have been impaired is something we can’t condone, not in our business.”

Yet, former U.S. attorney Kendall Coffee, among others, has stated that the punishment did not fit the crime. While emphasizing that there was nothing illegal about the Herald reporters moonlighting for TV Marti, Coffee added that even if there were a potential conflict of interest, their abrupt firing by the Herald was excessive—like executing someone for a misdemeanor.

The Herald also crammed print and TV reporters and opinion columnists in the same boat. Yet, most media professionals understand there is a big difference. As a commentator and analyst, I get paid to give my opinion. The Miami Herald previously paid me to write editorials and a regular column.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, I was a paid on-air military analyst for TV Marti, just as I was for Miami’s Fox News affiliate, WSVN 7 TV News, giving the same perspective to both outlets. I recently began a weekly TV Marti world affairs program, which I have publicly disclosed on my radio show.

None of this is secret. All the Herald had to do was ask. The Herald claims this story was part of a two-year investigation, but all the information gained could have been collected in two days. Like the other 10 persons cited I was called for comment only the night before the article was published. The Herald printed only curt, one-liners in a response box from those it could reach.

Guillermo Martinez, a syndicated columnist and former member of the Miami Herald editorial board, says, “That’s called ambushing your target and generally considered unethical.” He adds, “Time permitting, as this case did, you are supposed to give the targets of your investigation adequate opportunity to defend themselves. Calling them after the story is basically written is wrong.”

The story quotes Iván Román, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), to argue that there was a conflict of interest for the 10 journalists in this case. Yet, this is the same group that hosted top Castro henchman, Ricardo Alarcon, to a controversial video interview for its annual conference in Fort Lauderdale in June. Mr. Roman is not exactly an impartial judge.

Coincidentally, during that interview, Alarcon cynically justified Castro’s brutal imprisonment of the few independent journalists in Cuba by charging they too were paid by the U.S.

The Herald initially claimed it knew its reporters had been collaborating with TV and Radio Marti for years, but didn’t know they were being paid. As we now learn, they just didn’t look closely enough. The Herald wrote a story in 2002 showing that one of the columnists mentioned, Olga Connor, was paid by TV Marti, even noting her salary.

Maybe the Herald should require its reporters to also read their own paper. It now has surfaced that the former editor of the Nuevo Herald, the late Carlos Castaneda, had approved their paid participation on TV Marti shows.

The Herald story’s kicker was the un-quoted closing comment of two un-named “ethics experts” equating this issue to the scandal involving the Bush administration paying pundit Armstrong Williams to promote its education program. According to the Herald’s two “ethics experts” we may have been paid to spread propaganda in the U.S.

That was outrageous.

Unlike the Williams case, everything here is in the public record. TV Marti is required to pay regular analysts a nominal fee per program for shows beamed into Cuba. Like Radio Free Europe beamed into the Communist bloc during the Cold War, nothing on TV Marti is intended for domestic U.S. consumption, nor directed at U.S. citizens. So how is this comparable?

It is not, which is why the Herald’s ethically challenged “ethics experts” remained anonymous. Or was that simply the reporter’s disguised agenda showing? As expected though, the September 9, New York Times headline falsely read: “U.S. paid 10 journalists for anti-Castro reports,” and reiterated the fallacious Williams comparison. For the record, most of my TV Marti commentary does not involve Cuba.

The background to this Herald article is even more interesting and deserving of investigation. In July, local TV reporter Juan Manuel Cao, also mentioned in the Herald article, cornered Castro in Argentina with a tough, pointed question. The enraged tyrant shot back, calling him a Bush mercenary and asking “Who pays you?”

Later, before falling ill in August, Castro publicly hinted that the answer to his “Who pays you” question soon would be revealed. A week before the Herald published its article, another Castro mouthpiece on Cuban state TV, Reinaldo Taladrid (who, like many other in the Cuban state media, is believed to be employed by Cuban intelligence) presciently asked: what if the Herald investigated the anti-Castro Cuban-American journalists in Miami?

How did Castro’s goons know of the story before the Herald published it? That has become the big question. It appears the Herald should be more concerned about Cuban government influence and penetration of the Herald.

Take Janet Comellas, currently a copy editor at the Nuevo Herald, who until November 2005 was a senior propaganda writer for Castro’s official state-run newspaper, “Granma.”

And there’s Marifeli Perez-Stable, a regular the Herald editorial contributor who in the 1970s and 80s was an open and ardent Castro defender and Sandinista sympathizer. While she has moderated her writing since then, Perez-Stable never has recanted her old views.

According to Indiana University Professor Antonio de la Cova, Perez-Stable was “outed” by Captain Jesús Pérez Méndez, a Cuban intelligence defector in 1983 as being “controlled” by Cuban intelligence.

While we don’t know all the answers yet, unnamed sources say some at the Herald are “taking pay” from Castro—just don’t quote me on that.

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Mr. Crespo hosts a political talk show on Univision Radio's WQBA 1140 AM in Miami and teaches politics at the University of Miami. He is a former member of the Miami Herald editorial board.

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