While the Miami Herald’s recent front-page attempt to smear 10 decent Miami journalists (including me) who worked on U.S.-government TV Marti broadcasts to Cuba, blew up in its face, the paper’s scandal has unmasked more serious concerns. Clearly visible now are the Herald’s arrogance, latent anti-Cuban American bias, and lack of professionalism.
When the original Herald story broke September 8, many asked, "With Fidel Castro dying, and his brother Raul struggling to succeed him, why is the Herald doing this now?" That question was even more pressing since in prior weeks, Fidel Castro and his mouthpieces publicly had prodded the Herald to investigate the Cuban American journalists in Miami who Castro accuses of being "agents of imperialism."
As local Cuban American radio commentators (including me) increased their questioning of the Herald’s unprofessional reporting and began demanding better explanations about the paper’s motivations and practices, the pressure grew. Thanks to this effort, similar to the pressure on disgraced former CBS anchorman Dan Rather during his forged memo-gate scandal, we discovered that, among other journalistic lapses, the Herald hadn’t done its homework.
On October 3, Miami Herald Publisher Jesus Diaz implicitly admitted the Herald had screwed up, announcing that the three Nuevo Herald (the Herald’s Spanish-language paper) journalists unjustly dismissed for "conflict of interest" had been offered their jobs back. The three fired Herald journalists, in fact, had permission to appear on paid TV Marti broadcasts. Diaz then resigned, saying he had lost control of his newsrooms.
The Herald’s new owner, the McClatchy Co., tried to spin things differently. Using as a diversionary smokescreen the charge that Diaz had tried to censor (as too provocative) two stridently anti-Cuban American columns; McClatchy’s News Vice President Howard Weaver proudly proclaimed that this had been unacceptable and that McClatchy believed in “strong columnists,” and “strong voices.”
Of course, at the Herald, these strong voices are almost exclusively “strong liberal voices” such as Leonard Pitts Jr., Robert Steinback and Carl Hiassen, often with a tinge of anti-Cuban American attitude thrown in. But it was useful subterfuge. Not surprisingly, the New York Times misreported the issue completely as its incorrect October 4 headline read: "Miami Publisher Steps Down Over Payments to Reporters." A more accurate headline would have read: "Miami Publisher resigns because he admits the Herald published an unprofessional smear job."
The mounting pressure seems to be too much for Tom Fiedler, the Herald’s executive editor and vice president. On October 5, he snapped when he dismissed the notion that the paper had caved to its critics, derisively saying the ”22 people who listen to Cuban radio” were being stirred up by ”little Chihuahuas nipping at our heels.” Fiedler later apologized for his choice of words, probably because Chihuahuas are generally associated with Mexicans not Cubans.
As one of those “Chihuahuas” on Miami Cuban radio though, I was a bit offended. Fiedler seriously undercounted the large Hispanic listening audience of “Cuban” radio, which the Arbitron ratings list in the tens of thousands. Maybe Mr. Fiedler is upset that the Herald, unable to arrest the decline in its steadily dwindling readership, has had roughly 2,000 subscriptions canceled these past two weeks in protest against the paper over its smear piece.
But the confused ethnic slur simply was the most egregious example of the Herald’s arrogant defensiveness: "Who are those little Miami Cubans to question us?" Though the paper had essentially, and falsely, implied that all who ever had collaborated with TV Marti were tools of the U.S. government, Fiedler blew a gasket at the mere suggestion that the Herald may be doing the same for the Cuban government, calling the accusations that the Herald was a "tool of Castro"—"ludicrous." Can we say “double standard?”
This brings us back to the original question. Why did the Herald choose this critical time to write such a poorly researched, poorly sourced, hit piece about Cuban American journalists?
Most of us who have worked with TV and Radio Marti are proud to provide the Cuban people uncensored information and perspectives that their totalitarian Communist masters deny them. Some, especially the Castro brothers in Havana, want to silence these voices. Most agree that the Herald’s story helped Castro.
Previously I noted that Castro and his goons seemed to be forewarned about the Herald story. How did they know? And, was the paper doing Cuba’s bidding, intentionally or unintentionally?
There are many unanswered questions and much speculation. Why smear several opinion commentators not employed by the Herald like me for the alleged transgression of three of its own reporters? Was involving us a cover to fire them, or were they fired as a way to help smear us all?
The McClatchy Co., America’s second largest newspaper company, recently took over the Miami Herald when it acquired Knight Ridder. But the Herald doesn’t have an office in Cuba, and Cuba bans most of its reporters from the island for not being hard enough on the Miami Cuban exiles and for being too hard on Castro.
Was McClatchy’s trying to show Cuba that under their new management, The Herald will be much harsher with Castro’s opponents? Could they be negotiating with Cuba to open a Havana bureau before Fidel Castro dies? The Herald publicly has denied this, but many observers remain skeptical. At minimum, the paper could be doing this unilaterally, hoping for better treatment from Castro later. Perhaps they hope to secure visas so their intrepid investigative reporters may travel to Cuba.
Then there’s the 800-pound alligator in the room: Cuban government influence over, or penetration of, the Herald. Humberto Castello, the Nuevo Herald Editor, publicly has defended his oft-criticized policy of hiring recently arrived Cuban “journalists” who worked at all levels of Castro’s propaganda organs. Janet Comellas, a copy editor at the Nuevo Herald, who until November 2005 was a senior propaganda writer for Castro’s state-controlled paper, "Granma," is just one example.
Has Cuba used this misguided policy to infiltrate the Miami paper with its intelligence operatives?
Tom Fielder and Humberto Castello may think that is “ludicrous,” but intelligence experts believe it’s not only possible but likely. The Herald is a prime target for a Fidel Castro obsessed with his Miami opponents. The Herald should police itself as aggressively as it pursues false stories about Cuban American journalists working for TV Marti.