Beware of the Dog and Steer Clear of the Buffet Table

The Miami Herald has taken a pretty ugly beating in its confrontation with Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa. Recent tough talk by publisher David Lawrence simply hasn't been able to overcome the damage done by his simpering, obsequious, early responses. But there's blame enough to spread around, and some of it sticks to the news side of the Herald, too. Coverage of the controversy - and every other subject even remotely related to Cuban exile affairs - has been tepid at best, even granting the possibility that a truly aggressive pursuit of the story, and stories behind the story, might be viewed as retaliation.

So even more's the pity that the best verbal shot fired in this war of words was never published. The line was delivered by Herald executive editor Doug Clifton at a February 6 meeting between members of the newly formed Cuban Committee Against Defamation and executives from the Herald and El Nuevo Herald.

Clifton and Lawrence, along with El Nuevo publisher Roberto Suarez, editor Carlos Verdacia, and Herald vice president for community relations Sam Verdeja, had gathered around a conference table at the law offices of Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez. Joining Suarez, who serves as a spokesman for the anti-defamation committee, was Cuban American National Foundation president Pepe Hernandez, Brigade 2506 president Rafael Cabezas, National Association of Cuban-American Women president Luisa Garcia Toledo, College of Cuban Journalists in Exile dean Roberto Perez Fernandez, and Afro-Cuban Association representative Eneida Sanchez.

The meeting, which had been scheduled a couple of weeks earlier, was supposed to be a first, tentative attempt at face-to-face dialogue between accused and accusers. Unbeknownst to the newspaper executives, however, the committee had already made plans to hold a separate press conference just two hours before the dialogue session. Spokesman Suarez announced to assembled media at that press conference that the committee had received its first formal complaints. One of them was lodged against a Spanish magazine. The other, seemingly much more serious, was aimed at the Herald and El Nuevo, and had been filed by - surprise! - the Cuban American National Foundation.

The Foundation's gripe, essentially, was that the papers promoted a "hidden agenda" in their coverage of Cuban affairs on the island and among exiles. This, of course, was more or less a repeat of what Jorge Mas Canosa had been railing about on Spanish-language radio and in the pages of the Herald during the previous two weeks. But Mas Canosa's wild charges (the Herald is a tool of the Castro government and is trying to destroy the Miami Cuban community, et cetera) wouldn't do as a bona fide complaint filed with a bona fide anti-defamation group calling a bona fide news conference.

What the Foundation needed - and presumably what the anti-defamation committee required - was something that bore the stamp of legitimacy, something with integrity and intellectual heft. Perhaps a sober, independent study of some sort, one that might offer irrefutable proof of the Herald's prejudice against Miami Cubans.

Foundation officials found what they were looking for in the work of Fran R. Matera, an associate professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication. During the press conference, the committee distributed two documents produced by Matera. One was titled "The Miami Herald's Coverage of Cuban Issues: Tropes as Indicators of Bias." The other was called "An Ethnic Community at Odds with the Local Newspaper: The Miami Herald's Coverage on Cuban Issues."

A Herald reporter attended the press conference and brought back to the office copies of Matera's work. But Doug Clifton and the other executives had little opportunity to study the material before heading off to the meeting at Suarez's office. Of course, they knew something was up. The surprise press conference was an obvious clue. A second clue was the actual content of Matera's two papers. Clifton says he hadn't had time to study them in detail, but did have enough time to reach a preliminary conclusion. "I was sitting right next to Mayor Suarez, whom I regard as a reasonably enlightened fellow," Clifton recalls, "and there was some discussion about handling the quote-unquote charges against the Miami Herald. And I said to him, in a sidebar conversation, `How in the world are you going to evaluate these charges [in Matera's documents]? They're all over the map. You need something specific to examine. This is like the charge that there is no justice in the world. You need something more than this pile of shit.'"

Okay, I added the emphasis, but it's well deserved. And now Clifton's pithy remark has seen print. My own reading of Matera's monograph, "The Miami Herald's Coverage of Cuban Issues: Tropes as Indicators of Bias," led me to detect a stench not unlike that described by Clifton. The second paper, "An Ethnic Community at Odds with the Local Newspaper: The Miami Herald's Coverage on Cuban Issues," blew out the fuses in my odor detector.

So here was the intellectual rationale for the Foundation's vociferous complaints against the Herald. With this documentation, we were to believe, the vaunted Cuban Committee Against Defamation had launched its career and established its credentials as a fair and impartial tribunal, one the community must take seriously. You can count me among those who do take it seriously, just as seriously as I take rattlesnakes and sharks. Clearly this is one watchdog group that itself needs to be watched. Closely.

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