The Scoop That Might Have Been

Weeks before the controversial tale of a Cuban double agent set Miami abuzz, the Miami Herald and Channel 51 engaged in a little intrigue of their own

Even after Channel 51 broadcast its series, the Herald's Clifton remained uncertain of Cancela's true motives in seeking collaboration. "I think that from his perspective, frankly, he thought he would have gotten some credibility, more credibility, with the Miami Herald's name attached to it," Clifton speculates. "And he would have automatically gotten a wider audience."

Cancela was out of town last week and could not be reached for this story, but Telemundo news director Josie Goytisolo says it wasn't a matter of credibility but rather a simple matter of manpower. "The Herald has incredible resources," she notes. "We're a small news organization."

When Channel 51 was ready with the spy story, the station promoted its efforts by purchasing a two-page advertisement that ran across the center section of El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister paper, the day before the series began. "What would you say if you knew that a leader of an important Cuban exile organization is in reality an infiltrator from Castro's security forces?" read the headline. (The ad did not run in the Miami Herald.)

Broadcast November 9 through November 13, the expose detailed Avila's complex life as head of military operations for the venerable paramilitary group Alpha 66, and his activities while pretending to spy for Castro while allegedly passing information to the FBI. Channel 51's hidden cameras also videotaped Avila meeting with a Cuban diplomat in New York, discussing everything from upcoming raids on the island to the U.S. presidential elections.

While the series immediately began causing an uproar in Miami's vast exile community, Clifton's earlier reluctance was reflected in the Herald's subsequent coverage of the story. On Monday, November 9, El Nuevo Herald published an article on the front page of its local section previewing the series and offering a partial transcript of the spy's conversation with his Cuban control agent, though without identifying Avila by name.

The Miami Herald published nothing.
On Tuesday El Nuevo ran a lengthy story on its front page about the United States demanding the expulsion of Avila's contact, a diplomat assigned to the Cuban mission at the United Nations.

The Miami Herald slashed El Nuevo's article to about one-fifth its length and buried the abbreviated version on the second page of its local section.

Wednesday El Nuevo published another story revealing that the FBI had allegedly tried without success to convince Avila's control agent to defect. The paper's editors again displayed it prominently on the front page.

Despite the fact that a Miami Herald reporter coauthored that article, Herald editors chose to run it on page A-7, in the section devoted to news from Latin America.

It wasn't until Thursday, the day after the New York Times published at the top of its national news section an article about the controversy and Channel 51's coup, that the Herald finally put the Avila story on its front page.

"I thought this was an important story from day one," says Carlos Verdecia, editor of El Nuevo Herald. "We knew from the beginning it was going to be a big deal. Avila's story had front page written all over it. It was an interesting story nationwide, not just for Cubans."

Though Verdecia is reluctant to criticize the judgment of his counterparts at the Herald, he admits, "I would have played it differently if I were the editor of the other newspaper, but that doesn't mean I would be right. The important thing is that they eventually realized this was a major story."

(Though slow to react, the Herald, to its credit, did publish a significant story on Tuesday, November 17, when staff writer Joan Fleischman reported that Avila had been the key informant who broke the infamous River Cops case, in which Miami police officers were ripping off drug dealers. The story provided the first independently corroborated evidence that Avila had been working for the FBI.)

Does Clifton have any regrets about not taking the opportunity to work with Channel 51 from the outset? "Yes and no," he replies. "I'm still not sure who the hell this guy Avila is. I'm still not sure this guy is certifiably a double agent. I'm still not sure who he worked for. In my mind, there is still an awful lot of murkiness.

"So when I sit down and I think about just what are the possibilities in this affair, and just where does the truth ultimately lie, and what was our ability to get to that ultimate truth, I say to myself, `Ehh, I don't have that big a problem that we didn't have it.'"

"The Herald missed out because they had to follow the story through Channel 51," chuckles Radio Mambi's Tomas Regalado. "And it was a major story.

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