Hatchet Man

Q: What's a nice guy like Alberto Ibargen doing at a place like the Miami Herald? A: Exactly what his money-grubbing bosses want him to do.

For Mestre the changes at El Nuevo have been worth the attendant conflict. "If [IbargYen] pushes," he says, "it's because he found too many immobile objects, a newsroom that was not as dynamic as it could be. The turnover was not related to Alberto. These were people who had been here for a bloody long time and had to go elsewhere."

IbargYen hired him, he says, told him things had to improve, and then let him do his job. The result is an editorial section that is more diversified and more interesting than ever. In addition, Mestre notes, when he has come under attack on Cuban radio for supporting controversial columnists, IbargYen has always backed him up.

Yet Mestre's experiences on El Nuevo's opinion pages seem to be different from those of reporters in the newsroom. "When IbargYen first came, we were all very excited that things would finally [improve]," says Juan Carlos Perez, a ten-year reporter who left the paper for a Puerto Rican daily. Yet disillusion set in. A number of reasons are cited, but staffers point to the hiring of a new city editor in mid-1997 as their watershed. Alfredo Casares, who had come to the paper as a 28-year-old intern from Pamplona, Spain, just the summer before, quickly caught IbargYen's eye as a young man with potential.

But El Nuevo reporters rebelled. Matters were made worse, some maintain, because someone who could do the job was already in place: Gladys Nieves, who had been assistant city editor for approximately four years. Nieves says she didn't even bother to apply when the city editor job was posted. "Everybody knew that position already had a name," she says today from Puerto Rico, where she works for El Nuevo Dia, which hired a number of El Nuevo reporters.

Several editorial staffers tried to talk IbargYen out of the appointment, but he refused to change his mind. "It was pretty sad," says one Puerto Rican reporter who left the paper. "What could [Casares] teach us? How could he supervise reporters when he doesn't know anything about the city?"

Dissatisfaction boiled over when Casares forbade reporter Cristina Llado to follow the Versace murder story, even though she had been the first journalist on the scene. Eight hours later he turned the story over to reporter Juan Carlos Perez, who refused the assignment in protest. After just eleven months on the job, Casares returned to Pamplona. IbargYen explains his departure by saying Casares missed his hometown, and his wife didn't like Miami. "There was an element of risk in inviting him," IbargYen reflects today. "It didn't work." Nonetheless, he says, "I think he will be a significant force in journalism in Spain."

Casares's appointment reinforced a newsroom impression, say disgruntled former employees, that IbargYen would never promote from within, and that, despite a few exceptions, management favored men over women for top positions.

IbargYen insists there was no discrimination. Former reporter Rosa Townsend demurs. She has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and a lawsuit in federal court, against the Miami Herald Publishing Company, alleging discrimination and improper dismissal.

In the 1997 Knight Ridder corporate annual report, the Herald is mentioned twice for excellence in journalism and public service. One mention refers to an article in May of that year about the Port of Miami, the other to a county paving contract scandal involving Church & Tower, a story in part broken by Townsend, then a ten-year employee at El Nuevo.

She therefore found it peculiar that male colleagues who had started at about the same time were being paid as much as $12,000 more per year. She confronted her bosses.

It was not the first time Townsend had problems with her superiors. In October 1991 she had informally discussed with Miami Herald publisher Dave Lawrence alleged sexual harassment she said she suffered three years earlier at the hands of El Nuevo news editor Tony Espetia, who is now managing editor.

According to court documents filed by Townsend's lawyer, William Amlong, IbargYen did not react well to her second protest. "Following the refusal by her immediate supervisors at El Nuevo Herald to in March [1998] promote her from a Reporter 3 to Reporter 4, plaintiff sought out and complained to Alberto IbargYen," one document states. "[He] became very angry, screaming at her in Spanish that he 'will not tolerate you accusing us of discriminating against you. You first brought a sexual harassment complaint. Now discrimination. What's next!'"

After returning from two weeks' vacation, Townsend again met with IbargYen to see if he had changed his mind about giving her a raise. "IbargYen became furious once more, saying that she had 'brought all sorts of complaints already,' and told her to go back to the newsroom."

Three days later Townsend was fired and told to leave the building immediately. To make matters doubly humiliating, the man assigned to supervise her departure was Tony Espetia. In a deposition, Townsend described the scene: "I was then told that Mr. Espetia -- the now-managing editor who previously had sexually harassed me -- would be the person to assist me in downloading personal materials from my computer, which he did smiling broadly." (Today Townsend works in the Miami office of Spain's El Pais newspaper.)

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