Miami Voice

A new report confirms that Radio Mart' has become a mecca of shoddy reporting

It's in. The first independent study of Radio Marti programming since a new director started revamping the place about eighteen months ago. And it's not pretty. American taxpayers are spending $13 million per year on broadcasts that frequently lack professionalism, objectivity, and balance, according to an evaluation by five journalists associated with Florida International University.

New Times has obtained a copy of the report, which was presented September 14 to a joint meeting of the Office of the Inspector General at the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the presidentially appointed body that oversees all U.S. government broadcasting operations.

Here's the background: Radio Marti went on the air in 1985, TV Marti followed six years later. They provide the Cuban people with news and entertainment unavailable from the island's state-run media. (TV Marti is mostly blocked in Cuba, but radio has a wide listenership.) In March 1997 President Clinton appointed a Cuban-American lawyer from Miami, Herminio San Roman, to be director of the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which operates both.

San Roman quickly replaced personnel and transformed Radio Marti into an approximation of Miami's Cuban-exile AM stations, which emit a profusion of anti-Castro commentary and rhetoric tempered with little objective journalism. On September 21 the President's Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting (PABCB, an appointed committee, separate from the BBG, that is charged with monitoring the Martis' programming) sent a letter to Clinton requesting San Roman's resignation.

Then two weeks ago, according to three sources familiar with OCB operations, several Senate staffers working in foreign relations and Latin American matters called a meeting with Radio Marti's overseers. The gathering included representatives of the U.S. Information Agency, the International Broadcasting Board, the BBG, and the PABCB. The staffers convened the parley -- the first such discussion in memory -- out of concern about the FIU report and the resignation demand, the sources say.

The FIU journalists, all of whom have broad professional knowledge of Latin America, analyzed slightly more than twenty hours of Radio Marti news programming. The panel comprised Charles H. Green, director of the FIU International Media Center; Sergio Bustos, former reporter for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Philadelphia Inquirer; Mario Diament, coordinator of the master's degree program in Spanish-language journalism at FIU; Juan Vasquez, former reporter for the New York Times, CBS, and the Los Angeles Times; and Bryna Brennan, former AP foreign correspondent.

The report starts with a summary by John Virtue, deputy director of the International Media Center at FIU, and includes hundreds of pages of stinging analysis by the panel. The investigators also found praiseworthy programming, including some special reports, straight news segments, and real-people stories from Cuba. Moreover, the majority of the panel rated eleven programs "good" and eighteen shows "fair" or "poor."

"Just like any media, we always need improvement," offers San Roman, "and we're in the process of correcting mistakes from the past." He says he can't respond specifically to the report until it has been made public. As for the request that he resign, San Roman laughs it off. "I'm still here."

San Roman has the public support of at least one of his superiors, Joseph Duffey, director of the U.S. Information Agency. "Dr. Duffey does not feel the criticisms are merited," says Marthena Cowart, director of USIA's office of public liaison. Duffey can't comment on the FIU report, Cowart says, because he isn't familiar with it.

Following is the text of Virtue's summary.

Radio Marti's regular programming can be divided into two categories: all-news programs ... and others ... which have a mix of news and commentary or analysis.

The only two programs that were unanimously applauded by the evaluators were the specials on Pope John Paul and Jose Marti. The first had little commentary, while the second was mainly historical.

The evaluators tended to find fewer objections to the all-news programs than they did to those which mixed news and comment. Special problems were found with some hosts, moderators, commentators, and analysts.

The problems detected by the evaluators in the sample programming from Radio Marti for the period studied fall into two areas, one affecting the credibility of the news report, and the other reflecting on its professionalism.

The problems affecting the credibility are two-fold: lack of balance, fairness, and objectivity; and lack of adequate sourcing.

The problems reflecting on professionalism are also two-fold: confusing packaging and poor news judgment in story selection.

Balance, fairness and objectivity
Juan Vasquez, who closely follows events in Cuba, probably spoke for all evaluators when he said: "I would find in listening to the news programs that substituting criticism and editorial commentary for analysis was a recurring problem in news broadcasts -- perhaps the most glaring and disturbing problem of all from a journalistic standpoint."

He made the comment in his criticism of La Semana en Una Hora (The Week in One Hour) for January 12, which focused on Cuban elections, called "pathological propaganda" by one of the reporters for the segment. Four of the five evaluators considered this program poor.

Tempranito y de Manana (Early Morning Show) for January 29 was criticized by all evaluators, especially the segment on proposed legislation to ease the trade embargo on Cuba. Sergio Bustos considered "extremely biased and highly unbalanced" the fact that only two lawmakers were given airtime, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, both Cuban Americans opposed to any easing of trade restrictions. Bryna Brennan agreed. Asked Vasquez: "Do VOA [Voice of America]/ Radio Marti guidelines on objectivity and fairness require that other voices in Congress be heard on the Cuba issue?" On the same program Bustos questioned the reference to "hermanos" (brothers) by the correspondent reporting on Cuban human rights activists being sentenced. "[T]he correspondent sounded more like a spokesman for the activists and not a reporter," he said.

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