By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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 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.
"Objectivity often goes by the wayside when the programming gets away from straight-top-of-the hour news," said Charles Green.
Noticentro Marti (Marti News Center) was not exempt from criticism. Failure to seek contrary voices detracted from otherwise good reporting. The April 2 newscast carried accusations against the Bahamian government from Cuban refugees, but the Bahamian position was not given. On the same program, the Defense Department report on Cuba as a security threat carried only comments from Washington against the report. Green and Vasquez noted that the otherwise balanced Noticentro Marti newscast May 5 carried a biased attack on [Organization of American States] President Cesar Gaviria, linking him to the death by cancer of activist Sebastian Arcos.
Other examples can be found in the individual reports.
While conceding the difficulties involved in sourcing stories out of a closed society like Cuba, the evaluators felt a greater effort should be made to research stories and to identify sources, if not by name, by position or proximity for the sake of the credibility.... There should be no problems identifying sources in the United States.
Three of the five evaluators flagged sourcing problems with two different stories in the January 29 Tempranito y de Manana program. Vasquez questioned where the Caritas story, which he found interesting, even originated. Green and Bustos found sourcing problems with the cattle story. Diament questioned Perspectiva Económica (Economic Perspective) of March 6 and Tus Derechos, Cubano (Your Rights, Cuban) of April 20. "There seems to be very little evidence of serious research that would allow precise references to substantiate the charges [against Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations' Committee on Human Rights, Carlos Amat Flores]," he said.
Brennan found fault with sourcing in the election coverage and the hunger strike in La Semana en Una Hora for January 12 and the coverage of the sugar yield in Noticentro Marti for May 5.
Vasquez had problems with the source of claims about the destination of humanitarian aid made by Frank Calzon on Desde Washington (From Washington) March 24.
Evaluators found feature stories mixed in indiscriminately with hard news stories, leaving the listener to decide what was what. Cantando Claro (Speaking Clearly) for February 10 contained a feature on a Mexican publisher of religious books sandwiched between hard news stories on Iraq and free trade in Latin America. Encuentros y Comentarios (Encounters and Commentaries) for March 27 carried a commentary on the lack of press freedom in Cuba between hard news stories from Washington and Brazil. The Costa Rican election special ran the commentary before the news it was commenting on. Said Vasquez: "[T]he general rule is, first the news, then the commentary and analysis; here the commentary overwhelms the information to the detriment of the overall program."
On a mock interview on Micrófonos y Personas (Microphones and People) January 28 with long-dead Jose Marti, the host did not explain the nature of the program, confusing some evaluators and probably many members of the audience who heard it originally.
Vasquez found speculative and therefore not newsworthy an item on Cantando Claro for February 10 about a poll showing Cuban exiles who want the Castro brothers to accept a reported asylum offer in Spain. Vasquez and Diament questioned the number of news stories and programs involving the Catholic Church, especially on a government-funded radio station.
The segment on Ventana al Mundo (Window on the World) April 14 involving a former TV dance host turned cameraman was considered irrelevant.
There was disagreement over the appropriateness of the Arte de Vivir (The Art of Living) segments run March 19. Green felt the program sounded like an "infomercial" for a seminar conducted by the speaker. Vasquez questioned whether a government-funded station should be carrying an individual's program on "spiritual and psychological" issues. However, Bustos thought the program represented "truly a public service" for listeners, citing the issue of alcoholism.
Hosts, moderators, commentators and analysis
More than reporters, the above came in for considerable criticism for bias, lack of expertise, and lack of professionalism.
Said Diament: "The general level of commentary is, in my opinion, poor and hardly factual. The same things are repeated time after time, and the fact that the conversations are informal seems to be taken as an excuse for imprecision and unfounded remarks."
Said Green of the soft news programs: "There are problems with balance, sourcing, and proper use of airtime. A lot of this could be cured, perhaps with some off-air training for hosts and moderators on how to handle panelists or how to conduct interviews."
Said Vasquez of the Haciendo Caminos (Breaking Ground) program March 10: "The discussion seemed uneven and lacked focus. This is a continuing problem with broadcasts of this sort on Radio Marti. Perhaps the answer is to find stronger moderators, or outside moderators with stronger journalistic credentials who can keep the discussion flowing and come up with some sort of conclusion. Most moderators know that you don't just open the microphones and let panelists say whatever they will; that way lies chaos."
Said Bustos: "I must criticize Radio Marti for failing to remain objective under the standards set by the VOA. There were several instances where the host of [a] political forum would clearly display his or her opinions instead of serving as moderator."
Said Brennan: "There are clear inconsistencies about the quality of hosts, with the straight news anchors being the most credible."
Some discussion programs were faulted for not giving enough background information for the edification of the listener. This was also a complaint with some hard news coverage: it was assumed the listener knew more than he or she probably did.
To the question whether U.S. policies were clearly and effectively presented, there was a mixed reaction from the evaluators. Three said yes, one said sometimes, and one said no. Green, who said "sometimes," noted: "Most of the time. But sometimes they fell into vague generalities or failed to give enough background. They made the assumption their listeners are as up-to-date on U.S. policy as they are."
Vasquez, who said "no," made reference to what he considered poor coverage of the Department of State report on human rights on the February 2 Noticentro Marti newscast, coverage of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's statement on Cuba on the February 10 Cantando Claro newscast, and the coverage of her visit with the Pope on the March 24 Desde Washington program.
Besides lauding the Pope and Jose Marti specials, the evaluators praised, among others, the discussion on Foro Pœblico (Public Forum) February 23, Panorama Internacional (International Panorama) for May 28, Presidio Politico (Political Prison) February 23, and Tres Banderas (Three Flags) April 10.
Vasquez cited an item on Panorama Internacional about the accidental shooting of a young Cuban by a policeman. He said this is the type of story Cubans are not likely to hear on their local stations. "More stories of this sort -- reporters on the island covering daily events, rather than focusing only on the activities of opponents of the regime -- would not only add to Radio Marti's credibility, but would make listeners more alert for news broadcast.