Hackin' at the Herald

The Miami Herald took on the world's biggest news story -- and flopped

There is no bigger challenge for a local newspaper than a big story in its back yard. And, when the paper rises to the occasion, the rewards are immense. The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the city's busing crisis in 1975. The Los Angeles Times won one in 1993 for its reporting on the Rodney King riots. And, last month, both of Denver's major papers won Pulitzers for their coverage of Columbine.

Few papers needed such an opportunity more than the Miami Herald, a once prestigious daily that during the 1990s saw its profits drop and its circulation decline. When Elian Gonzalez was picked up off the Florida shore, the paper got its chance. But it's blown it. The Herald's editorial page has been spineless and ineffectual. The paper's news section, despite assigning usually six and sometimes as many as eighteen reporters to the Elian beat, has been repeatedly scooped by in-town and out-of-town competitors. The reason the paper couldn't capitalize? The same reason it declined in the first place: its dysfunctional relationship with the Cuban-American community, a relationship that has led it to try to embody Miami rather than provide the city with honest, fearless coverage of the news.

The Herald's rocky relationship with Miami's Cuban Americans began during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cubans to America. The Herald stridently editorialized against the flood of refugees -- chastising President Carter for being "afraid to anger Cuban-American voters by demanding an end to the influx" -- and then filled its pages with consistently negative coverage of the new arrivals. As Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick write in their book about Miami, City on the Edge, the Herald "shrilly echoed Castro's characterization of the new refugees" as criminals and mental patients (even though only about ten percent of the new refugees fell into those categories).

According to the New Republic, the Herald failed to seize the opportunity presented by Elian
Steve Satterwhite
According to the New Republic, the Herald failed to seize the opportunity presented by Elian

The Herald's treatment of Miami's Cuban Americans was grossly insensitive, bordering on xenophobic. So when the Cuban Americans, in part motivated by that coverage, began to organize into a political force in the mid-Eighties, it was hardly a surprise that they flexed some of their muscle in the Herald's direction. In 1987 the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), headed by Jorge Mas Canosa, ran a full-page ad in the paper, declaring: "All our achievements have been accomplished with a national press coverage that has often portrayed us as extremists.... The Miami Herald bears tremendous responsibility for this injustice.... The Miami Herald is aggressive in its ignorance of our people."

The Herald got the message. By the end of the Eighties, the newspaper was editorializing in favor of admitting Latin-American immigrants into the country; it spiffed up and relaunched its long-suffering Spanish-language supplement; and it gave a job on its editorial page to a man who had once chained himself to the Herald's building to protest the paper's Cuba coverage. Even the paper's ill-fated 1989 decision to hire David Lawrence as publisher, a staunch devotee of civic journalism (a softer, less controversial approach to news that proved to be the downfall of many papers across the country), was in part motivated by its desire to placate the Cuban-American community.

But in 1992, after the Herald editorialized against then-Rep. Robert Torricelli's legislation to strengthen the embargo against Cuba, the comity ended. CANF, which had lobbied for the bill, launched a campaign to discredit the Herald. Mas Canosa blasted the paper as a tool of Castro's regime. Herald vending machines were smeared with feces. Staffers received death threats. Lawrence began starting his car in the morning with a remote-control device. Advertisers were targeted with letter-writing campaigns, and city buses carried huge ads reading Yo No Creo en el Herald -- "I don't believe in the Herald."

Deeming its earlier pacification strategy insufficient, the Herald redoubled its appeasement efforts. It shied away from critical coverage of Miami's Cuban-American community. It spun off its Spanish-language supplement, El Nuevo Herald, as a separate paper with its own staff and resources; the paper has become a mouthpiece for the exile leadership. And, in 1998, the Herald hired as its new publisher Alberto Ibargüen, the half-Cuban publisher of El Nuevo Herald -- a member of Mesa Redonda, the powerful civic group comprising Hispanic community leaders. One Herald veteran sums up the impact of all these moves: "We quit doing tough stories."

Enter Elian. Ever since the boy arrived in Miami, the Herald has been careful not to anger his hosts -- nowhere more so than on the editorial page. "The English-language paper gives the impression that it has been intimidated enough so it can't say something like 'There is something called the rule of law,'" says Alejandro Portes, a Cuban American who teaches at Princeton. "There was no forceful editorial in the English version. For that you have to go to the Washington Post or the New York Times." Indeed the editorial page's nadir came the day after Elian was taken from his Miami relatives' home by federal marshals, when, in a front-page editorial ordered by Ibargüen (who, it was later discovered, had hosted a conference call with Janet Reno and several negotiators in his office on the afternoon after the raid), it declared: "The scenes of overwhelming force from yesterday at dawn shock the conscience.... The evidence clearly suggests that the Miami relatives were at last prepared to voluntarily deliver Elian to his father within a very short time." Even the Herald's own reporting in the following days would undermine this contention.

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