Hackin' at the Herald

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

But the Herald's reporting hasn't brought it much credit, either. On three separate occasions the paper has been scooped on stories that spoke directly to whether the Miami family was fit to care for Elián, one of the most important issues in the entire saga. In January Miami New Times exposed the lengthy criminal records of two of Elián's Miami cousins, who were frequent visitors to the Gonzalez home. Two weeks later the New York Times broke the news that Lazaro Gonzalez and his brother had two convictions apiece for driving under the influence of alcohol.

The day after the Times story, the Herald finally reported the criminal records of Elian's family members but framed the news in a piece on how "each side [was] seizing on any unflattering evidence, including criminal convictions and suggestions of abuse, to discredit the other." Moreover, rather than crediting New Times for its exclusive on the cousins, the Herald gave the impression that the information had come from Castro's Granma.

On April 6 the Herald got beaten again. Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel reported fresh details about Lazaro Gonzalez's troubled employment history. It wasn't until ten days later that the Herald took a hard look at Lazaro's past.

The Herald's defenders say these scoops (or lack thereof) weren't reflective of the hundreds of Elian articles the paper ran covering every aspect of the case. "We wrote about the family," says Mark Seibel, who oversees much of the Herald's Elian coverage, "about Cuban kids separated from parents, about how rafter kids felt about the situation, about the family's difficulty about dealing with lawyers, Marisleysis's hospitalizations, what a loving father Juan Miguel was. We wrote about everything."

But inside the newsroom, some Herald staffers say, the paper's best and most aggressive reporters have been attacked by a vocal minority that closely monitors suspected anti-Cuban biases. Leading the charge has been Liz Balmaseda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who has complained to both the Herald's publisher and its editor about what she sees as the paper's unsympathetic coverage. (Balmaseda caused an uproar herself last month when she was photographed in a prayer circle outside the Gonzalez home.) Her complaints eventually led to a special meeting between Ibargüen and the paper's Cuban-American reporters.

The scrutiny didn't stop there. When reporter Meg Laughlin wrote a detailed account of Elian's private school and the right-wing textbooks used there, she came under fire from Barbara Gutierrez, the reader representative for the Herald, who leads a weekly critique of the paper's coverage. "The tone sounded editorial," Gutierrez says. "I think the message got through. There are certain ways of reporting a story where a community might feel it's inflammatory."

Reporter Frances Robles, who has been assigned to cover Juan Miguel Gonzalez, received an e-mail message, forwarded by her editor, that was written by a junior Cuban-American reporter who wanted to know why certain questions weren't being asked of Elian's father. "The questions were framed as if they were written by the CANF," says one Herald scribe. Eventually the atmosphere in the usually jocular newsroom became so strained that what reporters call unprecedented departmental meetings were held to inform journalists to refrain from any humor that could be deemed insensitive.

The tensions finally came to a head on the morning of the raid, when a Cuban-American staffer at El Nuevo posted a message to the newspaper's internal electronic bulletin board. Although the message was immediately taken down by the paper's managing editor, Larry Olmstead, a person inside the newsroom paraphrases it as saying, "I'm sure that you are all really enjoying what took place in Little Havana and that you'll now have lots of fun celebrating this move." The message's author then listed several reporters, now known internally as the "hit list," as the likely celebrators. Says one Herald reporter: "It was inflammatory, insulting, and uncalled for."

The Herald's defenders say such ethnic demons are to be expected; the community itself is torn apart, and those rifts will naturally be present inside the city's newspaper. "In this conflict," says one Miami journalist, "the newspaper is just a reflection of the whole community." But that doesn't always need to be the case. In Boston, during the busing crisis of the mid-Seventies, the Globe came under fire, quite literally, for its coverage: On various occasions, anti-busing extremists pumped bullets into the paper's headquarters. But the Globe's editors stood firm, recognizing that it is at precisely such moments that a newspaper must rise above community passions to uphold certain principles. Unfortunately for Miami the Herald still doesn't seem clear on what those principles are.

This article originally appeared in theNew Republic. Ryan Lizza is assistant editor of that magazine and a former resident of Miami.

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