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).

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.

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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