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By Michael E. Miller
Cue the giant whooshing sound. Add a bombastic voice-over, a flashing graphic, some dynamic music. Cut to a man and a woman sitting behind a curved gray desk inside a vast room. In the background: video monitors, red railings, the bobbing heads of lackeys answering telephones.
Dark-haired female: Good evening, everyone. Tonight the Night Team is hearing shocking reports out of North Bay Village about a newscaster -- a very high-profile broadcaster -- who might not be who he seems. I'm Laurie Jennings.
Swarthy, preternaturally tan male: And I'm Rick Sanchez. A weekly newspaper in Miami is speculating that ... let me see if I've got this right ... that I, WSVN anchor Rick Sanchez, am a secret agent agitating for Castro's Cuba. We go right away to the Satellite Center and to Carmel Cafiero, who is standing by with details. Carmel, this shocks the conscience.
Pan to a flame-haired woman standing before a large television monitor in a room apparently constructed for air-traffic control.
Cafiero: That's right, Rick. As WSVN's lead anchor, you stand accused tonight of serving two bosses: your viewers here in Miami, and a communist dictator residing just 90 miles away. Critics of your sensational broadcasting style are claiming you are, in large part, responsible for the civic unrest that followed the removal of Elian Gonzalez from the home of his relatives in Little Havana. Those disturbances, you may recall, served to weaken the position of Miami's exile community while strengthening Fidel Castro's iron grip on power.
Sanchez (interrupting): Ah ... wait a second here, Carmel. You just used the word sensational. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that mean good?
Cafiero: Not in this context, Rick. You see, a close examination of your performance over the course of the Elian saga reveals your reporting helped make the entire Cuban-exile community appear ridiculous. This turn of events, Rick, seems to be exactly what you wanted all along. It's a story you're only going to see here on Seven, and it's one we considered calling "Anchor ... or Agitator?" "Journalist ... or Communist?" before finally settling on "Rick ... or Red?"
The "Rick ... or Red?" graphic, incorporating a flowing Cuban flag, appears onscreen. The mood is set with haunting piano effects. Bleed into a montage of civic unrest: tires burning on Flagler Street, upside-down flags flying, Marisleysis Gonzalez crying, and finally, giant images of Rick Sanchez and Fidel Castro juxtaposed so as to appear smiling broadly at each other.
Cafiero (voice-over): It's been more than a month since the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service reunited little Elian Gonzalez with his father -- an action supported by the majority of Americans. In the aftermath of the raid, images of overturned Dumpsters and impassioned Cuban-American protesters flashed across the nation's television screens. A community long celebrated for its industry, and respected for its political clout, tonight finds itself regarded as little more than a national joke.
Leno: You know, that might not be a bad idea, sending O.J. to Florida. Maybe that'll mean the Cubans won't be coming over here anymore!
Cafiero (voice-over): While Cuban exiles are serving as a punch line, the regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro is stronger than it has been in years.
Max Castro: I think the Elian situation gave a transfusion to the Cuban government. Fidel was able to say, "Look how unreasonable the exiles are. They want to take a child away from his father." That strategy had a certain amount of success, whereas in Miami the exile community came across as very obstinate, entrenched, and very, very politicized.
Cafiero (voice-over): How did this happen? How did a totalitarian government famous for jailing dissidents score a public-relations coup in what should have been a straightforward custody dispute? The answer is being provided tonight by an unlikely source.
Cut to videotape of a dark conference room. A lone figure slumps in the shadows, watching a small television. Boxes of videotapes lie about him. He is eating a chocolate-chip muffin purchased from Dunkin' Donuts.
Cafiero (voice-over): A researcher for New Times recently spent two weeks sequestered in the basement of the Miami-Dade County Public Library watching every WSVN newscast from Thanksgiving -- the day Elian was found clinging to an inner tube -- through April 22, the day of the INS raid. The newspaper discovered that you, Rick, consistently played the role of media agitator, fanning the flames of anti-Americanism in Little Havana.
Cut to archive footage of Sanchez in the Newsplex. He's wearing a different suit. His face is a shade less tan. Script at the bottom of the screen: November 29, 1999.
Sanchez (on the tape): His father wants him back in Cuba. The question is: Will this custody battle mean this little boy's freedom could be lost? Seven's Brian Andrews is live with some of the developments coming from Cuba -- and some would say, Brian, [Sanchez snickers] coming really from the Castro government.
Cafiero (voice-over): Now remember, Rick, this is your very first on-air appearance after Elian's rescue. Note how you're already casting aspersions on Juan Miguel Gonzalez's parental instincts, and typecasting him -- ironically -- as a pawn of the Castro regime. This seems to have been your plan all along: to serve as an unfiltered delivery system for the exile community's absurd -- and unsubstantiated -- propaganda. Now check out this report, delivered in late March.
Sanchez (on tape): Interestingly tonight the family of Elian Gonzalez is saying the little boy is himself fearful of Fidel Castro. They say his mother secretly taught him since he was a little boy about Fidel Castro's quote cruelty. And someday, she told him, she would take him away from Castro and from Cuba.
Back live to the anchor desk.
Sanchez (tapping his pencil insistently): Hold on a second, Carmel. I don't see the connection between these clips and communist agitating. Isn't it possible that, you know, maybe I'm just being a bombastic blowhard here? I mean, given my reputation, isn't that more likely?
Cafiero: If this were just some two-bit reporter from another station, perhaps. But Rick, you are "one of the most recognized television anchors in South Florida," according to the WSVN Website. That same Website touts your "keen reporting skills" and commends you for having acted, during Hurricane Andrew, as "a constant voice of hope."
Sanchez (blushing slightly): That was my finest hour.
Cafiero: And for you to treat this story in such a wildly unethical manner, I'm afraid, suggests a hidden agenda. Here's where the New Times research proved invaluable. The newspaper discovered a seemingly innocuous story that lent a fresh perspective to your Elian coverage, Rick.
Cut to archive footage of a WSVN broadcast. Activate more whooshing sounds. Hit more of that eerie piano music.
Cafiero (voice-over): February 18, 2000. Immigration and Naturalization Service official Mariano Faget is arrested and charged with spying for the Castro government. WSVN broadcast the arrest, with file footage of Faget in his office supplemented by new footage of yellow police tape cordoning off his Kendall townhouse. Rick discussed the arrest with senior reporter Mark Londner.
Sanchez (on tape): Mark, if this gentleman was partially responsible for who gets asylum in the United States, isn't it reasonable to conclude, then, that there may be other spies among us?
Londner (on tape): I don't know if it is reasonable to conclude. But the INS says it will review all cases that Mr. Faget had to do with.
Cafiero (voice-over): Londner may have been too hasty in his judgment. During a subsequent interview, exile leader José Basulto reminded viewers that Faget is only the latest spy to be outed. Just two years ago, Cuban spy Juan Pablo Roque infiltrated Basulto's organization, Brothers to the Rescue. It's reasonable to conclude, Basulto implied, that there are others.
Cut to silver-haired man barking into the camera.
Basulto: It's a joke! It's been known to us for years. And these are just a few of the very many! I'd say this runs at least more than 1000 spies here in Miami, and many of them very well located.
Cafiero (voice-over): More than 1000 spies? At the highest levels of power? Government? The media? New Times asked the obvious question: With all these spies running around, isn't it reasonable to conclude that some of them may have infiltrated the WSVN Newsplex?
Cafiero: That's right, Laurie. And if you were a Castro double agent, and it was your intention to undermine Miami's exile community, what do you suppose would be the most influential position to hold?
Jennings: Um, maybe, like, mayor or something?
Cafiero: Not quite. In the unique media vortex created by the Elian Gonzalez story, the central players were people like Rick, who helped frame what should have been an open-and-shut custody case as a pitched battle between Cuban exiles and Fidel Castro. Rick's ostensibly idiotic comments were in fact an ingenious campaign aimed at rousing Miami's exiles to undreamed-of heights of impassioned irrationality. When the dust settled in Little Havana after the INS minivans sped away, Rick had successfully marginalized the exile community. Let's go to the videotape. In this first clip, from December 6, Rick launched a crusade against the National Council of Churches, an American religious organization that attempted to reunite Elian with his father. Lucia Newman is a reporter for CNN based in Havana.
Sanchez (on tape): I'm sure you can understand how, Lucia, so many people here in South Florida and in fact many in the country ... [believe] it's not really Mr. Gonzalez speaking. It's Fidel Castro that's speaking for Mr. Gonzalez. And now we have this National Council of Churches speaking for Mr. Gonzalez as well. And a lot of people are wondering why all of a sudden the National Council of Churches is allowed to go to Havana on a moment's notice, an organization which is very well tied to the Cuban Council of Churches in Havana, which as you know is tied to the Cuban government. Are they beholden to the Cuban government?
Newman (on tape): Well, I don't know if one can say the largest U.S. religious organization, the one with the most ... I think there's something like 56 million orthodox and Protestant churches that belong to the National Council of Churches -- that is in any way an organization that is linked to a communist ideology. I think that would be going too far.
Cafiero (voice-over): Simple hype? Hardly. Rick is very cannily baiting the most paranoid elements of the exile community into taking on the 50-million-member NCC, a battle the exiles can't possibly win. For maximum effect Rick keeps the heat on the church group: Nearly two months after talking to Newman, on January 25, Sanchez interviewed CNN's Martin Savidge in advance of the second scheduled meeting between Elian and his grandmothers.
Savidge (on tape): Cuban officials here have actually been quite strongly saying they are not in charge of this meeting at all.... [The meeting is] totally in the hands of the church group, the National Council of Churches. So they don't believe in any way the Cuban government is sort of articulating what is taking place in Florida or in the U.S. with the two grandmothers.
Sanchez (on tape): I have a document here in front of me, Martin, that seems to refute that. It says that this group, the National Council of Churches, is in such strict financial straits that it's something like five million in the red. That being so, who's paying them for these Lear jet trips all over the country?
Savidge (on tape): Well, I can't respond to that. I don't obviously have access to the articles you do. It's quite clear that this church group represents quite a few parishes. It's estimated that the number of parishioners that belong in some way to the National Council of Churches is about 50 million people in the U.S. There is a lot of money that could be generated by these people and could explain how the trip is being funded.
Cafiero (voice-over): Here Rick is paying homage to another brilliant manipulator, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, with his "I have a document in front of me"-style bullying. Again, the exchange presents the exile community as being at war against millions of churchgoing Americans. Exile isolation can be the only possible outcome here. Diabolical. But it doesn't stop there. Like old Rocky Balboa, Rick keeps on fighting, sometimes with his own staff. Prior to the first scheduled meeting with the grandmothers, he duked it out with his own Patrick Fraser, who was at the Tamiami airport.
Sanchez (on tape): You say the grandmothers have been in a closed meeting. Could they possibly have gotten a phone call from Havana telling them it wouldn't be a good idea to show up there?
Fraser (on tape): Rick, it could be anything. Speculation here is that they are afraid to go over to Little Havana because --
Sanchez (on tape): Afraid of people with flowers?
Fraser (on tape, somewhat annoyed): Rick, I am not analyzing this. I am just telling you what the speculation is here. The word coming from inside here is that they have some concerns --
Jennings (on tape): It does raise a lot of questions. Questions about a call from Havana. Questions about whether they want to defect --
Cafiero (voice-over): Rick's speculation that Castro is controlling the grandmothers is totally unfounded; he simply made it up. Yet its mere broadcast supported conspiracy theories championed by paranoid elements of the exile community. While feeding this frenzy, Rick managed to convince his viewers -- and the family themselves -- that he was a benevolent friend. In this segment, taped just a few days later, he assures the audience and the Miami relatives that their futile campaign has been endorsed by no less an authority than God himself.
Sanchez (on tape): [Elian is] wearing a crucifix around his neck, something I'm sure Marisleysis recently purchased for him. The last time I spoke to her, to Marisleysis, she talked very much about how she felt there was a spiritual force guiding her through this. She's a very spiritual woman, [with] a very strong Christian faith. I think since she's been with Elian, I think she's talked with Elian a lot about that, something Elian probably will not get a lot of if he returns to Cuba.
Cafiero (voice-over): A few days before the raid, when it appeared that Juan Miguel Gonzalez would be coming to America after all, Juan Miguel's attorney applied for visas for the Cuban Gonzalezes as well as for several of Elian's Cuban classmates. Rick discussed the visa applications in another interview with CNN's Lucia Newman.
Sanchez (on tape): Lucia, as you might imagine there are some people here in South Florida who are being critical of Fidel Castro. What they are saying is if the Cuban government is really interested in the welfare of children, why would they take schoolchildren away from their parents and send them to another country to live with strangers, as the Castro government seems willing to do in this case. Has there been any comment on that at all?
Newman (on tape): Most Cubans think it's a great idea, really. The plan is to send roughly half the classroom with the schoolteacher to accompany Elian, who as you know is a cause célèbre.... They would consider it an honor, I think, to go there.
Cafiero (voice-over): A major blunder for the purported Cuban operative! Clearly Rick lets his own latent anti-American prejudices leak through. He thinks it is a bad thing for Cuban children to come to America? And why would this be? Possibly because he's ... a communist? He's afraid these little soldiers for Castro will be corrupted by America's rampant materialism? And of course any analysis of Rick's performance would be incomplete without the raid itself. This was his pièce de résistance. No broadcaster was more unambiguously angry. We join him early on in his marathon coverage as he analyzes the famous Associated Press photo.
Sanchez (on tape): This is the moment when the first federal officer actually comes in contact with Elian and Donato Dalrymple. You can see the pained expression on his face. Reports say, and these are reports from folks at the house, the little boy said, "Don't take me to Cuba! Don't take me to Cuba! Help! Help!"
Cafiero (voice-over): Just more unfiltered propaganda for the Miami relatives? You betcha. But as before the editorializing serves to inflame exile sentiment. Dozens of news outlets covered the raid. Not one of them confirmed the quote Rick reported. Later in the day, Rick led viewers step by step through the raid. He talked about Elian being "thrown" into one of the white vans, with the door being "slammed" behind him.
Sanchez (on tape): Is this the best way of removing a child from the home? Many I'm sure would argue not, given the scenario. The family had said they would not disobey the law if the police came to the home with a court order and asked for the child. As far as we know, they never asked for the child. They broke the door down and took the child -- and removed the boy forcefully ... and pay particular attention to the way he's being carried. Anyone who has children knows you put your hands under their buttocks, unless of course you've never carried a child, or you really are doing everything possible to get them out in a very fast way. But it's certainly not a ginger way of holding a child. It's not a delicate way of holding a child. It looks like they are dragging him out of the home.
Cafiero (voice-over): This is Rick at his scenery-chewing best! Take a look at the language here: "Many would argue ..." "As far as we know ..." Straight from the Pravda school of journalism! Notice also the way in which Rick treats the claims of the Miami relatives as gospel. "The family had said they would not disobey the law." At the same time, he portrays the government agents as a bunch of child-abusers. Although most Americans supported the raid, Rick is practically commanding his audience to seize the streets in protest. For Agent Sanchez and his boss, Fidel, the scenario is a dream come true! The heretofore clandestine revolutionary has fomented an armed rebellion against the United States government! Unfortunately for Rick the rebellion never really caught fire. But the resulting images of burning bonfires of trash and American flags defiantly waved upside down did manage to alienate the Cuban community from the national mainstream -- just as Agent Sanchez intended all along. Bring on the Jay Leno jokes!
Cut back to Max Castro, still waiting in his office.
Max Castro: I saw some of the coverage on Channel 7 and clearly they often framed the argument as about Fidel and not about Juan Miguel. They have to take responsibility for what they broadcast. They were manipulated [by exile leaders] into [framing the story this way], yes, but they were supposed to be journalists and not cheerleaders. I heard many people across the country who would never vote for Proposition 187 or for English-only laws who watched what was happening in Miami and were outraged at the fooling around with the flag and so forth. I think it does weaken the hard-liners to that extent. It made them look very unreasonable, certainly. It weakens them and may lead to a softening of the embargo. Right now, I think, they're talking about an exemption [to the embargo] for food and medicine.
Back live to Cafiero in the Satellite Center. On the screen behind her, the "Rick ... or Red?" graphic remains illuminated.
Cafiero: Now, Rick, we asked both the State Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office here in Miami if there were any active investigations into espionage activity involving you. Neither government agency would confirm that, which, as you and I both know, Rick, doesn't mean it's not true. In fact all the information gleaned from the videotapes, placed in context with your reporting over the five months Elian lived in Miami makes it, and I'm quoting New Times now, "highly likely" that you are a clandestine operative.
Sanchez: Now, is it true I refused to speak to New Times?
Cafiero: That's right, Rick. You declined requests from the newspaper to discuss your Elian coverage. Station spokesman Charlie Folds told New Times you are not giving any interviews on Elian, an apparently new policy put in place after your appearance discussing Elian on CNN's Newsstand program.
Jennings: Thank you, Carmel, for that report. These sensational charges of a communist conspiracy are not the first time Rick Sanchez's journalistic ethics have taken a hit. The Night Team's Holly Herbert is in Cooper City tonight to explain how the Seven news anchor has proven surprisingly resistant to scandal. Holly? Can you hear me?
Herbert (holding hand to earpiece): Yes, Laurie, I can hear you. And I am in Cooper City. In fact I'm standing directly in front of Rick's house. This suburbanized Siberia in Broward County is geographically and governmentally removed from the maelstrom of exile politics. Earlier today a child rode his bicycle. A dog ran across the street. Certainly not the type of American neighborhood where you would expect to find a communist double agent.
Cut to footage of a child riding a bicycle and a dog running across the street. Bleed into a closeup of Rick Sanchez's face -- morphing suddenly into the iconic image of Che Guevara. Cue recording of a child wailing in pain.
Herbert (voice-over): Rick Sanchez has strong ties to the communist nation of Cuba. The news anchor was born 41 years ago in Havana, Cuba's capital city and the current home of Fidel Castro. Rick received his first passport when he was less than two years old, moving with his family to the City of Hialeah. After struggling as a student at first, he went on to attend and play football for Hialeah High. Two days after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1982, he began working at WSVN.
Although he initially thrived at Channel 7, Rick quickly earned himself a second exile. In 1985 wiretaps recorded Rick trading favors with his friend Alberto San Pedro, a self-proclaimed political fixer described by police as "a major corrupter in Hialeah." With his journalistic reputation compromised, Rick fled Miami in shame. At least one source tells us he may have landed at a Houston television station, though the Night Team has not been able to confirm that at this hour. It is not implausible that Rick actually returned to his homeland, perhaps for intensive training.
Returning to Miami two years later with a resolve to make it to the top, Rick emerged as a local news celebrity after WSVN adopted a lucrative "if it bleeds it leads" philosophy. Rick blew up so big in Miami that he easily survived a second scandal, in 1991, when he pleaded no contest to charges of driving while intoxicated after he hit a pedestrian following a Dolphins game. In 1996 Rick signed a five-year, seven-figure contract to stay at WSVN.
Throughout his career Rick has remained obsessed with Cuba and Cuban issues. He won a local Emmy in 1983 for his series "When I Left Cuba." He occasionally refers to his Cuban-born mother on the air. In 1993 the Sun-Sentinel recorded Rick's on-air reaction to a story about uncontested Cuban elections: "If you'll pardon the commentary, what a sham! What an insult to the Cuban people. If it wasn't so sad, it'd kind of be funny."
In hindsight, Rick and Laurie, this rhetoric may very well be a case of overcompensation. Given his background, what seems obvious here is that Rick, or should I say Agent Sanchez, has been plotting for years, making himself into a beloved local icon while patiently waiting for his opportunity to wreak havoc on democracy. Back to you.
Sanchez: Wait a minute, Holly. Wanna go back to something at the beginning of your report. Did you say I was born in Cuba?
Sanchez: And you said my mother is Cuban, and that I sometimes talk about her on the air?
Herbert: Correct, Rick.
Sanchez (looks at Jennings, shakes his head): It's indisputable that the majority of living persons born in Cuba pledge fidelity to a communist government. In fact I think everyone agrees most spies for Cuba have at some point in their lives actually lived in Cuba. Knowing this, isn't it reasonable to conclude I am one of Castro's minions?
Herbert: That's exactly the point, Rick.
Sanchez: Gotta ask this one straight out: Have you been able to determine if I am now or ever have been a member of the Communist Party?
Herbert: Not at this time, Rick, but we're working on it. From what sources who dislike you tell us, I wouldn't be surprised at all.
Sanchez taps his desk with a pencil. He furiously shuffles some paper. The camera zooms in on Jennings. A graphic of a pounding gavel appears over her shoulder.
Jennings: Thank you, Holly, for that report. Here to help us make sense of all of this is Seven's legal advisor, Howard Finkelstein. Actually sitting in for Howard tonight is Sun-Sentinel media critic Tom Jicha. A warning to viewers in advance: Jicha does not have a ponytail. Tom, good to have you with us.
Jicha: Good to be here, Laurie.
Jennings: Tom, even before the INS raid, you wrote in your column that "WSVN-Ch. 7 didn't even fight the good fight. Rick Sanchez, who weeks ago abandoned any pretense of being a reporter to become an advocate for the Miami Gonzalez family, was particularly unprofessional."
Jicha: He definitely was. He just abandoned any pretense for neutrality. He was fair and impartial only if you defined his viewers as that small segment of people who were protesting in Little Havana. He allowed people to go on the air and say anything they wanted unchallenged. Rick just walked in lock step with Elian's spokespeople.
Jennings: Did he offer any explanation? I mean, he didn't just come right out and tell you he was one of Castro's operatives, did he?
Jicha: He told me 60 percent of his audience is Cuban. His ratings are excellent. That was his defense of why he did what he did. If that's what you want, well fine. But Rick Sanchez is not a journalist. He's an entertainer, as most people on TV are. Just don't even claim to be objective, as Rick will do. Just come off for what you are. If you want to be a cheerleader for that group, then fine.
He's entitled to his opinion, but at least be honest about it. They never ever framed this as an issue of Elian being reunited with his father. It was always whether or not the boy would be returned to communist Cuba. They are the ones that framed it that way; they are the ones who put it as either a victory or a defeat for Castro. The others framed that to an extent, but at Seven it was presented solely in those terms. I hold them responsible for how the Cuban community reacted. I think they helped ratchet up the emotion in the community by framing it in this way.
Sanchez: But Tom, aren't you viewing this from a Broward perspective? After all, your newsroom is in Fort Lauderdale.
Jicha: Rick, I live in a community in Kendall, Winston Park. There is a mix of maybe 40 percent each of Cubans and Anglos, and 20 percent of anything else. On the day Elian was seized, there was no uprising in my community. There were garage sales and kids riding on bicycles. Six or seven miles of lunacy was not at all reflective of most Miamians. Why [wasn't WSVN] out in Winston Park and West Kendall? Why weren't they in other areas, even in Coral Gables? I'm sure they would have found a lot of people who were disappointed in the raid but who weren't carrying on like this. If you watched Channel 7, you would think everyone of Cuban descent in the Miami area believed and acted the same way. They didn't tell both sides of the story, and that's [violating] the first rule of journalism.
Jennings: Do you think Rick is a communist agitator? I mean, isn't it reasonable to conclude?
Jicha: No, though he might be an unwitting double agent. That's the ultimate irony that might come of this. The Cuban community not only lost Elian, now they might even lose the embargo.
Sanchez (turning to Jennings):Tom, thank you for your insight. Now, I have to wonder, Laurie. If this Castro agent allegation is true -- and sources indicate it probably is -- won't this just kill my career? [Laughs.] I mean, at the very least I'll have a bit of a credibility problem, won't I?
Sanchez pauses for a long moment. He stops shuffling papers. His pencil lies inert. Jennings looks around in obvious confusion. Suddenly Sanchez shakes his head briskly and blinks. His hands furiously resume paper rearrangement. He flashes his best anchorman grin.
Sanchez: Don't go away, Seven news is just getting started. When we come back from a break, we'll join Marilyn Mitzel with tonight's "Healthcast."
Up in the Newsloft, a bewildered-looking blonde reviews a report on the sexual side effects of drinking ten cups of coffee a day. Fade out on Sanchez.