Broadcast Blunder

When the feds snatched Elian, Radio Martí should have been first with the news to Cuba. Instead its director quit in protest and chaos reigned.

Only a few months ago, Miami-Dade County had pretty much lost its already tenuous grip on reason. The place was in a blind frenzy over Elian Gonzalez, and it seemed that no one escaped the mass contagion. Just across the Florida Straits, in the other Cuba, arose equally zealous public displays of love, hate, and solidarity. Journalists flooded Little Havana and La Habana to chronicle the ongoing obsession.

In all the excitement of the saga's climactic event -- the April 22 raid on the home of Elian's Miami relatives -- an embarrassing faux pas on the U.S. side went virtually unnoticed. Radio Martí, the U.S. government station created for the sole purpose of beaming uncensored information to the Cuban people, inexplicably waited four hours before mentioning that definitive event.

Only in recent weeks has it appeared likely there will be consequences for the station's journalistic lapse. Word has emerged from Washington, D.C., of the imminent reassignment of Radio Martí's director. Yet that decision resulted in a baffling standoff between the station's bipartisan government regulators and the three Cuban-American members of Congress. In the seething, multilayered world of exile politics, most actions take on symbolic import that often is impossible for outsiders to interpret. Thus a former Radio Martí employee who insists on anonymity offers a deceptively transparent explanation of the standoff: “It has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans,” the Martí insider says. “It's a Cuban thing.”

Radio Martí, which is based in Miami and had at least two reporters on the scene when the dramatic predawn raid took place, was beaten by everyone on the story. Even the Castro regime's mouthpiece, Radio Rebelde, scooped Martí by about three hours. Unbeknownst to those listening to Radio Martí early on the morning of April 22, the Martí newsroom was in disarray, the station director unreachable while editors watched the story unfolding on TV monitors, unable to obtain their boss's permission to interrupt regular programming and inform the Cuban people of the dramatic events taking place in Little Havana.

In the days that followed, those responsible for the delay never offered an explanation on the air or in any public forum. But in Miami the subject was of negligible consequence anyway; the local media has never concerned itself much with Radio Martí or its companion station, Television Martí. But the Elian blunder was promptly detailed on an Internet site critical of Radio Martí's management and briefly noted more than a week later in a column by Al Kamen of the Washington Post. (To hear the broadcasts, one needs either an audio-equipped computer or some luck picking up the shortwave or AM signal.)

But the mysterious silence was glaring enough to attract scrutiny from Radio Martí's Washington, D.C., overseer, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). This agency supervises all government-run broadcasting operations (except military) and is headed by a nine-member presidentially appointed board, also referred to as the BBG. The board meets monthly and is charged with ensuring that U.S.-sponsored radio and television stations comply with congressional mandates.

But the BBG, in its concern over the Radio Martí gaffe, touched off a defiant backlash from the station's Cuban-American padrinos in Congress. The reasons for the backlash are hard to discern, at least partly because the situation has been kept unusually quiet. Only a handful of people are familiar with it, and they have been exceptionally close-mouthed. The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the administrative arm of the BBG, won't release any relevant documents and has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by New Times. Adding to the edginess is the Martí stations' long tradition of autonomy: Ever since Radio Martí first went on the air fifteen years ago (TV Martí is ten years old), every Washington administration has kept a safe distance from the intrigue-ridden, politically perilous Cuba broadcasting operations. Now the BBG, by actually attempting to mete out punishment for a clear professional transgression, is bringing to light what some probably would prefer to let quietly fade away. “Everybody compartmentalizes Radio Martí,” says a former employee. “[Federal oversight agencies] are in denial about what goes on there.”

Regardless of what facts eventually become public, chances are slim that this journalistic slip and its fallout will produce much change at Radio Martí. After all, years of evaluations and reports by both independent and government auditors have failed to correct documented problems in the sourcing and content of programs. While listenership is at a record low, and TV Martí is viewed by virtually no one in Cuba (an audience share that has approached zero during the past two years because the station has no transmitter and is carried only by satellite), the two operations continue to gobble up more than $22 million per year in taxpayer money.

The congressional statute that established Radio and TV Martí requires them to abide by strict Voice of America standards of accuracy, balance, and objectivity in news coverage. The extent of the Martís' compliance with VOA guidelines has been debated and challenged from their first days, sometimes fairly and sometimes laden with political motives.

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