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.”

OCB director Herminio San Roman counts on topnotch support
Steve Satterwhite
OCB director Herminio San Roman counts on topnotch support
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Steve Satterwhite
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Steve Satterwhite
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Steve Satterwhite
The seizure of Elian prompted Radio MartĂ­ director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera to place his convictions before his employer
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was willing to go to bat for Radio MartĂ­'s botched Elian coverage
Bill Cooke
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was willing to go to bat for Radio MartĂ­'s botched Elian coverage
Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart agrees with the Clinton administration that Radio MartĂ­ is doing  a fabulous job
Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart agrees with the Clinton administration that Radio MartĂ­ is doing a fabulous job

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.

But not until 1997 did a distinct deterioration in programming and news coverage begin to take place. That year the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), which operates Radio and TV Martí, moved from Washington to Miami, and a new director took over. Most critics place a large part of the blame for the Martís' declining professionalism on the new OCB director, Miami lawyer Herminio San Roman, as well as the Miami climate -- by which they don't mean the afternoon cloudbursts.

The atmosphere in Miami is not ideal for cultivating diverse thinking about Cuban issues, though some insist it's not the physical location but the management that shapes the stations' culture. Many of the Martís' on-air personalities, including Radio Martí director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, came directly from local exile radio stations, and several program hosts are long-time vocal proponents of hard-line anti-Castro views. The exile stations are by definition unbalanced and subjective; the whole point is to bring down Fidel, or at least to talk a whole lot about it. Speaking on behalf of the U.S. government's foreign policy, though, is different from discussing policy on a talk show slanted to exile listeners.

A few Radio Martí news employees remain from the old Washington days, when the station could boast a large audience in Cuba and a reputation for accuracy and thoroughness. But unmistakable now in Radio Martí's programming are a narrowness of perspective and a shallowness of information, similar to that of Miami's Cuban-exile AM stations that have long been heard on the island. One U.S. journalist who has evaluated Radio Martí's programming scoffs, “Compared to Radio Martí, Radio Mambí [WAQI-AM 710] is National Public Radio.”

Among the recommendations contained in a 1999 report by the U.S. State Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is that Radio Martí programming be more closely monitored than it had been until then. The OIG report analyzed the station's programming and management and concluded that professionalism and competence were scarce commodities. Thus the International Broadcasting Bureau kept an ear to Radio Martí's handling of the highly sensitive Elian saga.

Early coverage generally was well-balanced, according to a four-page report authored by an IBB program analyst, Ivette V. Martinez, and later leaked to the Internet Spanish-language newspaper La Nueva Cuba, whose contributors have close ties to disgruntled Radio Martí employees. As the story wore on and Elian achieved icon status, however, Radio Martí's news segments increasingly followed the lead of most Miami media: openly sympathetic to the Miami relatives and oblivious to the few who attempted to speak in favor of returning the boy to Cuba. “Whatever coverage there was,” wrote Martinez, “tended to be slanted toward the “exile' point of view.... One frequent topic was “what Elian should expect if he is returned to Cuba.'”

Speculation on this subject was rampant throughout Miami at the time, with most Cuban Americans predicting Elian's strict communist indoctrination, segregation from his peers and parents, or even his death. The IBB report singled out Radio Martí director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera's noon talk show, Haciendo Caminos, as the most frequent forum for these negative views; however, the report also cited one well-balanced Haciendo Caminos show in which several opposing opinions about Elian's fate were expressed. “There was a very lively discussion,” Martinez noted, “in which it became evident that this is a very complex issue with no clear-cut solution.”

Rodriguez-Tejera became Radio Martí's director in November 1997, having joined the staff immediately after quitting his job at WQBA-AM (1140), formerly known as La Cubanísima. He announced his departure -- along with another WQBA personality, Julio Estorino -- by declaring that the station had become too “de-Cubanized” under new management. Within two weeks both men had taken important positions at Radio Martí. (Estorino, whose professionalism was lambasted in an independent 1998 study conducted by Florida International University, hosts a three-hour weekday talk show.)

On the morning federal agents forcibly removed Elian from his great-uncle's house, the 48-year-old Rodriguez-Tejera was thrust into what proved to be a most uncomfortable role. Charged with managing coverage of a huge breaking story in his own back yard, the station director disappeared. According to a widely circulated version of events, when informed of the raid, Rodriguez-Tejera resigned from his job on the spot rather than participate in chronicling an act (by his employer) he found reprehensible. The Radio Martí newsroom personnel on duty when the raid took place apparently did not feel they could broadcast the breaking news (thus interrupting the regularly scheduled programming) without authorization from their boss.

“At the same time they were trying to locate Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera ... he was notifying [OCB director] Herminio San Roman ... that at that moment he was resigning his position as head of the station,” alleged a May 5 La Nueva Cuba article.

A source with close ties to OCB employees (two on duty during the raid did not return phone calls) asserts that Rodriguez-Tejera -- like most of the leading Cubans in town -- showed up at the Little Havana house after Elian had been seized. There Rodriguez-Tejera encountered the Radio Martí reporters. “They asked him: “How are we going to cover this?'” the source says. “He said, “Don't ask me. I'm not the director. I've resigned.'”

Back in the newsroom everyone panicked. “They knew this was very important information,” the source continues, “and the line of command was broken. [San Roman] was reluctant to give the okay [to put the news on the air]. He didn't give the go-ahead until a little past 9:00 a.m. Radio Rebelde had broadcast one hour after the fact, VOA did a few minutes after it started, and of course all the Hispanic and English-language TV and radio stations. This has no precedent in the history of Radio Martí. Radio Martí has always been characterized as being the first [to air breaking news to Cuba] -- Chernobyl; when Fidel's daughter defected; when the tugboat massacre happened. [In 1994 the Cuban navy sank the 13 de Marzo tugboat filled with citizens trying to flee the country.]

“As far as I know, that whole Saturday and Sunday the radio had no director,” the source says. “Between Sunday and Monday, late at night, Herminio and Estorino were able to convince Roberto not to resign. But Monday morning he went around to Radio Mambí and WQBA and La Poderosa [WWFE-AM 670], and he pronounced a kind of proclamation of his point of view.”

Rodriguez-Tejera called his statement “Sin tregua, pero sin amo” (“Without a truce, but without a master”). It was a rambling, emotional condemnation of both the Cuban and U.S. governments' actions in the Elian case. It also was a roundabout declaration of independence from his employer, the federal government, which he implied had sought to dictate Radio Martí's coverage of Elian. He considered his statement a protest against repression that, he made clear, was comparable to dissident Cubans' stands against the Castro dictatorship. “Radio Martí, because of its mandate from Congress and because of the commitment we have with those who work for democracy [in Cuba],” Rodriguez-Tejera pledged, “will continue to inform truthfully, impartially, and objectively, rejecting every attempt at political manipulation, no matter from where it comes....”

Rodriguez-Tejera, one of only a few people who returned calls for this story, says he is not authorized to talk about the station's Elian coverage or its aftermath. Nor will he discuss his job status, though he insists he hasn't seen or heard anything that might be construed as a complaint about his handling of the news. Herminio San Roman did not respond to several phone calls. Still, neither may be able to ignore indefinitely all the issues raised in the IBB's evaluation of the station's postraid performance.

“Radio Martí's coverage of the raid conducted on the Gonzalez family home in the early morning hours of April 22 was generally biased and anti-federal government, thus echoing the sentiments of the community where the station is located,” the report states. “The raid occurred at approximately 5:10 a.m. and the station first broadcast the breaking news almost four hours later, at 9:02 a.m. Moreover it did not explain to its listeners, who logically would have tuned in at a much earlier hour, the cause for the delay. When it did broadcast the news, it basically described the most negative moments of Operation Reunion -- the seizing of the child “by gunpoint,' the use of tear gas/pepper gas against the crowd outside, et cetera.

“Another noteworthy aspect of the coverage is that Martí did not make attempts to correct inaccuracies in statements made by key participants in the event. During the 5:00 p.m. newscast, there was [a sound bite from] Elian's cousin Marisleysis, in which she said that “a lady put a bag over Elian's head.' The images of this highly photographed and filmed incident, which according to the U.S. media (CNN for instance) had aired on Cuban television and therefore was seen by much of that country's population, proved this statement to be false.

“Cuba's media began broadcasting an event that occurred in Miami at least two hours before Radio Martí, a station based precisely in that city.... By broadcasting the breaking news four hours later, without an explanation as to why, the station involuntarily created a void that was, in turn, filled by the Cuban media. This seems to indicate ... a potential impact on the station's credibility.”

The Broadcasting Board of Governors also was troubled about Radio Martí's credibility and asked San Roman for an explanation of the four-hour lapse. In late May the OCB director appeared before the BBG, flanked by aides to U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republicans from Miami, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat. San Roman and his escorts, according to sources who later spoke with board members, argued that Radio Martí was justified in delaying news of the raid because the U.S. tactics were similar to those employed by Castro's police and thus reflected poorly on the federal government.

Nonetheless the BBG voted in June to take action against Rodriguez-Tejera, who currently earns $99,423 per year. Sources close to Radio Martí and the BBG assert the board decided to reprimand the Radio Martí director and transfer him to another job within the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. Rumors circulated in July that the BBG had actually told San Roman to fire Rodriguez-Tejera but that San Roman had refused to do so. It is likely the scenario was less confrontational. “The BBG decided they would reassign Roberto to a different position inside the OCB,” says a source familiar with the Martí stations. “And then they called Herminio to inform him about that. Then Herminio presented an appeal before the BBG.”

In late June or early July, apparently before voting on whether to accept or reject San Roman's appeal, the Broadcasting Board of Governors agreed to meet with the three Cuban-American members of Congress -- Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, and Menendez -- who have staunchly supported the current Martí management. (The fathers of both Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen were contracted by San Roman three years ago to present programs on Radio Martí; Ros-Lehtinen's father has since resigned.)

According to sources familiar with Radio Martí operations, the three lawmakers not only defended Rodriguez-Tejera before a BBG committee formed to look into the Elian matter, but also met privately with one of the board members, prominent Washington lobbyist and Republican political consultant Tom Korologos. They were furious over the board's proposed disciplinary actions. Those with knowledge of the meeting say the lawmakers reminded Korologos that Congress could always cut BBG appropriations, and threatened to call Capitol Hill hearings to investigate the board's actions.

“They chewed his ass out,” relates a source close to Radio Martí. In an August 4 article in El Nuevo Herald, Diaz-Balart complained that the board was trying to censor Radio Martí. (Repeated phone calls to Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, and Menendez received no response.)

The lawmakers' bellicose defense of a largely discredited Radio Martí has provoked consternation on all political sides. “It's a station that had 70 percent listenership [in Cuba] and now has barely 6 percent,” sighs a conservative Cuban-American activist who wants to remain anonymous because of his publicly cordial relationship with the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. “It used to be an instrument of foreign policy; now it's an instrument of local politics. It's sort of like, What the hell is going on? Everybody in Miami is employed by [Radio Martí], including Diaz-Balart's father and Ros-Lehtinen's father.”

Using Cuban slang for a do-nothing patronage job, the source concludes, “Botella is a good word for this.”

As Cuba-policy fights go, Radio and TV Martí don't elicit the attention provoked by big-money issues like the trade embargo or agricultural and medical sales to the island. Thus political observers wonder at the willingness of Cuban-American members of Congress to expend so much political capital defending Radio Martí and San Roman. Two principal theories are floated: San Roman guaranteed the loyalty of Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen by hiring their fathers; Diaz-Balart wants to be the future president of Cuba and craves the on-air access the Martí stations give him. (In a special holiday program last month, for example, Rodriguez-Tejera featured interviews with two generations of Diaz-Balarts.) The lawmakers themselves have offered few clues about their motivations.

Regardless the BBG is not expected to back down on its decision to discipline Rodriguez-Tejera. His fate then will be up to the International Broadcasting Bureau, the office that implements personnel reassignments. A transfer order could come any day, but since federal employment is subject to so many complicated rules, it might not be easy to line up the right job for him. His critics are hoping for a move to Washington, or even to a different broadcast service in another country. If he's allowed to stay in Miami, his foes warn, he'll continue to exert the real power at Radio Martí -- “controlling from behind the curtain,” as one employee puts it. The Cuban thing all over again.

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