The Last Iconoclast

Edward Wasserman, departing editor in chief of the Daily Business Review, ruminates on public corruption, ethnic politics, and the Miami Herald

You wonder, number one, why companies need to be given money for something that's in their self-interest; and number two, you wonder why tax money is being spent when, if you did a poll or a referendum on growth here, you'd find that most people don't want any money spent to bring in more congestion, more school overcrowding, and the rest of it. Why are we spending money? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But this hasn't been articulated as an area of public concern, and it's not something people will go the polls and vote on. It's like many matters that affect people: They don't pay attention and it doesn't intrude on the electoral process.

Wasserman spoke candidly about his frustrations running a small newspaper that routinely breaks important stories but is ignored by his former employer, the Miami Herald. One particular incident is worth revisiting. In December 1996 the Review began running a series of stories revealing the catastrophic finances and management of the Port of Miami. The disclosures were ignored by the Herald. Five months later county commissioners, prodded by the Review's reports, somewhat reluctantly began asking questions about the state of the port. Only then did the county's largest daily newspaper take notice. When port director Carmen Lunetta resigned a short time later, the Herald insinuated to readers that it was responsible. An exasperated Wasserman spent $5000 to rent a Biscayne Boulevard billboard aimed directly at the paper's offices. “Don't wait for the Herald to catch up,” the sign admonished, referring to the Review's early coverage of the port. (That affair was chronicled by this paper in “The Man Who Caught Carmen,” June 12, 1997.)

Journalist at rest: The domestic Wasserman with daughters Claire (left) and Julia and wife Eva
Journalist at rest: The domestic Wasserman with daughters Claire (left) and Julia and wife Eva
Journalist at rest: The domestic Wasserman with daughters Claire (left) and Julia and wife Eva
Steve Satterwhite
Journalist at rest: The domestic Wasserman with daughters Claire (left) and Julia and wife Eva

You've been part of the competitive newsgathering world in greater Miami for two decades now. What's your view of the quality of the print outlets? Are people being well served by the monolithic Miami Herald?

The thing that's always impressed me about the Herald is it always seemed to be in the vanguard of what's happening in the newspaper industry, for better and for worse. They were one of the earliest out of the starting blocks with this “community-journalism” thing: Let's find out what the public wants and give it to them; let's be public advocates. Now they're early innovators of the new dogma, which is that you can make more money by putting out a large number of specialty publications of indifferent quality. You can make more money that way than you can by concentrating your resources and building a core newspaper of exceptional quality. And that's apparently what [Herald publisher] Alberto Ibargüen is up to over there. They've created this publication [Street] to compete with you guys. They've got a Jewish publication. They're obviously building up El Nuevo Herald.

Sometimes I think the problem isn't so much the Herald as it is the unrealistic role the Herald has seized for itself. A metro paper can do certain things fairly well: can monitor the larger currents in the community, can get news out, can tell you when your garbage is going to be picked up. It gives you the sports, it gives you the TV listings; it's a very useful institution. Is it going to be the best place to find the most upsetting, most riveting, and the most fundamentally important investigative reports? Well, sometimes. I'm not saying this well. Let me go back to what I know.

I can break stories in the Daily Business Review. We have broken good, important stories for years. But we can't set agendas, we can't force people to pay attention to us. And I think New Times has much the same problem. New Times runs some terrific stories, but partly because of the kind of publication it is, it's possible for even the people involved in those stories to ignore you. The only medium in this town, the only news organization that cannot be ignored consistently, is the Miami Herald. And that's partly the Herald's fault, because the Herald has denied recognition to other publications, other news organizations. It has failed to engage in a competitive quest for good stories. They'll either ignore your stories or steal them. What they don't do is engage them and try to do better by saying, “New Times reported X,Y, and Z, but now it can be told: What New Times didn't report we're going to tell you now.”

That way you get a very creative and salubrious competition between good journalists to try to get to the bottom of important stories. The Herald doesn't do this; its culture doesn't allow it to do that. So the result is the Herald sort of stands apart and aloof as an arbiter of social reality in this community. It allows the work that my people do and the work your people do and even the work TV does, which occasionally is very good, to go ignored. It doesn't matter until it's in the Herald.

Is that just small-mindedness?

I think it's pride. They feel their professional pride is at stake, and the way the organization is structured, it's difficult for anybody to go to their boss and say, “Hey, we got murdered on this story. How do we recover?” Now, if the bosses are doing their job, they're coming over to the reporter and slapping the copy of New Times on the reporter's desk and saying, “Where the hell were you on this, and how the hell are we going to get back in this story? This is an important story.”

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