The Last Iconoclast

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

I think the Herald has a problem dealing with an engaging competition and I think that has kept them from being as strong a paper as they can be. Certainly I say this with an ax to grind, because it's frustrating being a small paper and expecting your competitors to validate and ratify your reporting. But any metro paper in a position comparable to the Herald is going to have a lot of constituencies that it must appease. And it's very hard; they're always going to get beaten up. They write a story that reflects badly on a corrupt public official who happens to be Cuban, and they'll get more letters than we'll see in a year, condemning them for being anti-Cuban. That's very hard.

Is there a particularReview story they ignored within the past year? A particular story they handled poorly?

I'd have to think about that.

What about cruise-line safety? That's a significant industry in town, and theHerald didn't do anything on it worthy of mention.

I don't know how to comment on that. I don't understand why they didn't go after that. There's a lot of things they do that I don't understand. I don't understand why they supported putting that arena on the bay. I mean, I think that's an atrocity; it's monstrous, it destroyed beautiful potential public parkland. And I don't get it. It wouldn't hurt the [Miami] Heat to put the damn thing a couple of blocks inland. I don't have an answer. There's a boosterism that an institution like [the Herald] can succumb to. And they do. I'm not altogether comfortable trying to tell them how they should run their paper, because I know how hard it is to run mine.

I don't know why they endorsed Penelas for re-election. I don't get it. How can you spend all this time denouncing corruption, denouncing the role of money in local government, and then go ahead and endorse the guy who is an emblem -- actually the exemplar -- of that kind of big money-machine style of governance, a guy who is clearly getting his ticket punched for higher office, who has ducked every moral and political crisis that's come up to him until it was absolutely impossible for him not to take a position. And they endorse him for re-election.

It seems odd, that's all. If you're concerned about the role of money in government, he's the guy.


At the Review's downtown Miami headquarters in the SunTrust tower, Wasserman keeps a bustling office. His desk is cluttered with papers. The metal emblem from a 1967 Ford Mustang he once owned acts as a paperweight. The walls hold photographs of his family. His demeanor at work is more commanding, his thoughts articulated with even more precision than at home.

I've noticed a consistent theme in your editorials concerned with social justice and inner-city issues. Sort of odd, given your constituency of lawyers and bankers. What motivates that?

My Sixties background, I guess. I think I've always been surprised how receptive people are to hearing that. It's a little bit off the usual consensus. It's remarkable how little of that is being said. During the racial unrest of the Eighties, it seemed like every two years there would be a race riot. I don't know what happened. Things didn't get any better; they've just gotten quieter, and it's not getting heard. And now it's being deflected onto disputes over affirmative action. Why do I keep coming back to these questions of social justice? It seems to me that is the great unresolved issue dominating not only this community but this country.

You'd be surprised how many unreconstructed Sixties liberals are out there in positions of influence in this community. And they don't feel it's appropriate to say these things anymore. It's like talking about the legalization of pot. I mean, I've written editorials saying this is ridiculous; you've got half the prison population there for nonviolent drug offenses. What do people think they are doing?

Nobody will engage this, nobody will argue with you about this, nobody will say it makes sense to put somebody in prison for three to five years for having an ounce of grass. Nobody can argue the war on drugs has been even remotely successful for anything more than criminalizing two generations of young black kids. But somehow these are no-go zones in the media. I like to write about this stuff, and my readers apparently are getting enough value from the rest of the paper that they'll either forgive me for writing this or they'll say, “Wow, it's about time somebody said this.”

If you were looking at this situation from Mars through a powerful telescope, you would probably conclude that the highest and best use this society has determined to make of the black population is as a pretext for a criminal-justice system. You have plenty of jobs being generated by prison construction, the need for more officers, et cetera. And you have the reproduction, generation upon generation, of a criminal underclass.

I don't know. I don't have an answer.

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