Twin Column Disaster

Miami Herald writer Liz Balmaseda stumbles, only partly recovers

The column read like a whodunit. Penned by Pulitzer Prize winner Liz Balmaseda, it appeared in the Heraldon October 1. In the story ace reporter Balmaseda ferreted out the truth behind a dastardly deception staged by one Waldo Fernandez, a nefarious Cuban "video peddler." Only this time, instead of the bootleg movies, music promotions, and archival footage Fernandez usually pushes, he had hawked a "heartbreaking tale" with a "harrowing ring."

In the sorrowful yarn worthy of a two-handkerchief opera, Fernandez reported the discovery of a 34-year-old son he never knew, "Eddy," born to his teenage inamorata before they were torn asunder -- she to Germany and then New York, he eventually to Miami. Before father and son could be reunited in a kind of Cuban Wuthering Heightsfinale with a twist, catastrophe struck. Destiny, it seemed, had conspired against them. The son Fernandez had always wanted, the mother of this love child, and the husband of Fernandez's long-lost girlfriend who'd acted as a loving stepfather to Eddy, all perished among the shattered bodies and flaming wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 11.

Using the skills honed during more than twenty years as a journalist, Balmaseda shared with her readers the painstaking process of debunking Fernandez's account. First she tried to find the son's surviving brothers and sisters, to no avail. Daily she pored over the lists of the dead and missing looking for the names -- Raidel (son), Galloso (sweetheart) -- Fernandez gave her, even calling the New York Medical Examiner's Office in vain. According to Fernandez, the mother, Sara Galloso, was a New York physician, so Balmaseda, with the aid of a Herald researcher, looked for a medical license. It could not be found. The researcher located a woman in Queens who shared the Galloso name (spelling it "Gayoso") but turned out to be Peruvian. The dogged Balmaseda aggressively scoured the Internet for clues and even called a stranger in a building in New York City where the family might have lived. Then the determined columnist returned to Fernandez and grilled him for more numbers and dates. But he refused to provide them.

Buyer beware: Liz Balmaseda now believes "video peddler" Waldo Fernandez (shown) sold her a phony tale of woe
Steve Satterwhite
Buyer beware: Liz Balmaseda now believes "video peddler" Waldo Fernandez (shown) sold her a phony tale of woe

Finally, like any good detective-story writer, Balmaseda finished her column with a "gotcha," a surprise. While searching the Website of a local Spanish-language variety television show in which Fernandez participates, she found an entry by a Maurice Valdes praising the Cuban entertainment entrepreneur. When she clicked on the e-mail address, sgallosous@yahoo.com, it was the same as the mother of Fernandez's alleged son. "I stared at the address in disbelief and indignation," wrote Balmaseda. "Perhaps I cannot offer it as proof that Waldo Fernandez fabricated his old girlfriend, his son, and their deaths. But he has delivered false names, a false phone number, and too many versions of his story to quiet the anger I am feeling."

The problem with all this marvelous gumshoeing is that it came eleven days late: Balmaseda, on September 20, had published a typical treacly column titled "Among terrorism's victims lies the son he never met." The column gave Balmaseda a compelling entry into one of the biggest media stories in U.S. history and brought a national tragedy home to Cuban Miami (Balmaseda's journalistic franchise), playing on the heartstrings of readers in the process. Her initial story idolized Waldo, bestowing on him larger-than-life nobility in a role as tragic victim: "One of those human stories of love and transformation rising from the enormity of ground zero."

What Balmaseda failed to include in her well-written and researched exposé of October 1 was any indication that she herself had been careless by publishing this dubious account without really checking it. In the original column, Fernandez was a simple "Miami music and video salesman." If Balmaseda had dug deeper, she would have found that the main source of her story is in fact a well-known local character with a dubious reputation, a man who operates in a small-time netherworld of minor entertainment figures and media piracy.

Her second column showed no sign of contrition or apology to Herald readers: neither those who value her as an interpreter of Miami's Cuban-American milieu nor those who simply believe that as a journalist, her job is to parse information and determine if it passes sufficient muster to be taken seriously. Normally when reporters cannot adequately confirm a story or some aspect of it, they explain that in the piece. Balmaseda did not.

In retrospect, Balmaseda admits today, not telling her readers in the first column that she couldn't find the names on any victims list -- incomplete at the time -- was a mistake. She is understandably upset over having experienced the secret nightmare of every serious journalist. "I felt horrible all week," she says. "I really regret the day I heard his name."

She blames the trait that has won her both prizes and critics: her empathy. Balmaseda's sometimes overwrought style has enabled her to communicate the humanity and experiences of rafters and exiles, but it can also read as absurdly melodramatic. She explains that in this case, the unprecedented horror of the terrorist attacks and the sad stories that came with them had left her reeling. "All I can say is that on that particular week, my heart was full of pain and empathy for a man I didn't know," she comments. "I believed him. I understand it. I don't beat myself up for believing him."

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