Twin Column Disaster

Miami Herald writer Liz Balmaseda stumbles, only partly recovers

Balmaseda heard about the Fernandez tale from a friend at a local radio station a few days before her Thursday column, which appeared in the Herald on September 20. It had entered the public domain a few days after the attack with a mention on a local Spanish-language television station's comic variety show by a duo called Los Fonomenecos. Fernandez insists he had told some friends but didn't know the comedy troupe had planned to say anything.

During the next week, the story got an airing on Calle Ocho and Manicomio (Insane Asylum), two shows on La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670). It also came out on La Timba de la Mañana (Morning Party), a morning show on Clasica 92 (WCMQ-FM 92.3), according to Fernandez. "They interviewed me, and it started to make the rounds of the rumor mill from radio to radio, television to television," he says.

The story had entered a world of local Spanish-language media where the title "journalist" is loosely applied to commentators who often traffic in half-truths they pass off as "news." It's a realm Balmaseda, an avid listener of Cuban radio, who prides herself on her understanding of her community, should know well. In fact her very expertise is in interpreting this world for an Anglo audience. Indeed the Herald columnist says, if the story had been about the Miami mayoral race, she would have been more skeptical: "I'm not an entertainment reporter. I don't know the B-grade level of that world."

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

One entertainment reporter who does know that world was only a floor above at the Herald. If Balmaseda had e-mailed Evelio Taillacq, a reporter for the Herald's sister publication, El Nuevo Herald, he could have shared with her his recollections of hearing at least two controversies involving Fernandez and his failure to pay royalties for music he sold. This might have given her a better sense of the person with whom she was dealing.

Instead Balmaseda, who had originally planned to write something else for that week, did all the reporting for her column the Tuesday and Wednesday before it came out. She was not the only one. The well-respected Spanish-language television network Univision also featured Fernandez's story on its local and national news a few days before Balmaseda's column appeared. The Herald columnist claims not to have seen or heard any of the news reports and indeed does not mention them in her first column.

The sum total of Balmaseda's investigation involved a long phone interview with Fernandez, two e-mails supposedly from the dead son's siblings, a fruitless search of the victims list, and some research about Fernandez in the local media. Balmaseda believes now that she simply trusted the wrong person. "Trust is an inherent part of what we do," she notes.

Newspaper editors, on the other hand, are not supposed to trust anybody or anything. Aminda Marques, who edited the column, refused to comment for this story. Herald executive editor Tom Fielder admits mistakes were made by those who are charged with catching discrepancies or glaring holes. "There are certain traps we should run, and because of the emotion-laden nature of the column, there might have been a willingness to suspend some of these procedures," he concedes.

Fiedler defends Balmaseda's second column as an act of courage rather than a failure to accept responsibility for an error of judgment. "Implicit in the entire column is that the first column was a mistake," he says. "It's pretty bitter castor oil."

Conveniently, the way in which the second column was handled spared the Herald further embarrassment. And Balmaseda's saga seems to have largely escaped the notice of the national media.

Balmaseda says she began work on a follow-up story the day after the first column appeared. But the deeper she got into the details, the more byzantine became Fernandez's story. He explained away her inability to find the various Raidel people with the news that they had given him false names in order to protect various innocent family members, who would have been horrified to have had their "honor" smeared by knowing that Sara Galloso had borne a son out of wedlock 34 years ago, et cetera. The surviving siblings simply did not want to talk with anyone, and since they always called him, he didn't have a phone number for them, Fernandez insisted.

Fernandez did not wait long to respond to Balmaseda's second column. By noon the day it came out, he had sent an e-mail response to hundreds of friends and media outlets. Now, he maintained, his former lover Sara went by another name. Speaking in his office in a strip mall in industrial west Miami-Dade the next day, he claimed he had seen the name she used -- a name that, as luck would have it, is not Galloso -- on the Internet among the lists of the dead, though he could not remember which Website. When New Times asked for the name with the promise not to publish it, Fernandez refused.

In his response Fernandez asserts the columnist came to him after her first story and told him she needed proof because she would lose her job if she couldn't provide it. (Both Balmaseda and Fiedler deny this.)

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