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."

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."

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.)

Fernandez now strongly attacks Balmaseda, accusing her of "anti-Cuban tendencies" and "incompetence."

"There is no worse war than a Cuban against a Cuban," he threatens from his office, surrounded by the videos he copies and sells. On his neck he wears a gold chain that reads "Super Dad."

Fernandez has received more free publicity from the controversy than he could ever have imagined. And it's not over yet. He claims to have a "gotcha" of his own, which also promises to keep the story alive and his name in the media. He swears that the siblings "of the dead" are going to come to Miami to hold a press conference sometime this week to "clean" his name. One local cable TV station, WJAN-TV, has even promised to dedicate an hour to the story, according to Fernandez. But the wily self-promoter will stage the event in a place accessible to all the local Spanish-language television stations, so he "doesn't play favorites."

"Once [corroborators] come and give their press conference, where will [Balmaseda] stick her head?" he asks smugly.

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