Story Line

Still feisty after all these years, Carl Hiaasen unloads on Miami politics and corporate journalism

Even the Herald's own executives haven't been off-limits. In 1998, when publisher Dave Lawrence publicly mulled a Florida gubernatorial run against Jeb Bush, it was left to Hiaasen to utter aloud the dismissive opinion of his fellow staffers: "Earth to Dave," he wrote, christening his boss Publisher Loco, "have you completely lost your marbles?"

Lawrence may have removed himself to the more genteel milieus of education and philanthropy, but as Hiaasen's attention more recently has been drawn to national affairs, his old rogue's gallery has quietly slipped back onto Miami's campaign trail. Xavier Suarez defeated a much better-funded opponent to make last week's runoff election for the District 7 county commission seat. Though he eventually lost, the press made only the vaguest allusions to his checkered past.

Maurice Ferré also re-emerged to run for county mayor this past summer, touting his financial acumen and skill at soothing racial tensions. As with Suarez, Herald reporters covering the race often seemed oblivious to the back issues of their own paper, ignoring the $1.4 million a supposedly bankrupt Ferré hid from creditors in a bank account under his wife's name. Also omitted: complaints from law enforcement figures that, as mayor, Ferré continually meddled in FBI investigations of anti-Castro bombers, hoping to reap el exilio's support for his courageous intervention.

Journalist Hiaasen: "Every day this business is becoming less and less fun"
Jonathan Postal
Journalist Hiaasen: "Every day this business is becoming less and less fun"


Saturday, November 13 at 2:00 p.m. Admission is free. Hiaasen's appearance will also be televised live on CSPAN2.
in the Chapman Auditorium on Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus.

"The public's memory is very short," Hiaasen offers with a sigh. "Maurice Ferré is like a bad rash that never goes away. These guys don't die."

That much seems assured. Following his respectable August 31 third-place finish in a crowded six-man field, Ferré quickly met with the remaining contenders to sound out their positions on adopting a "strong mayor" system, hinting he was already contemplating a 2008 county mayoral run.

"There's a part of me that roots for these comebacks because the material was so great during Xavier's second fling," Hiaasen admits. "It's hard not to lick your chops. The same with Ferré -- it's good copy."

It's not just the public's memory that's short, though. The Herald has switched from calling Ferré "venal, vindictive, [and] obsessed with remaining in office at all costs" to addressing him as Miami's elder statesman.

"Well, the institutional memory of the Herald is extremely short, too. You have folks working there who, frankly, weren't even born the first time around for these guys. They never got to see them in action in their prime." Choosing his words carefully, he continues: "I think the best you can say about Maurice Ferré is that he's less shrill, he's less deranged than some of the other candidates. He's never advocated anything nutty. His problem has always been who his friends are, and managing his money. He's never been what we've come to know in Miami as a traditional crackpot politician."

So in Miami that's the best we can hope for? Vote for Ferré -- he's less deranged than the other guy?

"Yes, that would be a great campaign slogan: öVote for Ferré -- he's not on any medication that I know of.' These are big selling points in Miami. The bar of sleaze is set so high, anybody who doesn't have handcuff marks on his wrists becomes an elder statesman. " With a shrug he adds, "You have a whole generation that doesn't know these guys. It's the duty of journalists to remind people." On that count at least, Hiaasen is willing to assign blame.

"The average length of the Herald's stories has been cut," he says. "You look at the profiles we ran of Senate candidates Betty Castor and Mel Martinez. In the old days those two pieces would have been on the front page instead of bumped inside. You look at New Times -- you have the space to go into depth, to really rock and roll."

Sure, but New Times hardly has the same readership -- or impact -- as the Herald.

"No, it doesn't, but every time I pick up New Times, it's awfully thick with ads. I would say the folks at the Herald might learn something from that. All that advertising means you can have a lot of fun, you have the space to really do a story properly."

For fans of Hiaasen's 2002 novel Basket Case, this is familiar terrain. That book's hero was a muckraking reporter busted down to the obituary beat after publicly embarrassing his paper's new budget-slashing corporate owner, Race Maggad, head of the Maggad-Feist newspaper chain. "These days we buy the loyalty of readers with giveaways and grocery coupons, not content," Basket Case's protagonist laments. Meanwhile, Maggad's mandate was to "strive for brevity and froth, shirking from stories that demand depth or deliberation, stories that might rattle a few cages and raise a little hell."

Maggad, of course, was a barely disguised caricature of Tony Ridder, CEO of the Herald's own parent company, Knight Ridder.

Did you ever hear from Tony Ridder after Basket Case was published?

"Not a word," Hiaasen answers dryly.

The real-life inspiration for Race Maggad wasn't exactly veiled.

Hiaasen leans forward, all the humor drained from his voice. "How could I not write about him? I grew up with this newspaper. I've put my life into it! It was the paper that landed on my doorstep every morning. So I have a right to be pissed, just like any reader. Anyone who can look you in the eye and tell you the Miami Herald of 2004 is as good as it was in 1984 is out of their skull. It's palpable, the difference is palpable."

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