Beware of the Dog and Steer Clear of the Buffet Table
The Miami Herald has taken a pretty ugly beating in its confrontation with Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa. Recent tough talk by publisher David Lawrence simply hasn't been able to overcome the damage done by his simpering, obsequious, early responses. But there's blame enough to spread around, and some of it sticks to the news side of the Herald, too. Coverage of the controversy - and every other subject even remotely related to Cuban exile affairs - has been tepid at best, even granting the possibility that a truly aggressive pursuit of the story, and stories behind the story, might be viewed as retaliation.
So even more's the pity that the best verbal shot fired in this war of words was never published. The line was delivered by Herald executive editor Doug Clifton at a February 6 meeting between members of the newly formed Cuban Committee Against Defamation and executives from the Herald and El Nuevo Herald.
Clifton and Lawrence, along with El Nuevo publisher Roberto Suarez, editor Carlos Verdacia, and Herald vice president for community relations Sam Verdeja, had gathered around a conference table at the law offices of Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez. Joining Suarez, who serves as a spokesman for the anti-defamation committee, was Cuban American National Foundation president Pepe Hernandez, Brigade 2506 president Rafael Cabezas, National Association of Cuban-American Women president Luisa Garcia Toledo, College of Cuban Journalists in Exile dean Roberto Perez Fernandez, and Afro-Cuban Association representative Eneida Sanchez.
The meeting, which had been scheduled a couple of weeks earlier, was supposed to be a first, tentative attempt at face-to-face dialogue between accused and accusers. Unbeknownst to the newspaper executives, however, the committee had already made plans to hold a separate press conference just two hours before the dialogue session. Spokesman Suarez announced to assembled media at that press conference that the committee had received its first formal complaints. One of them was lodged against a Spanish magazine. The other, seemingly much more serious, was aimed at the Herald and El Nuevo, and had been filed by - surprise! - the Cuban American National Foundation.
The Foundation's gripe, essentially, was that the papers promoted a "hidden agenda" in their coverage of Cuban affairs on the island and among exiles. This, of course, was more or less a repeat of what Jorge Mas Canosa had been railing about on Spanish-language radio and in the pages of the Herald during the previous two weeks. But Mas Canosa's wild charges (the Herald is a tool of the Castro government and is trying to destroy the Miami Cuban community, et cetera) wouldn't do as a bona fide complaint filed with a bona fide anti-defamation group calling a bona fide news conference.
What the Foundation needed - and presumably what the anti-defamation committee required - was something that bore the stamp of legitimacy, something with integrity and intellectual heft. Perhaps a sober, independent study of some sort, one that might offer irrefutable proof of the Herald's prejudice against Miami Cubans.
Foundation officials found what they were looking for in the work of Fran R. Matera, an associate professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication. During the press conference, the committee distributed two documents produced by Matera. One was titled "The Miami Herald's Coverage of Cuban Issues: Tropes as Indicators of Bias." The other was called "An Ethnic Community at Odds with the Local Newspaper: The Miami Herald's Coverage on Cuban Issues."
A Herald reporter attended the press conference and brought back to the office copies of Matera's work. But Doug Clifton and the other executives had little opportunity to study the material before heading off to the meeting at Suarez's office. Of course, they knew something was up. The surprise press conference was an obvious clue. A second clue was the actual content of Matera's two papers. Clifton says he hadn't had time to study them in detail, but did have enough time to reach a preliminary conclusion. "I was sitting right next to Mayor Suarez, whom I regard as a reasonably enlightened fellow," Clifton recalls, "and there was some discussion about handling the quote-unquote charges against the Miami Herald. And I said to him, in a sidebar conversation, `How in the world are you going to evaluate these charges [in Matera's documents]? They're all over the map. You need something specific to examine. This is like the charge that there is no justice in the world. You need something more than this pile of shit.'"
Okay, I added the emphasis, but it's well deserved. And now Clifton's pithy remark has seen print. My own reading of Matera's monograph, "The Miami Herald's Coverage of Cuban Issues: Tropes as Indicators of Bias," led me to detect a stench not unlike that described by Clifton. The second paper, "An Ethnic Community at Odds with the Local Newspaper: The Miami Herald's Coverage on Cuban Issues," blew out the fuses in my odor detector.
So here was the intellectual rationale for the Foundation's vociferous complaints against the Herald. With this documentation, we were to believe, the vaunted Cuban Committee Against Defamation had launched its career and established its credentials as a fair and impartial tribunal, one the community must take seriously. You can count me among those who do take it seriously, just as seriously as I take rattlesnakes and sharks. Clearly this is one watchdog group that itself needs to be watched. Closely.
Fran Matera's "Tropes as Indicators of Bias," a documentary feast, is generously laden with academic sauce, but it doesn't seem to be covering an entree of much substance. Footnotes to scholarly citations, yes. Appropriate definitions of terms, yes. Clear statement of purpose, yes: "This study attempts to determine if persistent negative images...are consistently displayed in the stories that appear in the The Miami Herald, and its Spanish-language version, El Nuevo Herald from 1976 to 1988, with particular emphasis upon 1987."
But what about sentences like these: "The [Cuban American National] Foundation...had no reason to believe El Nuevo Herald would be any more in tune with the Cuban community than [its predecessor] El Herald...." (Did she poll members of the Foundation? I don't know.) And "[Miami's Cubans] have come to dominate the tropical city economically, politically, socially, and culturally, all while feeling woefully misunderstood in the pages of the local newspaper." (Did she poll the entire Cuban community? Doubtful, but who knows?) And this about flamboyant former county manager Sergio Pereira and his notorious "suit case": "Given the pre-existing perception that Miami Cubans hold of the Herald's cultural insensitivity, it is curious that it chose to run this story [a spoof suggesting new outfits for Pereira] at a time which would serve to single out and ridicule an individual who was accused of buying stolen merchandise while eclipsing a full disclosure of the identities of many community movers and shakers who were also involved." (Herald news stories in fact did name the others involved. And is my memory completely shot or was Pereira known as a flashy dresser with a big, boastful mouth?)
Aside from the fact that Matera's research covered a twelve-year period yet cited a scant dozen examples of "bias," the loaded language smelled of something rotten. But I'm just a journalist, afflicted with the full range of conscious and unconscious prejudices Matera decries in her study. So I sent the paper to a couple of experts in the academic field known as "content analysis."
Guido Stempel is a much-honored professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Among the many publications in his 38 years in the field is the graduate text Research in Mass Communication. From 1972 to 1989 he served as editor of the journal Journalism Quarterly. After reading and evaluating Matera's work, Stempel had this to say: "As somebody who edited Journalism Quarterly for seventeen years, I wouldn't have accepted that manuscript. I counted twelve articles in twelve years that had something about them that suggested there was bias. Her criteria are reasonable, and I'd accept the analysis if it had been applied either to all stories or some reasonable-size random sample. But I don't think she picked those twelve articles randomly. Looks to me as though she picked them because they looked as though they were biased. Anything less than 50 or 100 samples wouldn't be acceptable. There's an element of killing the messenger here, the feeling that bias must be there if it doesn't come out the way you'd like it to come out."
Thank you, Dr. Stempel.
Next on the peer-review panel was professor Klaus Krippendorff of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. When pressed, Krippendorff admitted that he is considered to be the nation's leading expert in communication content analysis. His curriculum vitae runs to twelve pages, listing numerous honors and voluminous publications, including the widely used textbook Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology. His comments after reading Matera's work: "I would say it is a bit mixed. On one hand, it's definitely an academic paper, it has a theoretical framework, a good starting point. But it is epistemologically flawed. It assumes the existence of a reality that the author knows and everyone else doesn't. She always says she knows what the truth is. She's guilty of using her own ellipses to prove her own point. Consistency [of apparent bias] cannot be demonstrated with nine cases. If it's a random sample, maybe 200 would be fine. That's a minimum. She has little evidence; it is not defendable. I can imagine that she may have gotten superficial impressions that there is a bias, and now she's mushroomed it. There's a bias in her paper. This article is not worth sparking a controversy."
Thank you, Dr. Krippendorff.
Fran Matera, Ph.D., who was born and reared in Miami and once worked on the copy desk at the Miami News, defends her work by insisting that over the years, she's collected far more examples of alleged Herald bias than those few presented in her study. "I found so many examples," she says. "I still have boxes of material, so much that a paper about it could be 100 pages long. I tried to use an aspect of it."
The study was begun at the University of Miami's School of Communication, where Matera taught for seven years before taking her current position at Arizona State University. She says that Jaime Suchlicki, from UM's Research Institute for Cuban Studies, got wind of her project and asked if he could publish it under the institute's imprimatur. The resulting monograph (which, in its cover notes, takes pains to inform readers that Matera "is of Italian and Irish descent") was published in November 1990. Eventually it found its way to the Cuban American National Foundation.
Matera says she was surprised when Foundation officials contacted her late last year. "I got a call from the Foundation," she recounts. "They were very interested in this. I don't know if problems were escalating with the Herald or what. They told me that they had read the paper and were very interested in it and wanted to know if I'd update it because a lot had happened since then."
She says she agreed to the request because the subject was of continuing interest to her. Even though the Foundation was asking her for an updated and rewritten version of the study for publication in its magazine, Fundacion, she says she was not under contract and no money was involved. "I received nothing from the Foundation," she says firmly. "I even paid for the faxed material. That wasn't a concern at all. The only funding I ever received for this came from a University of Miami general research grant in 1988 at the School of Communication."
When Mayor Suarez and other defamation committee officials distributed material at the February 6 press conference, they included a draft of Matera's updated, rewritten research. Matera says she had no idea her new - and at that point unfinished - work, the one titled "An Ethnic Community at Odds with the Local Newspaper: The Miami Herald's Coverage on Cuban Issues," was going to be used as ammunition in the Foundation's battle against the Herald. "They didn't tell me," she says with annoyance. "They wanted to know could I put what I'd done in more a readable version. I said, `I'll try. I'll send it to you and see if that's what you want.' It was never meant to be circulated. I wasn't real pleased. I didn't appreciate it."
And who can blame her? If you're an intellectual butcher, you don't want people showing off your meat cleavers before they've been fully sharpened. I examined a copy of Matera's final draft after she'd sent it to Miami, and I can confidently say that readers of the Foundation's magazine are in for a special treat. Academic detachment? Scholarly precision? Stultifying explanations of content analysis? Get outta here! Freed from the constraints of hosting a dinner party for a bunch of stuffy academics, Matera has kicked off her shoes and is ready to boogie:
* The movement for dialogue with the Castro government "folds nicely into the liberal ideology, [so] it's not surprising that the movement has received extensive coverage in the Miami Herald."
* Cuban American National Foundation statisticians "cite an even more disturbing example of the Herald's editorial support for the activities of liberal Cuban Americans."
* "It appears the Herald spares no ink, space, or effort in chronicling negative comments about CANF. Whenever a renegade, disfavored, or disgruntled member airs a grievance, however baseless or contrived, he or she is afforded ample coverage."
* "The Herald's coverage of Cuban issues often seems purposefully slanted in order to irritate its Latin readership."
* Regarding the Herald's recent editorial criticizing proposed federal legislation to tighten the economic embargo against Cuba: "It was the left-wing rhetoric in the editorial, more than anything, that incited the exiles."
* "When a country's people are starving, and those who speak out against the strangling regime suffer torture, imprisonment, and death, what difference does it make if a crazed, murderous dictator makes yet another `denunciation of U.S. "conspiracies"'? And why is such outdated liberal ideology still being sold?"
* "The more the Cubans pushed for news that was important to them, the more the Herald appeared to resent the interference."
* When the Herald had an opportunity to replace the editor of its "Living" section, "common sense indicated that the new editor be, if not Cuban, then at least someone with a history of interacting with Cubans. Instead the Herald brought in a white, Anglo male from the Midwest - a man who, at best, was at a disadvantage in his grasp of Cuban issues."
In her closing paragraph, Matera reaches for the sort of emotional crescendo that brought fame to Reagan/Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan: "More than 30 years have passed since the first Cuban immigrant came to Miami to escape communism. It's long past time for the Miami Herald to shed its insensitivity and embrace that singular freedom-seeker - along with his sons, daughters, and grandchildren, and the hundreds of thousands of countrymen and women who fled their island home to make a new life in America." (Obviously, no emphasis needed.)
If this is the sort of intelligent criticism Mayor Suarez and the Cuban Committee Against Defamation intend to trot out for public consumption, they'd better be prepared for a few questions. Such as: How can we be expected to swallow this stuff without gagging, when Jorge Mas Canosa is still in the kitchen
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.