The Miami Herald set off fireworks with its March 9 article headlined "Police secretly watching hip-hop artists," in which the paper alleged Miami Beach and Miami police were "secretly watching and keeping dossiers on hip-hop celebrities" and have "photographed rappers as they arrived at Miami International Airport."
Written by Nicole White and Evelyn McDonnell, the article was quickly picked up by papers from here to Australia. It was a worldwide scoop -- and it held potentially devastating consequences for Miami Beach. The city suffered through a costly three-year national black-tourism boycott after the 1990 snub of Nelson Mandela. And the Beach is still recovering from the tense dialogue about tourism and race relations after some 250,000 hip-hop fans descended on the city for Memorial Day 2001.
The Herald's exposé threatened to shatter whatever goodwill had been established. Within days the paper reported that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network were threatening legal action. Race relations weren't the only concern. Millions of tourism dollars could be in jeopardy.
With the stakes so high, it's not surprising that Miami and Miami Beach officials would find it necessary to respond. A week after the article appeared, a combative Miami Police Chief John Timoney called a press conference to deny the substance of the Herald's story. This past Friday Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer and Police Chief Donald DeLucca did the same. Both chiefs insisted their departments do not stake out rappers, have never photographed them, and do not maintain local files on them. (One undisputed fact in the March 9 story: Each department sent officers to a law-enforcement seminar in New York City about a year ago regarding criminal activity within the hip-hop recording industry. At that seminar the NYPD handed out a binder with information on artists and associates who had criminal histories in New York.)
The Herald's response to the police chiefs' forceful denials has not been equally forceful. In fact the paper has badly mismanaged the controversy, leading to speculation that reporters White and McDonnell really did get it wrong.
A March 17 story about Timoney's press conference barely addressed the chief's objections. Instead it attempted to defend the original article by repeating quotations from police officers and supplementing those with previously unpublished remarks from two principal sources: Miami Det. Peter Rosario and Miami Sgt. Rafael Tapanes. The Beach press conference was covered in a March 20 article buried so deep in the "Metro" section, and under such a misleading headline, that only a determined reader would have discovered it. (The headline: "Group offers cops education in hip-hop," a reference to a tangential proposal by the Black Host Committee.)
The Herald's bungling actually began with its initial story, which provided no details backing its most inflammatory assertions: that local police maintain intelligence files on hip-hop celebrities and that "officers say they have photographed rappers as they arrived at Miami International Airport. They stake out hotels, nightclubs, and video shoots."
Turns out the Herald did have supporting details, but they never made it into print, even after the paper came under attack. This I learned after contacting the Herald for comment. Pop culture writer McDonnell, with her bosses' permission, sent me more unpublished information:
"Here are our corroborating sources on the main points of the March 9 article that have not already been admitted to by the police chiefs. Obviously, Miami has admitted the main point of our article: That police officers are monitoring the rap industry.
"MIAMI AND MIAMI BEACH POLICE ARE SECRETLY WATCHING
"... Rosario also told us that on Memorial Day 03, NYPD called Miami PD and told them which rappers were coming to South Florida. They provided the flight numbers of rappers [and names of those] who were driving ..., including license plate numbers of members of rap groups and their entourages who were driving. Rosario said the guys driving carry the weapons. He said Miami officers then photographed rappers as they arrived at the airport, mostly to identify their entourage. Rosario credited the resulting close surveillance of rappers and their associates with a trouble-free Memorial Day weekend. 'That was the ultimate goal: to make sure the Beach doesn't get the rap they got last year.... Our presence last year made a huge difference.'
"MIAMI AND MIAMI BEACH POLICE ARE 'KEEPING DOSSIERS'
"Rosario showed us other items from a blue folder he kept, and which he is holding in his hand in the Herald photograph: a 'hip-hop dictionary' and a police-compiled list of rappers and their suspected gang affiliations.
"Miami Beach Det. Rosa Redruello wrote Evelyn the following in an email on Oct. 10, 03, asking for information on local label Poe Boy following her story on Liberty City rapper Jacki-O: 'I collect intelligence on all current rappers and record companies in the South Beach area.' The place where intelligence is kept is called a dossier.
"MB Asst. Chief Press said: 'We do have our intelligence division work the Internet. We know the Source magazine always updates its Website.... If we read the Source says they're coming down here, then we see who is coming, where they're staying from off-duty officers. We also do work with the nightlife group here in the Beach, so if Ja Rule is taking over club Level and 50 Cent is down the street that gives us an idea to keep an eye on things.'"
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McDonnell said these were on-the-record comments. I asked why they weren't used in the original story. "We didn't know this was going to be contested," she replied. "We thought we had enough corroboration." And, she added, they couldn't use everything owing to space constraints.
I sent McDonnell's message to Miami police spokesman Angel Calzadilla. He was unmoved: "Rosario is adamant that's not what he said. He said he told her he's aware of other police departments doing this [taking pictures], but Miami has never done this."
Rosario's denials aside, had the Herald included the unpublished details in the original article, or had the paper later used them to defend itself, we would have read a more thorough story.
And had the reporters gotten comment from the chiefs before publication (they did not), we might have been spared the spectacle of two cities holding damage-control press conferences.