Street Takes a Detour
In 1999, when the Miami Herald Publishing Company launched the free weekly they called Street Miami, it was promoted as an "entertainment and lifestyle weekly" that promised no long, boring investigative articles. (Unlike some free weeklies in town.) Instead it would concentrate on pop culture and music -- but with attitude.
Last week's edition of Street apparently overdid it on the attitude -- at least in the eyes of top company executives, who were so worried it would upset a prominent local businessman they did something truly extraordinary: They yanked the issue off the streets and replaced it with a sanitized version.
The offending text was part of a satirical piece about Miami's "hometown zeros," a rogue's gallery of ten individuals who were both famous and infamous. Street's cover was made to look like a Wheaties cereal box featuring O.J. Simpson dressed in a baseball uniform. Inside, over four pages, were ten mock baseball cards, each devoted to a local "zero" and each containing brief descriptions of why they were both famous and infamous. Not hilarious but not a complete embarrassment either.
Besides Simpson the cast included Gen. Manuel Noriega, news anchor Rick Sanchez, former Miami city manager and public-corruption figure Howard Gary, former county commissioner Miriam Alonso, local resident and Watergate henchman E. Howard Hunt, rapper Vanilla Ice, drug kingpin Willy Falcon, criminal defense attorney José Quiñon, and Stuart Miller, head of Lennar Corporation, the home-building giant.
That was Thursday.
On Friday readers were treated to a slightly altered Street. Same cover. Same hometown zeros spoof. But no Stuart Miller baseball card. Poof! Gone! In its place was a new card devoted to jailbird slugger José Canseco.
Miller's inclusion obviously drove them berserk. But why? Under the heading "Why he's famous," the card noted that Miller took over Lennar following the death last year of his father Leonard, who founded the company. Under "Why he's infamous," the card read: "When Hurricane Andrew blew through South Florida in 1992, many Lennar-built homes went with the storm. Cited by state regulators for flimsy construction, Lennar got off with only a $50,000 fine." Then, four years later in a Miramar development, "Lennar had buried debris under the properties, creating a sinkhole that eventually swallowed the backyards of 20 houses." All those facts were culled from the Herald's own pages.
So it wasn't some egregious error that prompted executives to order the confiscation of as many Street copies as possible, the reworking of the hometown zeros piece by replacing Miller with Canseco, replating, completing a new press run of 70,000, loading the papers onto trucks, and redistributing them -- all within 24 hours. That kind of rush work doesn't come cheap. And the Herald isn't known for its extravagance.
No one at 1 Herald Plaza wants to discuss the incident. The only person who would talk to me about it was Robert Beatty, the Miami Herald Publishing Company's general counsel and vice president of public affairs. Even then, he barely said anything. "They were withdrawn for legal reasons," he intoned vaguely. When I asked who ordered the recall, he responded, "I've already said it was a legal issue and there's only one lawyer at the Miami Herald." That would be Robert Beatty.
I'm no Robert Beatty, but I couldn't see any legal problems with the Miller item. So I sent it to Tom Julin, a respected local media attorney whose clients include Newsweek, the ABC and CBS networks, and their local affiliates. He also is the Florida lawyer for Condé Nast publications. (He's done work for the Herald in the past, but not for New Times.) Libel wasn't an issue, Julin said, because the Miller's baseball card simply repeated facts that had been previously published. Privacy wasn't an issue, he continued, because Lennar is the second-largest home-builder in the nation, and "the head of a large corporation like that will likely be treated as a public figure." Even if the item contained a factual error, but the gist of it was true, "I would think even then there would be no liability," Julin said. "Just looking at it, I have no idea what the legal reason would be."
Rick Ovlemen, another well-regarded Miami media attorney, who also happens to be a former general counsel for the Herald, also reviewed the piece. "The only basis for legally pulling the item I can see would be if there were factual inaccuracies," he said. "Or whether it would be defamatory to include [Miller] in a rogue's gallery if he had nothing to do with any alleged wrong-doing." Whatever the reason, Ovelmen concluded, "This is quite unusual."
Beatty won't elaborate on the "legal reason" for remaking the paper, but his evasion may be understandable in light of the chronology I pieced together from a variety of sources with knowledge of the Street sweep. If their story is true, Herald management, including Beatty, turned a spoof into a scandal.
My sources say that Herald Publishing Company general manager Jesus Diaz, an accountant by trade, was the first to complain about the Stuart Miller baseball card. According to them, attorney Beatty earlier had reviewed the issue, including the hometown zeros piece, and approved it for publication. But as the issue was being distributed, Diaz reportedly objected so strongly to Miller's inclusion that he called publisher Alberto Ibargüen, who was out of town. It's unclear whether Ibargüen ordered the confiscation and changes or whether he delegated that decision to Diaz. (Neither Ibargüen nor Diaz returned several phone calls seeking clarification -- a nice move for guys in charge of publications that rely on the cooperation of interview subjects.) Regardless, Street was to be yanked, Miller removed, and a new version printed and distributed.
But what was it about Stuart Miller that caused such a panic? Miller himself declined to comment, but it's no secret that the Miller family, supported by many powerful business people, lashed out at the Herald in response to a column written by Jim DeFede (a New Times alum) shortly after the death of Leonard Miller. Amid the many articles and obituaries lionizing Miller for his philanthropic contributions, DeFede wrote on August 1, 2002, that "Lennar built many of the homes in South Miami-Dade reduced to kindling during Hurricane Andrew," and the company was "hit with allegations of shoddy construction." Miller's good deeds tended to insulate him from such criticism, DeFede wrote, adding: "It's like a form of money-laundering, only I call it reputation-laundering." Three weeks later he wrote another piece critical of Lennar.
The reaction was intense. Letter-writers excoriated DeFede. An ad hoc group of civic leaders descended on Ibargüen, demanding that DeFede be fired. But to their credit, Herald bosses left the columnist alone. "As you can see I'm still at the paper," DeFede said last week. "I've never been told I can't write about anyone."
So relations between the Herald and the Miller family have been strained for a while. Given that the Lennar Corporation is a major business presence in South Florida, it may be tempting to think that Diaz and/or Ibargüen wanted to avoid further offending a man whose advertising decisions could affect the Herald's bottom line. A tempting thought perhaps, but one without the tiniest scintilla of a shred of evidence to support it.
That ill-fated issue of Street was changed in other ways. It also contained an opinion column by staffer Greg Baker that castigated Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele for his controversial plans to redevelop Little Haiti. Baker didn't like what he'd heard about Teele's scheme and ranted that after a recent city commission meeting Teele, "who jabbers at the meetings like a lit-up crackhead," didn't return his calls. Baker went on to wonder whether the other commissioners were "smoking from the same loaded pipe." An illustration accompanying Baker's column depicted Teele reclining with a crack pipe. A tad over the top, not off-the-chart funny, but clearly commentary and thus protected under the First Amendment. In fact Beatty told me that "the legal reasons [for pulling Street] did not pertain to the Art Teele column."
But Street editor Brett O'Bourke, having been spanked for the Stuart Miller item, apparently wasn't about to take any more chances. And so he took advantage of the seizure to quietly decontaminate Baker's column by excising all references to crack and replacing the illustration with a head shot of Teele -- all without Baker's knowledge.
Baker didn't want to comment. Neither did O'Bourke. I guess they've thrown enough attitude for one week.