The Last Iconoclast
Ed Wasserman arrived in Miami nineteen years ago with a young wife and family in tow to take a job as an editor at the Miami Herald. For the previous two years, Wasserman had been an editor at the daily Star-Tribune in Casper, Wyoming, a city of about 50,000 on the Platte River near the center of the state. You couldn't have imagined a place farther from Casper than Miami, the 52-year-old Wasserman recalls. But he was no hick. Wyoming had rounded off a life that at times threatened to become too genteel: Yale class of 1970; a stint in Africa with his brother during the sibling's Fulbright scholarship; a year studying philosophy at the University of Paris, where he met his wife, Eva, a French literature student at the time; a two-year return to the United States to write for a weekly newspaper near his hometown in Maryland before heading off to the London School of Economics for a five-year graduate program resulting in a degree in political economy.
Those diverse travels primed Wasserman for studying Miami, with its cosmopolitan aspirations and parochial habits. And he has been an unusually astute observer of life here. During his five years at the Herald, he was steadily promoted. After being named executive business editor, he was recruited by media entrepreneur Steven Brill (founding chairman of Brill's Content magazine) to run the weekday newspaper that is now known as the Miami Daily Business Review, which also has editions in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Wasserman molded the paper into a sophisticated organ that resonates in the business and legal communities and has become influential far beyond its 12,000 circulation.
Brill sold the paper (including its Broward and Palm Beach editions) to Time Warner in 1997, part of a package deal including Brill's Court TV, American Lawyer magazine, and other properties. Time Warner subsequently sold the family of Review papers to a partnership managed by the New York investment banking firm Wasserstein Perella. To his new masters, Wasserman was apparently more a journalist than a marketing maven appropriately obsessed with revenue. They wanted the latter. Late last month he announced his resignation. His final day is Friday, September 29.
Sorry to say, but I'll be leaving you at the end of September, he wrote to his staff. American Lawyer Media wants a change in Florida, and after fourteen years I'm ready for something new. I can only hope that I'll end up doing something as amazing as working here has been. I also hope I'll be among people who are as smart, compassionate, honorable, and dedicated as those with whom I've worked here and throughout AmLaw. You're building something of value, and for that you deserve to be very proud.
With the end of Wasserman's tenure at the Review, and his possible departure from South Florida (he hasn't settled on his next endeavor), Miami stands to lose one of its more original thinkers, and in a community not known for nurturing intellectual discourse, that is a serious loss indeed. Through his gracefully written and often counterintuitive editorials, Wasserman has provoked lively discussion on a wide variety of topics.
In April 1997, for example, he pointed out that the settlement of the national tobacco-industry lawsuit was modeled on a pyramid scheme. By going for the biggest settlement figure possible, a fund of $250 to $300 billion to compensate individuals and states for harm done by cigarettes, the plaintiffs were actually abetting the spread of smoking. So the wondrous thing about the proposal is that it gives antismoking forces a material stake in the continued proliferation of smoking, and, no less wondrous, it makes the compensation of today's diseased smokers absolutely dependent on the production of tomorrow's diseased smokers.
This past July 10 he noted that the relationship between Taiwan's exiled Chinese and their tyrannical homeland parallels that of Miami's exiled Cubans and their homeland, with one major exception: The Taiwan Chinese have none of the reluctance to doing business with the mainland that Florida's Cubans have long shown toward Cuba.
He wrote passionately about the case of Richard Brown, a 72-year-old black man shot dead in his Overtown apartment by a Miami Police Department SWAT team that fired more than 100 rounds during the incident. The police officers' case -- they claimed to have seen cocaine in the apartment earlier (none was found), and that Brown fired his gun at them (the weapon he allegedly used did not have fingerprints on it) -- was so shoddy that the City Attorney's Office settled for $2.5 million after it deemed the case a loser. The Review broke that story. Wasserman wrote with a fervor not typical of a business journal: We have state laws against negligent homicide, and Miami-Dade has a State Attorney whose job it is to enforce those laws. We have federal civil-rights statutes that have long been used against rogue cops when local authorities don't have the stomach to do their jobs. And we have a brand-new U.S. Attorney whose job it is to enforce those laws. Richard Brown should never have died like that. His killers must be brought to justice.
New Times recently asked Wasserman to join in an open-ended discussion about Miami, the profiteering that occurs in the public sector, the state of print journalism, and what lies ahead. The first interview took place Labor Day at Wasserman's home in Pinecrest, a spacious abode with cathedral ceilings and tile floors. Dressed in a T-shirt, chinos, and socks, Wasserman was less the starchy business editor than suburban dad, a role he embraces on weekends. He is fit, with gray hair and searching blue eyes. He and his wife are parents to four children, three daughters and one son. The two teenage girls still living at home traipsed in and out, talking on the phone and greeting friends at the door. Wasserman had just returned from helping his eldest daughter move in at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
If his unsettled professional affairs posed a threat to his happy home life, Wasserman didn't show it. He laughed easily and exuded an unpretentious self-confidence.
Elsewhere in the nation, and during other eras, individuals pursuing illegal enrichment did so in the private sector -- from organized-crime syndicates to individuals robbing banks. In Miami the preferred target for illegal enrichment seems to be public money, from Medicare fraud to rigged contracts with public agencies to political patronage. Why is the public trough such a popular feeding spot in Miami? Does a culture of corruption exist here?
My own sense is that there is a broad continuity between the private and public sectors in people's ethical conduct. If you want to look at why your public officials are in a get-rich-quick mode and trying to profit inappropriately from office, you have to look at the way business is conducted here. This is a rootless, transient, Sunbelt community. People come here to make money and live well. They don't come here to build the Athens of the Americas. They don't even come down here with the idea of building companies and leaving them to their kids. They come down here to build bank balances.
[At the Review] we talked about doing a project on the transactional economy, where even institutions are basically slow-motion transactions. You build an institution with an eye toward selling it, so what you're really doing is assembling an asset in the hopes of liquidating it. It's just a deal that unwinds after two, three, or four years rather than building an institution with goals of dominating a market or delivering a new service to the people at a lower cost.
I don't think there is that impulse here. The impulse is to accumulate liquid wealth. So the value of a reputation isn't the same as it might be in a better-rooted community. People's memories are short.
I guess Blockbuster and Wayne Huizenga is a prime example. [Huizenga sold Blockbuster in 1994 for more than eight billion dollars.] You think he's building an empire, and then you realize he's just looking for the next big deal.
Maybe this has metastasized, and this is now the mindset of early 21st-century America. Maybe we just saw it trotted out and test-driven down here before anywhere else. But I think it's a peculiarity of the Sunbelt, and of Miami. So when you look at public officials, you're going to see a broad continuity in the way private business is also conducted.
My brother is a political scientist, and I remember after the Lewinsky stuff broke with Clinton, he said, You know, in the private sector they'd never let anyone get away with covering this up. And I said, You've got to be joking. They do this all the time. You've got to get someone on videotape to own up to that kind of wrongdoing. If they can do a secret payoff to the secretary who was groped by the CEO, they do it. So the idea that the public sector is more rife with corruption is phony. I think you have to look at the broadest slice of the way people think it's appropriate and ethical to live their lives.
So you're saying broader self-examination has to take place before things are going to change in the public sector?
Particularly in a setting where most of your public officials are only part-timers. Of course they should be full-time. You don't run a county of this size with people making $6000 a year. If you paid them $75,000 a year, would that eliminate the temptation of corruption? Of course not. That's not real money around here; it's not what these people are looking to make. But I think with a part-time situation, you're basically inviting people to sustain themselves by assembling conflicts of interest.
Is endless commercial development simply a foregone conclusion in Miami-Dade County?
I think this community has been very slow to recognize there are objective limits to development, and as a result we go forward on different planes. Every time there's a new development proposed, there's tremendous opposition. It's very, very difficult to get new developments approved in this community. At the same time, public funds are spent to induce companies to relocate here, tax abatements are given to companies to get them to come down here, bring more jobs, and bring more growth. So there's a schizophrenia on the subject of growth. A lot of our economy depends on increasing numbers of people coming in. You build them homes, provide them with retailing outlets, which provide jobs and services, economic activity, and some measure of prosperity.
But the continuing proliferation of tax-funded inducements to get companies to relocate here -- this has been a great source of concern in our coverage, and we've covered it pretty intensely over the past ten years, starting with Palm Beach County, which had a series of disasters when they gave money to companies that essentially went out of existence soon after they relocated to Palm Beach County. Now the State of Florida has its own inducement plan, Broward County has it, municipalities in Broward have it, and now Miami-Dade County has an inducements plan to give tax breaks or out-and-out grants to create jobs.
You wonder, number one, why companies need to be given money for something that's in their self-interest; and number two, you wonder why tax money is being spent when, if you did a poll or a referendum on growth here, you'd find that most people don't want any money spent to bring in more congestion, more school overcrowding, and the rest of it. Why are we spending money? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But this hasn't been articulated as an area of public concern, and it's not something people will go the polls and vote on. It's like many matters that affect people: They don't pay attention and it doesn't intrude on the electoral process.
Wasserman spoke candidly about his frustrations running a small newspaper that routinely breaks important stories but is ignored by his former employer, the Miami Herald. One particular incident is worth revisiting. In December 1996 the Review began running a series of stories revealing the catastrophic finances and management of the Port of Miami. The disclosures were ignored by the Herald. Five months later county commissioners, prodded by the Review's reports, somewhat reluctantly began asking questions about the state of the port. Only then did the county's largest daily newspaper take notice. When port director Carmen Lunetta resigned a short time later, the Herald insinuated to readers that it was responsible. An exasperated Wasserman spent $5000 to rent a Biscayne Boulevard billboard aimed directly at the paper's offices. Don't wait for the Herald to catch up, the sign admonished, referring to the Review's early coverage of the port. (That affair was chronicled by this paper in The Man Who Caught Carmen, June 12, 1997.)
You've been part of the competitive newsgathering world in greater Miami for two decades now. What's your view of the quality of the print outlets? Are people being well served by the monolithic Miami Herald?
The thing that's always impressed me about the Herald is it always seemed to be in the vanguard of what's happening in the newspaper industry, for better and for worse. They were one of the earliest out of the starting blocks with this community-journalism thing: Let's find out what the public wants and give it to them; let's be public advocates. Now they're early innovators of the new dogma, which is that you can make more money by putting out a large number of specialty publications of indifferent quality. You can make more money that way than you can by concentrating your resources and building a core newspaper of exceptional quality. And that's apparently what [Herald publisher] Alberto Ibargüen is up to over there. They've created this publication [Street] to compete with you guys. They've got a Jewish publication. They're obviously building up El Nuevo Herald.
Sometimes I think the problem isn't so much the Herald as it is the unrealistic role the Herald has seized for itself. A metro paper can do certain things fairly well: can monitor the larger currents in the community, can get news out, can tell you when your garbage is going to be picked up. It gives you the sports, it gives you the TV listings; it's a very useful institution. Is it going to be the best place to find the most upsetting, most riveting, and the most fundamentally important investigative reports? Well, sometimes. I'm not saying this well. Let me go back to what I know.
I can break stories in the Daily Business Review. We have broken good, important stories for years. But we can't set agendas, we can't force people to pay attention to us. And I think New Times has much the same problem. New Times runs some terrific stories, but partly because of the kind of publication it is, it's possible for even the people involved in those stories to ignore you. The only medium in this town, the only news organization that cannot be ignored consistently, is the Miami Herald. And that's partly the Herald's fault, because the Herald has denied recognition to other publications, other news organizations. It has failed to engage in a competitive quest for good stories. They'll either ignore your stories or steal them. What they don't do is engage them and try to do better by saying, New Times reported X,Y, and Z, but now it can be told: What New Times didn't report we're going to tell you now.
That way you get a very creative and salubrious competition between good journalists to try to get to the bottom of important stories. The Herald doesn't do this; its culture doesn't allow it to do that. So the result is the Herald sort of stands apart and aloof as an arbiter of social reality in this community. It allows the work that my people do and the work your people do and even the work TV does, which occasionally is very good, to go ignored. It doesn't matter until it's in the Herald.
Is that just small-mindedness?
I think it's pride. They feel their professional pride is at stake, and the way the organization is structured, it's difficult for anybody to go to their boss and say, Hey, we got murdered on this story. How do we recover? Now, if the bosses are doing their job, they're coming over to the reporter and slapping the copy of New Times on the reporter's desk and saying, Where the hell were you on this, and how the hell are we going to get back in this story? This is an important story.
I think the Herald has a problem dealing with an engaging competition and I think that has kept them from being as strong a paper as they can be. Certainly I say this with an ax to grind, because it's frustrating being a small paper and expecting your competitors to validate and ratify your reporting. But any metro paper in a position comparable to the Herald is going to have a lot of constituencies that it must appease. And it's very hard; they're always going to get beaten up. They write a story that reflects badly on a corrupt public official who happens to be Cuban, and they'll get more letters than we'll see in a year, condemning them for being anti-Cuban. That's very hard.
Is there a particular Review story they ignored within the past year? A particular story they handled poorly?
I'd have to think about that.
What about cruise-line safety? That's a significant industry in town, and the Herald didn't do anything on it worthy of mention.
I don't know how to comment on that. I don't understand why they didn't go after that. There's a lot of things they do that I don't understand. I don't understand why they supported putting that arena on the bay. I mean, I think that's an atrocity; it's monstrous, it destroyed beautiful potential public parkland. And I don't get it. It wouldn't hurt the [Miami] Heat to put the damn thing a couple of blocks inland. I don't have an answer. There's a boosterism that an institution like [the Herald] can succumb to. And they do. I'm not altogether comfortable trying to tell them how they should run their paper, because I know how hard it is to run mine.
I don't know why they endorsed Penelas for re-election. I don't get it. How can you spend all this time denouncing corruption, denouncing the role of money in local government, and then go ahead and endorse the guy who is an emblem -- actually the exemplar -- of that kind of big money-machine style of governance, a guy who is clearly getting his ticket punched for higher office, who has ducked every moral and political crisis that's come up to him until it was absolutely impossible for him not to take a position. And they endorse him for re-election.
It seems odd, that's all. If you're concerned about the role of money in government, he's the guy.
At the Review's downtown Miami headquarters in the SunTrust tower, Wasserman keeps a bustling office. His desk is cluttered with papers. The metal emblem from a 1967 Ford Mustang he once owned acts as a paperweight. The walls hold photographs of his family. His demeanor at work is more commanding, his thoughts articulated with even more precision than at home.
I've noticed a consistent theme in your editorials concerned with social justice and inner-city issues. Sort of odd, given your constituency of lawyers and bankers. What motivates that?
My Sixties background, I guess. I think I've always been surprised how receptive people are to hearing that. It's a little bit off the usual consensus. It's remarkable how little of that is being said. During the racial unrest of the Eighties, it seemed like every two years there would be a race riot. I don't know what happened. Things didn't get any better; they've just gotten quieter, and it's not getting heard. And now it's being deflected onto disputes over affirmative action. Why do I keep coming back to these questions of social justice? It seems to me that is the great unresolved issue dominating not only this community but this country.
You'd be surprised how many unreconstructed Sixties liberals are out there in positions of influence in this community. And they don't feel it's appropriate to say these things anymore. It's like talking about the legalization of pot. I mean, I've written editorials saying this is ridiculous; you've got half the prison population there for nonviolent drug offenses. What do people think they are doing?
Nobody will engage this, nobody will argue with you about this, nobody will say it makes sense to put somebody in prison for three to five years for having an ounce of grass. Nobody can argue the war on drugs has been even remotely successful for anything more than criminalizing two generations of young black kids. But somehow these are no-go zones in the media. I like to write about this stuff, and my readers apparently are getting enough value from the rest of the paper that they'll either forgive me for writing this or they'll say, Wow, it's about time somebody said this.
If you were looking at this situation from Mars through a powerful telescope, you would probably conclude that the highest and best use this society has determined to make of the black population is as a pretext for a criminal-justice system. You have plenty of jobs being generated by prison construction, the need for more officers, et cetera. And you have the reproduction, generation upon generation, of a criminal underclass.
I don't know. I don't have an answer.
I think immigration is a problem that we don't want to acknowledge. It's a problem because it's cheaper to import skills from abroad than to use the human resources we have here to train them and develop them. For some reason liberal-minded people in this country are inclined to favor open borders to let people of all kinds come into this country.
Now, that's fine. I'm not a bigot. We benefit from immigration. But first of all, we pauperize the countries from whom we're drawing these people, because they're putting their resources into training doctors and professionals, the fruits of which we then help ourselves to by letting them come in here where they can earn ten times the money.
Secondly, what about the human resources here? Look at it this way: If you were in a situation of national mobilization, say a war, suddenly you would look at your criminal code and you would say, Hmmm, we can't afford to have some perfectly intelligent, able-bodied nineteen-year-old in prison for five years for carrying around some cocaine. We need him in the frontlines.
It's disturbing to me how little anger there is. I don't understand why black people in this community put up with it. I don't get it. I see a community that is no more receptive to black success and black professionals now than it was twenty years ago. In some ways blacks have been the biggest victims of the successive waves of immigration. And I don't see the emergence of the leaders and spokesmen who are going to press the case on their behalf. It's very depressing.
How about ethnic politics? Do you think this city is divided more by that than other big cities?
I guess many of us were shocked by how deeply the Elian case resonated with Cubans here, and how much hostility it touched off in the Anglos. It illustrated just how weak the exiles had become. In some respects when people take to the streets and have clashes with police, it's the obverse of power. It means this is a group that's not being heard. When their chosen representatives are not being heard, they are left with this ineffective mode of protest. The key issues that were so important to the Cubans here have less and less of a constituency in the wider political culture than they ever had. There's very little interest now in the embargo [against Cuba].
That struggle is very overt. When you go to a concert here, whether it's a bomb scare that cleans out an auditorium at the MIDEM music conference or bottles and rocks flying at the Los Van Van concert, this is stuff that is not going on elsewhere in the nation.
I never understood why that's so. During the Cold War, when the Kirov Ballet went to London, the Russians in London went to see the ballet. They didn't protest; they didn't hold these people up as collaborators with the Soviet regime. The exiles embraced these people as the keepers of the flame of their own culture. They're keeping it alive through difficult times back home. I've never understood why Cuban exiles were willing to characterize their own culture as the property of the hated dictator Fidel. It seems to me these are people who should be praised, embraced for having kept alive the flame during a difficult time.
Would you miss Miami if you had to leave?
Oh, terribly. I've always been intoxicated by the sunshine here, the heat, the tropics. I love the Latin culture. Miami is just an extraordinary place. It's a great news town. The kinds of stories that come up here are unusual and unique. Plus you invest time in a place. In the final analysis, what else have you got? It's the passage of time you share with certain people that binds you to them. It's the investment of time in a place -- you're comfortable, you know people, they know you, you've watched their kids grow up. I mean, that's what makes a place home.
Lord no, I'm sure I've said much too much. I'll probably never work in this town again.
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