I wasn't going to say anything. Who wants to spoil a birthday party, even if it's the Herald's ballyhooed 100th anniversary? No, I was just going to let it slide -- their endlessly self-congratulatory centennial, their costly new redesign, their coy suggestion that perhaps they'd actually reinvented journalism. ("The next generation of news and information!" boasted publisher Alberto Ibargüen, who should have used an exclamation point but didn't.)
And I wasn't planning on saying anything about the Herald's new partnership with public radio WLRN-FM, in which Herald reporters get to talk about the stories they'd written for that day's paper -- which, for any informed person, is simply redundant. Like many, I've been ambivalent about the partnership. For years WLRN's local news reports have been monotonously delivered rip-and-reads from the paper anyway; now they're just being up-front about it.
Then the anniversary celebration and the news partnership merged in unholy union. Last week I woke up listening to a purported news story on WLRN. The subject? The Herald's redesign. So important was this shocking development that it was repeated all morning in different variations. Riveting. What's next? Breaking news about weekend classified ad specials? Circulation gains in west Broward?
Later that week Joseph Cooper, the peppy host of the station's midday talk show Tropical Currents, laboriously discussed the redesign with Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler, who does a drop-dead Mister Rogers impersonation. Fiedler murmured fretfully about the "risk" that the redesign might take "people outside their comfort zones." But he was quick to reassure that when confused readers called the Herald in a panic, his staff was ready to talk them through the trauma and "metaphorically reach out and hold their hand, and say, 'It's going to be okay.'"
Puhleeze! They changed some type fonts, stripped in some color, and added a digest page for the attention-deficit-disorder crowd. (USA Today, watch your back!) But as far as I can tell, the same people are still doing the same job. New coat of paint, same old jalopy. Even the touted daily tabloid insert, "Tropical Life," is the erstwhile "Living" section by another name printed sideways.
Shameless self-promotion is nothing new to the Herald. But when it's tarted up as news and drilled into our heads on the local National Public Radio affiliate, it becomes something else -- a deception. Not unlike the paper's makeover itself, which is a marketer's attempt to cover up with snappy graphics the damage done by years of staff cuts inflicted by Tony Ridder in his relentless drive for ever-higher profit margins. Ibargüen and Fiedler can hype the redesign all they want. The truth still lies in the numbers, and the numbers don't lie. Since 2000 Herald total average paid circulation has plummeted by more than 20,000. Surprise, surprise -- none of that was mentioned in the WLRN report.
The State Attorney's Office recently closed a case against some high-ranking Miami police officers suspected of stealing money from a federally funded program to supply security at public-housing sites. The SAO declined to prosecute.
I wrote about the case in July. Within the MPD it was viewed as one of the last necessary but painful thresholds the department needed to cross in an effort to reform itself. First was the indictment and trial last spring of eleven officers in the so-called throw-down gun cases. Then came the resignation of old-school Chief Raul Martinez and the selection of his replacement, outsider John Timoney.
Rank and file viewed this latest case as an important investigation because two of the suspect cops were prominent -- Maj. Mario Garcia, in charge of the South District substation; and Capt. Armando Martinez, second in command of the department's internal-affairs bureau. Miami cops are accustomed to seeing powerful officers skate, so they were watching carefully. Many will be disappointed with this outcome. But it's not for lack of effort. In a year-long probe, a task force of the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Miami police investigated whether the officers submitted invoices for overtime pay without showing up for the security jobs.
Task force members reviewed hundreds of pages of worksheets for each officer and compared them with duty rosters and payroll records spanning four years. They found five discrepancies in Martinez's records, involving less than $700. They found four discrepancies in Garcia's paperwork, also involving less than $700. And only one discrepancy involving a third officer, Lt. Alejandro Oliva, for $108. (I had previously identified another officer, Lt. Ramon Fernandez, as a suspect. While he participated in the security program and his records were reviewed by investigators, he was not a criminal suspect.)
Given the small dollar amount and the difficulty proving this wasn't just sloppy paperwork, both federal and state prosecutors took a pass. In an August 22 memorandum, assistant State Attorney Howard Rosen wrote, "One would expect that if there were any criminal intent, the amounts involved would be much larger, and that the alleged 'double dipping' would have occurred much more frequently."
Those following the case can take heart in the fact that it's not over. Chief Timoney says the matter is now up for internal administrative review. Meanwhile Martinez was transferred from internal affairs to the criminal investigations unit and Garcia has been demoted from major to lieutenant.
Speaking of Timoney, two weeks ago he tried to stay one step ahead of the untold number of protesters who vow to descend on Miami and disrupt the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in November. Timoney asked the city commission to outlaw golf balls during the protests. Not just golf balls but also "ball bearings, marbles, paint balls or other solid shapes made of rubber, plastic, metal, wood, or any other similar hard substance." By which the chief means anything in the known universe that could possibly be launched as a projectile.
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With all due respect to our new chief, throwing something at a cop is already unlawful, so why the need to criminalize golf balls? I know the motive is to protect police and civilians, but at this rate we'll be requiring the protesters to march naked with their slogans painted on their chests. Local ACLU president Lida Rodriguez-Taseff sums it up tartly: "You don't outlaw the object, you outlaw the behavior." If the ordinance passes, she said her organization may sue.
For his part, Timoney isn't worried. He reports the proposed law is virtually a word-for-word copy of one enacted in Los Angeles, which survived legal challenges. "It just gives us greater discretion," he says soothingly. "We're not going to lock up people for having golf balls. If you've got golf balls, you're going to be told you can't go into the protest area."
When it comes to cops and crowds of rowdy protesters, the word "discretion" sounds like an invitation to detain just about anyone. ("Hey, kid, that belt of yours has a metal buckle. Come with me.")
Other items he wants to prohibit at the expected protests (in addition to water balloons!) are gas masks. The reason? When he was police commissioner of Philadelphia during the 2000 Republican National Convention, protesters used tear gas on police, not the other way around. "I've never used gas on a crowd in 35 years," Timoney boasts. "And I have no intention of using gas now. Doesn't mean I won't, but I don't intend to."