The Miami Herald Takes Some Heat
By Sally Deneen
Sally Deneen is a freelance writer in Fort Lauderdale and a former staff writer for the Sun-Sentinel.
Griping about the hometown newspaper is a tradition as old as hot type. But the Miami Herald had more than a cranky reader on its hands this winter when it weathered a bomb threat, death threats against three top executives, a flier blasting Herald Publisher David Lawrence and dozens of vandalized newspaper vending machines.
Prior to the incidents, Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the passionately anti-Castro, politically well-connected Cuban American National Foundation, had accused the Herald and its Spanish-language sister El Nuevo Herald of reporting with a pro-Castro bias. In a statement aired on Spanish-language radio stations, Mas said the papers were as much tools of the Castro government as Cuba's communist newspaper Granma.
"That's like shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," says Herald Executive Editor Doug Clifton.
The foundation has condemned "any acts of violence and intolerance." But in the February 2 Herald column in which he disclosed the threats, Lawrence wrote: "Among the most visible and vocal of our critics are people who would never countenance or encourage violence themselves. But when you make wild and angry accusations, like some of this 'pro-Castro' garbage, you stir up the less well-intentioned and the more misguided."
How has the paper handled it all? "What we try to do is let life go on as normal as possible," Lawrence says.
As an FBI investigation began, the Herald tightened security, and Lawrence and others met with offended parties, including Mas. The Herald covered the controversy, and Lawrence and Miami Herald Publishing Co. President Roberto Suarez published a seven-paragraph response to Mas' criticisms in the Herald.
Coverage of Cuba is balanced, they maintained. "We have given full and regular coverage to the lack of human rights on the island." Indeed, the paper prints frequent dispatches from Cuba, and increased its coverage after the fall of communism elsewhere. Even critics agree the Herald is the leading U.S. newspaper for coverage of Cuban issues.
Foundation spokesman Joe Garcia points to a study by Arizona State University professor Fran Matera to prove the Herald's coverage is slanted against Cuban Americans. But the study, which two other scholars say is flawed, lists only a dozen examples over 12 years. Garcia says his foundation is tired of being trivialized as extremist. For example, an El Nuevo Herald column called leaders among Miami's Cuban exile community "mini-Castros," he says.
Fed up, several readers recently formed the Cuban Committee Against Defamation to monitor media for bias against Cubans. The first complaint lodged with the panel came from Mas against the Herald.
Clifton says his paper won't respond point by point to the wide-ranging complaint. "It'd be kind of like saying to the New York Times, 'Your coverage of Western Europe is biased. Prove otherwise.' We wouldn't know where to begin."
Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, one of several powerful members of the Cuban exile community on the committee, says he wants it to examine various aspects of journalism: Should the media name targets of ongoing investigations? How can positive stories be encouraged? He also says he wants to improve editors' understanding of Hispanic issues.
Tensions between the two sides are decades old. Clifton says his paper has done all it can regarding the controversy: It outlined both sides' positions for readers. Now, he says, "Allow the wisdom of the people to decide." ###