In the Cauldron
Deep divisions between South Florida's Cuban and non-Cuban communities posed wrenching challenges for local journalists covering the Elián saga. How did they cope, and how well did they do?
By Mike McQueen
Mike McQueen is chairman of the journalism department at Florida International University. He has worked as a reporter for the Associated Press, USA Today and the Miami Herald, where he also served as assistant city editor.
I T'S APRIL 28, six days since federal agents took Elián González from his relatives' house in Miami, and Mark Seibel, the assistant managing editor who has directed the Miami Herald's coverage of the boy's saga, is sitting in his small office. He's exhausted from working 15 days straight, so he doesn't bother to turn on the lights for a visitor. The sun is sinking into the Florida Everglades, and the city police chief is on the TV screens in the newsroom. William O'Brien, an Anglo, as whites are called in Miami, is announcing that he's quitting as top cop because he can't work for the Cuban American mayor, who was livid that one of O'Brien's assistants had helped in the raid on the house.
Miami, again, is in ethnic turmoil.
"This is one of the most polarizing situations I have seen," says Seibel, whose reputation was built in 1987 when he was foreign editor and the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its Iran-Contra scandal coverage. "I've covered a lot of controversial stories in this city. But this is the absolute worst."
Seibel is referring to the sometimes violent reaction to twists and turns of the Elián story--reaction that has almost completely split along ethnic lines. Whites and African Americans in South Florida overwhelmingly favored sending Elián back to Cuba with his father, Juan Miguel, according to a Herald poll conducted in April. They see it as a simple child-custody case, and in letters and telephone calls to news organizations they've delivered a strong message: Enough, already, with the debate over the boy. Isn't there some other news in town?
The Cuban exile community's leaders have been equally firm since Elián arrived November 25 after floating two days at sea in an inner tube: How dare the U.S. government deport this child back to Fidel Castro? Keep on top of this incredible story.
Just as it balkanized the greater Miami community, the Elián story splintered South Florida newsrooms, causing bitter debates. There, the discussions were about core values of American journalism--accuracy, objectivity, fairness, balance. For sure, these are basic issues journalists deal with all the time in the daily task of newsgathering. But interviews with more than a dozen reporters and editors involved in the Elián story, and with national and Miami media critics, suggest that this saga raised particularly prickly issues because Miami is one of only a few major U.S. cities where Hispanics make up the majority. And, of those Hispanics, Cuban Americans are the dominant group.
All of this meant that South Florida journalists covering the denouement of the Miami chapter of the saga--already exhausted because the story had been in their backyard for months--had to navigate carefully around the sensitivities of the city's large exile community while still aggressively pursuing perhaps the biggest story for them since the Mariel boatlift in 1980.
Barbara Gutierrez, the Herald's reader representative and a Cuban American who formerly was executive editor of El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister, wrote in a May 7 column: "In this highly emotional story, what sounds straightforward to one group of readers sounds like pandering to another.... Each side wants the newspaper to report the news from their perspective, their emotional vantage point."
Seemingly straightforward questions could become tripwires: Should the media describe Fidel Castro as a president or a dictator? Should they call Cuba Elián's home? Should newscasters reveal their positions on whether or not the boy should be sent back to his native country?
And it wasn't just the readers' backgrounds that could affect a reporter's approach to coverage. "When I sat down to write a story, I thought not only of my audience, but also what my mother would think," says Rafael Lorente, a Washington bureau reporter on the story for Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. Lorente is Cuban American; both his parents are Miami Cubans.
Media analysts say journalists faced a tough task and give them mixed reviews for their performance. In many cases, coverage was fair and balanced, they say, but in others, play was overblown and critical information was left unreported.
Reporters and editors assigned to the story say they are proud of their work, adding it's an understatement to call it challenging. "This is about the most challenging assignment I've ever had, because a reporter who is anything but partisan is considered the enemy," says Michael Putney, a senior reporter for WPLG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Miami. "And that cuts both ways. People have called me and said, 'I saw your report, and I know you can't tell me this officially, but you're really on my side, aren't you?'
"I'm not on anybody's side. I'm on the side of figuring out what is true, what is accurate, and what is not."
I IN SOUTH FLORIDA, vantage points do fall along ethnic lines. In Miami-Dade County, the largest municipality in the state with 2.2 million residents, 1.1 million of them are Hispanic, according to 1999 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Of the 1.1 million Hispanics, close to 800,000 are Cuban Americans, according to most estimates. While that's a large number, more important is the political and business influence of Cuban exiles. For example, Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a group of 31 Cuban American business and civic leaders who meet to discuss public affairs. Miami Herald Co. Chairman and Publisher Alberto Ibargüen, whose father is Cuban and whose mother is Puerto Rican, is a member of the group, which is one of the region's most influential civic entities.
In Broward County, of which Fort Lauderdale is the county seat, the number of Hispanics is growing, but they do not assert anywhere near the influence they do in Miami-Dade. Still, a number of second- and third-generation Cuban American families are settling into the affluent suburbs south of Fort Lauderdale.
Ellen Soeteber, the Sun-Sentinel's managing editor, pulls the demographic figures that her newspaper relies on from her desk during an interview and says Hispanics are a growing influence. For the Broward and southern Palm Beach County market, 11 percent of residents are Hispanic, and, of that, 16 percent are Cuban American. Given that 15 percent of the market is African American and that there are growing pockets of Caribbean blacks, "we are actually pretty diverse," she says.
In Miami, even though the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald and the English-language Herald presumably serve different markets, Ibargüen says Hispanics are the single largest group of Herald readers.
Ana Acle, an American of Cuban descent and a 10-year veteran of the Herald's local reporting staff, is keenly aware of the region's major news audience. "For a lot of Cubans, this was the issue, the Elián case," she says. "There was nothing else."
For five months, Acle's assignment most days was to cover developments at the Miami family's house in Little Havana. She says she generally spent more than 10 hours there, milling about at the press encampment set up across the street. Acle would weave through the throng of protesters, talking with the relatives--mostly Elián's great-uncle and family patriarch, Lazaro González; his daughter Marisleysis; and another great-uncle, Delfin González.
Acle says she didn't feel added pressure because she is of Cuban descent. However, the assignment was tough for her, not only because of the long hours, but because visiting reporters often used her as their expert on Cuban Americans. "It's difficult to parachute into something like this," Acle says. "I spent a lot of time helping other reporters out."
Frances Robles was crucial to the Herald's Washington coverage. Robles, who is of Puerto Rican descent, says she had to keep her eyes on the polyglot audience in Miami-Dade County, the Herald's circulation base. But she was also aware that her fellow reporters at the newspaper were critically assessing her copy.
"There's obviously a lot of pressure because you feel that people, both from the inside and from the outside, are looking at your work closely," Robles says. She says she was urged by several colleagues to raise difficult issues with the boy's father, which she would have done gladly, but neither he nor his lawyer granted the Herald's request for an interview.
Those colleagues say they weren't displeased with Robles' reporting; they just thought the Herald hadn't held Elián's father to the same scrutiny as the Miami family. Still, Robles says her work was appreciated by her editors: "I want to make it clear that I never received any pressure from top management."
R OBERTO VIZCON, THE NEWS director of station WSCV, a Spanish-language TV station in Miami, played an important role in his station's coverage. Vizcon says his news decisions were driven by his audience, mostly Cuban Americans. That principally meant two things: Vizcon sometimes killed his weather and sports segments and broadcast only stories about Elián; and he made sure the majority of his stories reflected the Cuban exile point of view.
"For us, that's a more balanced, truthful point of view. For example, we would never broadcast that the boy is threatened with going back home," he says. "We would say, the boy is threatened with going back to Cuba . The difference between the word[s] home and Cuba is enormous, because home suggests that that is where somebody belongs."
Vizcon continued: "And we would never call Fidel Castro president. Yes, he was elected. But it was a one-party system."
Asked if that is news with a slant, Vizcon says no. He says it's an attempt to tell the truth as his viewers perceive it. "There's a delicate balance here," he says. "You want to inform people. But from a business standpoint, you can't inform them by alienating them."
Vizcon used as an example a story that an English-speaking station aired, in which Elián was reportedly overheard saying that he wanted to go back to Cuba. "We didn't need to touch that story," Vizcon says. "It would just be inconceivable to our audience that that really was what the boy said."
In short, Vizcon is tapping into the minds of his viewers and asserting: I know what they're thinking. "Unlike the English-speaking news outlets, I didn't do any polling," he says. "I knew my audience."
That's the same rationale El Nuevo Herald used in putting a bold headline on the story of Elián's April 22 seizure by federal agents from his relatives' home, before the boy was reunited with his Cuban father. "How Shameful" ran across page one of a special edition of the newspaper. "That makes sense to me," Vizcon says. "It was a very sad day in the Cuban community."
Herald Publishing Co. Chairman Ibargüen says El Nuevo reflects the spirit of the Cuban exile community. "It's not like the Herald, which has a role to cover a lot of different viewpoints," he says. "El Nuevo can be more passionate, more partisan, and in many ways it has been the voice of the Cuban American community."
And that's OK, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and vice chairman of the Committee for Concerned Journalists. "I'm less affected by a headline like 'How Shameful' than I am about the basic question[s]: Is the information below the headline accurate? Does it inform rather than inflame? Is it independent journalism and not propaganda?"
As for Vizcon's editorial decisions, Rosenstiel says it is a legitimate journalistic technique to avoid a value-laden word such as "home," which has the connotation of warmth and may not accurately describe Cuban life. But decisions to withhold certain stories from an audience, because they may not agree with them, "can be problematic," he says.
"If you can't verify what someone else is reporting, then that's a good decision," Rosenstiel says. "But if you're not telling your audience something because you think they won't believe it, or you're worried about the reaction, then that goes against the principles laid down many years ago by Adolph S. Ochs' credo [at the New York Times], to operate without fear or favor."
I N THE MAELSTROM SURROUNDING the Elián story, some South Florida TV stations were the subject of exile ire, and some reporters were pummeled with hate calls. Michael Putney, of WPLG-TV in Miami, says he received death threats after he reported critically on a school operated by Demetrio Perez, a Cuban American who sits on the county's school board. Elián attended the school while he was staying with his Miami relatives.
The day after his report, Putney says callers filled his voice mail. "I was labeled Michael Sputnik on Spanish-language radio," Putney says--a link to the Russian spacecraft and Communism. Putney says he did not let the attacks affect the way he approached the story.
Another WPLG-TV story particularly rankled some Cuban Americans. In that January piece, the station aired footage that showed Elián in his yard, pointing to an airplane overhead. The station reported that Elián, apparently playfully, said that he wanted the plane to take him to Cuba.
After the story aired, exiles demonstrated in front of the station. They pointed out that the reporter on the story did not speak Spanish. WPLG said that it asked several of its staffers, fluent in Spanish, to translate what Elián had said; they concluded that he said he wanted the plane to take him to Cuba.
The Herald had its translators and Spanish-speaking journalists listen to the tape. While they said the audio quality was poor, the Herald's staffers heard the boy say that he did not want to go to Cuba. "I heard it, and there was no question the boy said that he didn't want to go to Cuba," says a Cuban American reporter for a rival station. But his Central American wife heard it and said the boy said that he wanted to go to Cuba.
WPLG's vice president and general manager, John Garwood, went on the air the day after the story ran, acknowledged the controversy and assured viewers that there was no attempt to slant the story. "This news organization would never purposely slant or alter the factual basis of any story," Garwood said. "We carefully consulted trusted associates as to the accuracy of what was said before airing the story last night. Through the remainder of the evening and throughout the day today, Elián's words have been reviewed by a number of translators, linguists and everyday citizens. Even now, due to the quality of the audio, there remains confusion, controversy and differences of opinion on precisely what was said or what Elián meant."
Garwood's statement stopped short of retracting the report, something exiles didn't forget. "A native Spanish speaker would have known the boy said the opposite," says Juan Carlos Espinosa, a political scientist who is assistant director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "It's just one example of less-than-professional work."
E SPINOSA SAYS REPORTERS told him there was a lot of tension in some newsrooms as the drama unfolded, particularly because Cuban American journalists believed that news agencies committed "errors of omission" in covering the Elián story.
Fabiola Santiago, a senior writer at the Herald, says she shared that concern. A Cuban American with 20 years of journalism experience, she says she didn't think some stories that she had suggested to colleagues were getting done. For instance, she accused reporters of doing a poor job of explaining exactly how Cuban children were oppressed by Castro's regime.
Santiago and Espinosa say that the Elián case could have allowed journalists to explore the situation in Cuba and educate people outside South Florida about the Castro regime.
The Herald's Seibel, when asked about the complaints, says he recalls the paper doing a story about life in Cuba for children. (And an excerpt of the Cuban Constitution as it relates to children was published May 7 on the editorial page.) Seibel says the media were hampered in reporting because Cuba is a closed society.
Santiago, who as a feature writer was not involved in the daily stories, adds that some of the media coverage seemed biased. "If you took some of the coverage and replaced the noun Cuban American with the noun African American, people would have been screaming about stereotyping," she says. In one instance, Santiago says, a writer blew out of proportion the importance of the cigar business in Little Havana. Santiago says the industry hasn't been vibrant in Miami for years. "It just left the impression the people in Little Havana were cigar-chomping Latins," she says.
Larry Olmstead, the Herald's managing editor, issued a memo responding to some of the concerns: "This is a sensitive, potentially volatile situation for the newspaper and the community. Our journalism should reflect that sensitivity."
Santiago says she's also concerned that the actions of Cuban American journalists were watched too closely. She pointed to the case of Liz Balmaseda, the Herald's Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who was photographed participating in a prayer vigil outside Elián's house. The columnist told AJR that while she was there gathering material, a friend grabbed her hand for prayer. She says it would have been rude to refuse the friend's hand.
"I didn't set out to make a political statement," she told a Herald reporter.
Herald Executive Editor Martin Baron says Balmaseda's actions were inappropriate: "We should always keep our distance from news events."
Balmaseda says she thinks it was her heritage, not her ethics, that were in question. She says she has prayed other times on assignments, including with the Dalai Lama. "The only time anyone has had any questions about my prayer was when I prayed with exiles in Miami," Balmaseda says.
Baron says that this particular prayer vigil "appeared to be making a statement about this case" and thus was inappropriate for a Herald staffer to participate in.
It was the appearance of favoring Elián's return to Cuba that Bernadette Pardo, a Miami newscaster for Spanish-language WLTV and a radio commentator, says brought her criticism. She never declared her position on the air, in deference to journalistic standards of objectivity. As a result, she told Miami New Times, she received abusive and threatening mail. "To keep above the emotions sometimes is very hard when you are getting hate mail," she says.
That's milder than what Jim DeFede, a columnist for New Times, received. After he criticized Miami-Dade's Cuban American politicians for siding with exiles, anonymous callers phoned in death threats. Chuck Strouse, the alternative weekly's managing editor, says the paper took the threats seriously. But nothing happened to the columnist, and the threats didn't soften his bite. In a column for the April 20-26 issue, DeFede declared, "This boy has proved to be the single most destructive force in South Florida since Hurricane Andrew."
Yves Colon, a member of the Herald's editorial board, agrees the community is divided, but says the media's coverage had nothing to do with it. "Our coverage does not divide the community," he says. "Should we not cover the actions of the Cuban American community? No. Should we not cover [Miami Mayor Joe] Carollo's divisiveness? No. We just cover what's out there. We don't make the news."
B UT OTHERS WONDER IF the media's coverage may have exacerbated some ethnic divisions. Ileana Oroza, a University of Miami journalism professor and former assistant managing editor at the Herald, says that in following Elián coverage in the New York Times, the Herald and El Nuevo Herald, she concluded most pieces were journalistically sound. But, she says, some days she picked up the local papers and wondered if the huge headlines given to some stories were necessary. "What I'm saying," Oroza says, choosing her words carefully, "is that sometimes the play wasn't in proportion. When you put something on the front page with a huge headline, you are telling people: 'This is the most important thing you should be paying attention to.' " ###
And sometimes the lack of coverage was called into question. When Herald and Sun-Sentinel reporters failed to turn up Lazaro González's two drunk-driving convictions, the papers were accused of covering up. The story was first reported by the New York Times.
The Herald's Seibel had a simple explanation. "Incompetence," he says, adding that reporters relied on the newspaper's computerized database of public records--which clearly was not complete.
Soeteber says the Sun-Sentinel looked into González's background, checking state police records. "We did the same background checks as the Herald, I'm sure," she says. "But we found out that not all offenses from Dade County get reported" to the state agency in Tallahassee. "Now we know."
When the Herald didn't publish Juan Miguel González's obscene gesture to protesters outside a Cuban diplomatic building in Washington, the newspaper was blasted by callers who thought it was favoring the Cuban government. "In truth," says Baron, "it was a production error.... It didn't make it in the paper until a day later."
In South Florida, where political intrigue is legendary, it is not unusual for innocent acts to be given great weight.
Asked about the local media's performance on the Elián assignment in light of the sensitivities in Miami, Sam Roberts, a former network and New York Times executive who now teaches at the University of Miami School of Communication, was hard-pressed to see what all the fuss was about. "I didn't see anything on television in particular, since that's my specialty, that made me think, 'Oh my God, this is so inflammatory. It's like William Randolph Hearst and the Spanish-American War all over again.' "
Kevin Hall, a former Herald editor who oversaw the paper's 1980 Cuban boatlift coverage, was a bit more critical. He says the media's treatment of Elián's story has been uneven. "It was good, horrendous and mediocre," says Hall, who teaches journalism at Florida International University. The saga, reported in a city with a large exile community, does provide some lessons for journalism, Hall adds: "You've always got to hold a vigorous lantern up to your own community while covering big stories."