Thomas Jefferson eloquently stated that “our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press.” Yet along with the rights granted to the press in our Constitution’s first amendment, comes an awesome responsibility to cover events in a thorough and balanced manner so that the public can be better informed when it makes decisions on who should lead our nation and therefore which policies should be enacted on our behalf. Many times in the history of our nation the press has met this challenge and done an admirable job as our watchdog. Sadly, the case of Cuba is not one of those instances where the press has acquitted itself well at all.
Starting with the Fidel Castro’s insurrection during the late 1950s, the media in America has allowed itself to be manipulated. Thus, the American people were kept in the dark about the Cuban reality.
The dean of Castro apologists was Herbert Matthews of the New York Times. In his columns, Fidel was portrayed as a Robin Hood figure coming to liberate Cuba’s poor masses from the oligarchy that then ruled the island. Matthews helped change public opinion in an evolving America to the point where the United States withdrew its support of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, ushering in an even more despicable dictatorship. Even after the blood began to flow during Castro’s initial reign of terror, Matthews continued to be Fidel’s press agent in the United States.
It would be one thing if Matthews were an isolated case, but almost fifty years later the media continues to be enamored with Castro and his totalitarian rule.
The New York Times editorial stance on Cuba has not changed since the days of Matthews. In July/August of 2006, when Fidel suddenly took ill and Cuban-Americans took to the streets of Miami in celebration, the Times, not politely, told Yale Professor and National National Book Award winner Carlos Eire that the op-ed piece they had asked him to write wasn’t what they wanted because he refused to condemn those who were ebullient in their desire for a little long-delayed karmic justice as well as change in Cuba.
In 1997, Cuba began to allow certain American media outlets to establish bureaus in Cuba. Rather than use this unprecedented access to the Cuban people to better report the reality of life under Castro’s revolution, CNN and then various other media outlets have become party to a Faustian bargain. The Castro regime silently censors their reports by making it clear that the ongoing presence of those bureaus is predicated on coverage that it deems acceptable and convenient to the Revolution.
As a result, reports that come out of Cuba are laughably simplistic and shallow. They’ll often conduct man on the street interviews in Havana as if it were Cleveland. But Cubans are often afraid to complain openly about their government, using something called a doble moral (two faced discourse) where they guard their real thoughts lest the state seek retribution against them; instead, they regurgitate the party line that they have been inculcated to repeat in a Pavlovian manner.
Even these watered-down reports from Cuba often tend to offend the sensibilities of the Cuban tyranny, and in February 2007, the Castro regime expelled three journalists: Stephen Gibbs of the BBC, Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune, and Cesar Gonzalez-Calero of the Mexican newspaper El Universal. The expulsions garnered nary a word from the media at large, much less from the actual outlets affected by them because they value the access of actually having bureaus more than the journalistic independence of those bureaus. All three outlets continue to operate offices in Havana. Message sent, message received. It’s hard to believe that these media institutions would accept the kind of restrictions and ground rules in any other country that they accept in Cuba.
The media is also guilty of contempt for its readers and viewers. Reuters, the venerable British news agency, has as one of its lead Cuba correspondents, Marc Frank, a “journalist” whose resume includes a stint with the official newspaper of Communist Party USA where he penned more than 1,000 articles. Needless to say Mr. Frank’s stories are nothing more than plagiarized press releases from the regime’s official “news” bureau, Prensa Latina. But Prensa Latina, Granma, Juventud Rebelde, and the rest of the Castro propaganda machine have their own global distribution thanks to Google, which places their communist press releases in its news alerts and searches with the same authority as those from, for example, the Washington Post.
In June of 2007, the Today Show (a production of NBC News) broadcast a 2-hour live special from Havana. During the show, Matt Lauer uttered twelve sentences that might be considered mildly critical of the regime and those twelve sentences were of course “balanced” by mentions of Cuba’s highly-touted “free” health and education systems. The average Cuban worker earns less than $20 a month working for the state to get that “free” healthcare and education.
Curiously but not surprisingly absent from the special Today Show program was the mention of a single political prisoner by name. One can imagine the outrage that would have ensued if Today had visited apartheid South Africa during the 1980s and failed to utter the name of Nelson Mandela. But Lauer and company had more important things to show America, like a live performance from the world famous Cuban musical act Los Van Van accompanied by a dance troupe.
Later, Today Show researcher Gina Garcia mentioned on Today’s blog that during tapings for the production “multi-layered permissions were required and a government official came along.” I suppose NBC’s executives felt that Today’s viewer’s had no need to know that what they were watching a well-staged exercise in communist propaganda.
Also in 2007, Cuban dissident doctor Darsi Ferrer Ramirez risked his freedom and his life to obtain hidden camera footage of Cuban hospitals for ABC News, which was producing a retort to Michael Moore’s movie SiCKO in which the filmmaker predictably praises the quality and generosity of Cuba’s healthcare system. The ABC producer had to rely on outsiders to provide equipment and support despite the fact that the company has a Havana bureau, because the topic was too hot for the bureau to touch. Ultimately, none of the footage taken by Dr. Ferrer aired on ABC and the show about Cuba’s healthcare was whittled down to a segment that lasted less than five minutes. Even so, enforcers of the Castro regime called in members of ABC’s Havana bureau to account. Fortunately, a copy of the unedited footage made its way to Fox News Channel where it ran on Hannity & Colmes. It’s no coincidence that Fox News doesn’t have a Cuba bureau to protect.
In February of 2008, it was officially announced that Fidel Castro would be stepping down from his positions in the Cuban government and the Cuban Communist party. A CNN producer named Alison Flexner sent a memo out to all correspondents who might be talking on the air about Castro, reminding them that Fidel is seen as a hero by many. In short, CNN was telling its people to be kind to Castro. It should be noted that CNN also has a bureau in Havana. Its longtime bureau chief, Lucia Newman, left to join Al Jazeera.
It seems that CNN has not learned from its experience in Iraq, where it had to admit that it withheld details about the bloody rule of Saddam Hussein in order to maintain access to its bureau. Perhaps Americans would have a better understanding of what life in such a dictatorship is like and thus the importance of American efforts to nurture a democracy there if the folks at CNN and their colleagues had only done their jobs.
It’s often said that journalists write the first draft of history and that’s what troubles me. Historians of the future are going to have to wade through countless reports of what should have been reliable sources and will draw some pretty distorted conclusions. The media’s ongoing dereliction of duty on the subject of Cuba should be taught as a dark chapter in journalistic ethics classes across America — but I’m not holding my breath.