By Henry Louis Gomez
September 18, 2006
On September 8th, 2006, Miami Herald reporter Oscar Corral launched a witch-hunt against eleven fellow journalists with the full consent of his bosses Jesus Díaz Jr., the president of The Miami Herald Publishing Company and Tom Fiedler, the Herald’s executive editor. The headline read, “10 Miami journalists take U.S. pay” (apparently the Herald’s headline editor can’t count). The sin they were accused of committing was violating a ”sacred trust” between journalists and the public according to Díaz Jr.,
You see, these eleven soldiers of truth had been moonlighting for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), the governmental office that operates Radio Martí and TV Martí, two stations that are the only source of credible uncensored news and information that many Cubans have access to.
Using anonymous “experts on journalistic ethics” as their cover, Corral and his superiors alleged that the objectivity of the eleven journalists would, by necessity, be in question since they cover Cuba and Cuba-U.S. relations and were being paid by an agency of the U.S. government. It looked like an open and shut case for Corral and his masters, a clear conflict of interest. Two El Nuevo Herald journalists (the Spanish-language sister publication of The Miami Herald) were fired and a third who was a freelancer was also terminated. Soon the official Cuban press picked up on the story and so did the rest of the America-hating international media. Even anti-Castro Cuban Americans were left shaking their heads.
But Corral et al did not realize that they had sprung open a Pandora’s box of scrutiny on themselves. As the facts of Martí Moonlighters have come out, it has been one embarrassment after another for The Miami Herald.
Let’s start with Corral’s original shoddy reporting. Photographs of 10 journalists were on display, yet the names of two of the faces in the ‘gallery of the accused’ were not mentioned anywhere in the body of the article, while the 11th defendant was named but not pictured. Are you following me?
Corral also failed to make a distinction between reporters and columnists/commentators. There are obviously different standards of objectivity for the two jobs. Most egregious was the inclusion in the article of the brilliant syndicated columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner, whose column the Herald purchases. Montaner is neither from Miami nor is he employed by any media outlet. He writes columns, which are then sold to numerous outlets worldwide by his agency. Montaner has no obligation to disclose who purchases his material or otherwise pays him to expound on the subject of his expertise, Cuba. Montaner explained this quite clearly in a letter he wrote to El Nuevo Herald’s executive editor, Humberto Castelló which was published in that paper the next day and not in The Miami Herald, the newspaper responsible for the hatchet job, until 3 days after that. Obviously The Miami Herald agrees that Montaner did nothing wrong because he is still listed as a contributing columnist on the Herald’s web site and the paper continues to run his columns. When I asked Díaz Jr., via email, if Mr. Montaner deserved an apology I received no comment.
Olga Connor was a freelance culture reporter for El Nuevo Herald. The paper terminated its relationship with her after Corral “discovered” that she was being paid to host a radio show for OCB. There was one problem though, an enterprising reporter from The Miami Herald had written a story about Radio Marti in 2002 in which it was mentioned that Ms. Connor hosted a twice-weekly radio show for the station and was paid $440 per show. Ms. Connor was working as freelancer for El Nuevo Herald at the time too. For four years Ms. Connor continued to moonlight for Radio Marti without any complaint from her supervisors. That is until September 8th when her bosses apparently had a crisis of conscience.
Then there’s the case of Omar Claro, one of the faces that appeared in the September 8th condemnation without any charges. On September 9th The Herald, apparently realizing its gaffe, published a follow-up article by Corral to level the appropriate accusations. Omar Claro is a sportscaster for the local Univisión station. Mr. Claro’s violation was that he was also a sportscaster for Radio/TV Martí. That’s right, because of his part-time job with OCB, his objectivity about why Alex Rodríguez, the third baseman for the New York Yankees, was slumping, and other such important issues in the world of sports, was now in question. Of course this was the conflict of interest of utmost importance in a city where the voice of Miami Dolphins, Jimmy Cefalo (a paid employee of the team), is also the sports director and lead sports anchor for one of the leading television stations.
As the days passed, things only got worse for Corral and the top brass at the Herald. On September 12th, a columnist for El Nuevo Herald named Ernesto Betancourt, who happened to be the first director of Radio Martí back in the 80s, resigned his position but not before revealing in his final column that Radio Martí faced the same issues, regarding the compensation of part-time journalists to round out the station’s personnel, as the venerated Voice of America (VOA) did with its worldwide network of “stringers”. He said the VOAs controversy ultimately died down and payments to journalists that contributed reports or sat in on panels were deemed acceptable by all involved.
I’m assuming that Josh Gerstein of The New York Sun sensed a bigger story was still untold when he scooped Corral’s “scoop” and reported on September 12th that many Washington journalists accept appearance fees for participating in VOA broadcasts. Among them are Martin Schram, a columnist for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain and David Lightman of the Hartford Courant. The two journalists tried to distance themselves from the OCB “scandal” by saying that the stations run by OCB are “ideological” and that VOA is “nothing like Radio Martí.” But they couldn’t be more wrong. You see, VOA and OCB are both under the authority of International Broadcasting Bureau. Not only that, Radio/TV Martí are, by federal statute, required to adhere to the same code of journalistic ethics as VOA, a code that, unlike The Miami Herald’s, is public record. The aim of OCB is identical to that of VOA, namely to provide credible and uncensored information to people that would otherwise have no access to it. Lightman’s bosses apparently didn’t see the distinction either as it was reported in his paper on September 16th that he would no longer be a contributor on VOA programs.
Surely the higher-ups at 1 Herald Plaza were thinking to themselves “But still, the Martí Moonlighters had a connection to the federal government and that can’t be right. Right?” Yet they should have known that they themselves did not have clean hands in the matter, because it turns out the top man at The Herald, Jesus Díaz Jr., sits on the advisory board of the Cuba Transition Project (CTP), a government funded group. When asked why that is not a conflict of interest, Mr. Díaz Jr. told me in an email that he is neither a “reporter nor an editor” nor does he “work in the newsroom.” But his subordinate Humberto Castello, the executive editor of El Nuevo Herald is an editor and, while his office might not be in the newsroom, he is the man responsible for its output, and he too sits on the advisory board of the Cuba Transition Project. Castelló did not respond to my questions about his role on the advisory board but Díaz Jr. claims that he has never attended a meeting and only received materials from the CTP. When asked what was expected of him as a member of an advisory board, apart from reading materials, Mr. Díaz Jr. declined to respond. Díaz Jr. and Castelló should have remembered the old saw about people living in glass houses with a propensity for throwing stones. I hear a shattering sound.
About three weeks before Corral’s article was published, Reinaldo Taladrid, one of Fidel Castro’s flacks, said on Cuban TV that members of the Miami press were being paid by the federal government. The Herald claims they had made Freedom of Information Act requests, that yielded the “smoking gun” from OCB about two weeks before the article was published. You do the math.
In an effort to discredit distinguished Cuban-American journalists, Oscar Corral and his superiors managed to: show themselves to be incompetent, besmirch the reputation of the Voice of America (whose stringers are among the most persecuted journalists in the most dangerous parts of the world), and manage to alienate a large portion of its declining readership by becoming a tool of the most despicable regime in the hemisphere. The good news is that we found the witches. They weren’t the ones we thought they were, but we found them.