El Hombre Que Inventó a Fidel: Cuba, Castro Y El New York Times
Uceda, Ricardo, Americas Quarterly
El hombre que inventó a FidelCuba, Castro y el New York Timesby Anthony DePalmaJorge Pinto Books Inc. (2006), 2007 Spanish, Softcover, 268 pages
REVIEWED BY RICARDO UCEDA
Can a journalist get too close to his subject? The story of Herbert Matthews, the star New York Times correspondent who landed the first foreign interview with Fidel Castro and then saw his career implode after attacks on his objectivity, is a lesson in the uneasy relationship between political power and the media. The question has inspired reams of self-criticism by journalists themselves. But Matthews' rise and fall, chronicled by New York Times journalist Anthony DePalma in El hombre que inventó a Fidel: Cuba, Castro y el New York Times (2007), raises trenchant issues about the nature of journalism that are especially relevant to Latin America today.
DePalma, who was the Times' Mexico City correspondent from 1993 to 1996 and is today a New York-based writer for the newspaper, has excellent credentials to tell the tale. A well-respected journalist with other books to his credit, his understanding of the Times' newsroom culture and his access to the paper's voluminous archives helped him paint a well-researched and compelling account that not only explores the work of a controversial colleague but puts his employers under a microscope. The book, published in English last year as The Man Who Invented Fidel: Cuba, Castro and the New York Times, concludes that Matthews was driven less by ideology than by his attraction to power. The urge by some journalists to place themselves at the center of politically charged environments, rather than stay on the outside as professional spectators, has become a feature of the modern world of personality-driven journalism. DePalma's book is a timely reminder of the dangers.
Matthews was seduced by Castro in 1957, during their first encounter in the young revolutionary's Sierra Maestra hideout. His interview with the cigar-smoking rebel was a renowned scoop. It introduced Castro and his small band of guerrillas to the world, and propagated many of the romantic myths about the Cuban leader that persist to this day. In the process, the interview established Matthews as a singular and authoritative interpreter of the revolution in its early years.
The blurring of the boundary between reportage and myth-making is one of the book's central themes. DePalma raises the question of whether Matthews' initial pursuit of a great story was eventually corrupted by the reporter's own image of himself as the herald of the Cuban revolution. What makes this more poignant is the fact that, as DePalma persuasively argues, Matthews himself believed he was offering unbiased and balanced information.
Historical perspective tells us now that much of Matthews' reporting distorted the reality of the early years of the Cuban revolution and its founder. But the equally awkward question is whether the world's most prestigious newspaper dealt fairly with a reporter whose credibility had come under attack. The Times is not the only newspaper that has been embarrassed by the excesses and lapses of its reporters-and in recent years it has acted quickly to make such lapses public. But DePalma suggests that the paper covered up its own responsibility in propagating the myths about Castro by sidelining the reporter. Although the author does not explicitly pass judgment on the Times' actions, he makes clear that he believes the paper could have acted differently while still preserving its reputation. As DePalma takes the reader through the history, the reader discovers a third dimension of the book: the risk of journalistic subjectivity and the temptation of contemporary media to self-censor in order to avoid controversy with the mainstream public opinion or the political establishment.
Matthews was already an accomplished foreign correspondent before trekking to the Sierra Maestra. His coverage of Benito Mussolini's Africa campaign and the Spanish Civil War had attracted attention. Matthews excelled among his peers for his sophistication and exceptional talent. DePalma describes him as "urbane, worldly, and bookish; he carried himself with the air of a university dean or a pinstripe State Department diplomat. He smoked a pipe, quoted Dante, and counted as friends Ernest Hemingway and the Italian Philosopher Benedetto Croce." His growing fame brought him access to the great and the famous as well. The book refers to at least one occasion when Matthews met President John F. Kennedy to discuss Cuba. Often accused of being communist and pro-Castro, Matthews felt the need to defend himself. "I consider myself a liberal," Matthews wrote in The Cuban Story, one of his twelve books. "And liberalism is communism's biggest enemy."
So how did he come to be branded as one of the West's foremost defenders of Castro?
DePalma suggests that Matthews inserted himself into the Cuban Story and the Revolution in Cuba in a way that violated the professional standards of his craft. Matthews's transgressions were, in part, permitted by the Times, which for several years granted him an irregular dual role as reporter and editorialist. On the eve of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Matthews was a frequent traveler to Cuba, and turned his special access to Castro into the material for editorials in New York and well-informed, though tendentious, reporting. His vivid, sympathetic portraits of Fidel made him a celebrity of sorts in Havana and even Washington, where at first there was widespread interest in and support for the Cuban government. But then Matthews attempted to convert his celebrity into policy-making. DePalma details the reporter's efforts to influence both capitals-advising Castro to keep his distance from the Soviet government, while trying to prevent the United States from viewing Castro as an enemy.
The book illustrates how Matthews' inflated sense of his own role led to errors that undermined his journalism-and misled his readers. For example, Matthews continued to claim that Castro would never become a communist even as the Cuban leader was drawing closer to the Soviet Union. At the same time Matthews soft-pedaled the growing evidence of human rights abuses by the Castro regime. Shortly after the Times reported widespread executions of dissidents on the island, Matthews wrote articles that in effect defended these measures as a means of avoiding greater violence in the future. Even after the nature of Castro's dictatorship was becoming clear to most observers, Matthews cast himself as a friend of the revolution. As one reads his dispatches from the field-many of them reproduced in the book-one can't help wondering if Matthews, despite his claim to be an anti-communist liberal, had become blinded by his personal admiration for Fidel. In one of his front page articles, for example, Matthews concluded "This is not a communist revolution in any sense of the word and there are no communists in positions of control. . .This is the overwhelming consensus among Cubans in the best positions to know."
The Reporter as Hero Worshipper
Although DePalma frequently fails to cite his sources-a noticeable defect of the book-one of his strengths is his rigorous exploration of Matthews' personality. Even as a young reporter, Matthews was enthralled by the heroic exploits of globe-trotting war correspondents such as Richard Harding Davis, a legendary reporter for the New York Herald and other examples of the so-called "yellow press" that flourished at the turn of the twentieth century. Davis, whose glowing portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders during the 1898 Spanish-American War turned Roosevelt into a national figure, never let facts get in the way of a good story. It was not surprising, therefore, that Matthews was easily seduced by the heroic rogues and adventurers whose exploits were often larger-than-life. It is here that the book makes its most interesting observations.
Even in Matthews' brilliant reporting of Mussolini's victorious campaigns, as DePalma notes, he did not try to hide his empathy with the victors. Soon afterward, reporting from Spain on the Republican anti-fascist side of the civil war, Matthews' seemed to tack in the opposite political direction. DePalma asks himself a great question-whether his reports might have been pro-Franco had he been assigned to cover the other side. This provides an interesting context for Matthews' embrace of Castro 20 years later. Matthews' bias may have had less to do with ideological convictions than with his gravitation towards strong, colorful personalities.
Matthews did not believe in "objective journalism." Instead, according to DePalma, Matthews saw himself as a public intellectual who could effortlessly blend information with opinion. It's a risk that has increased today. Contemporary media, now touched by the show-business glamour of TV, is rife with journalists whose prominence is based as much on their personalities or opinions as on their reporting.
Fall From Grace
Matthews paid a heavy price for his journalistic over-reaching ego. Although Matthews was the best-informed journalist covering Cuba in his day, Times editors, worried about the paper's credibility, effectively banned him from reporting on the subject. The paper's most public rebuke came on the first anniversary of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Matthews had managed to score an interview with Castro, but the Times instead ran with an interview conducted by another reporter who wasn't even working for the paper: Jean Daniel of L'Express.
From then on, with the exception of a few pieces about Cuba that depended upon his unique access to sources in the Cuban government, Matthews was only allowed to write anonymous editorials that reflected the paper's institutional positions. The humiliation he suffered can only be imagined. To my mind-speaking as a former journalist-Matthews experienced a journalist's worst fate: after working for the New York Times for 45 years, he was silenced by his own newspaper.
DePalma does not judge the Times' conduct, but the reader is left in little doubt about his views. The book quotes a particularly poignant admission by the late Turner Catledge, former Executive Editor of the Times, that suggests some of the newspaper's senior executives eventually came to believe they had treated a loyal reporter unfairly. "It haunts me," Catledge wrote in his memoirs, "that the sins committed against Matthews exceeded the sins that he himself committed."
Even when the Times replaced Matthews with new reporters, the coverage was far from unbiased. For example, when Ruby Phillips was the main correspondent on the island, the paper's "editors believed that Phillips was too anti-Castro." In 1958, the Times sent Homer Bigart, who, according to DePalma, was also misleading. "Bigart gave a far more critical view of Castro and the rebellion he was leading than Matthews had, but in the end he was wrong about the outcome." The Times finally chose Max Frankel who "did not know Spanish, or much about Cuba, but who would know a communist if he saw one. . . ." Frankel himself stated he was "being clumsily inserted between feuding writers, both old enough to be my parents and vastly more experienced in the subject."
It may be ironic that Matthews' passage from hero-reporter to defrocked apologist paralleled Castro's own evolution in American eyes from romantic rebel to discredited dictator. Matthews resigned from the Times in 1967. He died in Adelaide, Australia, expressing no regrets about the turn his career had taken, in the summer of 1977.
This book does not tell us anything new about Fidel. But that isn't its intent. It is, rather, a fascinating and well-documented example of the weaknesses and the pitfalls of journalism that has special relevance today.
The account also raises the intriguing question of whether, in the urge to avoid Matthews' mistakes, it has become more difficult for journalists to challenge popular stereotypes about public figures. For example, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who likes to identify himself as Fidel's natural heir, is now almost universally vilified in the U.S. press. That has made it awkward for journalists with independent points of view to tell a different story without being accused of acting as apologists. But it may in fact be desirable to hear and read other perspectives-even if those perspectives originate from journalists who are acknowledged to be close to the Venezuelan leader, or unabashedly share his views. Empathy obviously carries risks, as we've learned from Matthews' story, but good political journalism should be able to balance proximity to power with the danger of being corrupted by it. The fact that Matthews, as DePalma ably demonstrates, lost sight of that balance should not discourage others from tackling the challenge.
Matthews inserted himself into the Revolution in Cuba in a way that violated the profesional standards of his craft.
Ricardo Uceda is director of the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) and author of Muerte en el Pentagonito (2004), an investigative account of human rights violations in Peru.…
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Publication information: Article title: El Hombre Que Inventó a Fidel: Cuba, Castro Y El New York Times. Contributors: Uceda, Ricardo - Author. Magazine title: Americas Quarterly. Volume: 1. Issue: 2 Publication date: Fall 2007. Page number: 106+. © Americas Society Council of the Americas Spring 2007. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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