El Hombre Que Inventó a Fidel: Cuba, Castro Y El New York Times

By Uceda, Ricardo | Americas Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

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.

Going Native

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. …

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