Miami media scandal not a shock

Published September 9, 2006

MIAMI - It was oddly unsurprising when the Miami Herald announced Friday in a front-page story that three reporters at its Spanish-language sister newspaper, El Nuevo Herald, had been taking government payments for their Cuba coverage.

It was no secret the reporters had been appearing for years on Radio Marti and TV Marti, the federally funded stations that broadcast to Cuba.

What was surprising was that no one had ever questioned who was paying for their time.

One of the reporters, Pablo Alfonso, was paid almost $175,000 since 2001 to host shows on the "Martis," as the two stations are known.

He was among 10 Miami journalists who accepted money from the government, what media ethicists call a classic conflict of interest.

The case is being compared to another scandal last year involving payments by the Bush administration to pundit Armstrong Williams to promote its education policy.

To be fair, this latest incident does not appear to rise to the same level. Unlike the Williams case, the government did not make the payments with any clandestine agenda in mind, besides firing salvos of "free world" journalism at the communist island.

What the payments do highlight is the murky and intensely partisan world of Miami journalism, especially when it comes to U.S./Cuba policy.

The McClatchy Co., which owns the two Heralds, said it had no alternative but to fire the two reporters for violating corporate policy. It also severed ties with a freelance culture writer who had earned $71,000.

But the other seven were not all news reporters who might have been expected to cover Cuba-U.S. relations with scrupulous objectivity.

The Cuban government, which has long argued that Miami's anti-Castro media are on the CIA's payroll, must be chuckling over the latest revelations. One might think the Miami media would be careful to avoid any hint of impropriety. Not so.

"There is nothing suspect in this," Juan Manuel Cao, a local TV reporter, told the Herald. He said he would be happy to appear on the Martis for free, but government regulations require that a fee is paid. In his case $11,400 this year alone.

Helen Aguirre Ferre, the opinion page editor of Diario de las Americas, made $4,325 between 2001 and 2005. She denied any conflict of interest.

Conservative talk radio host Paul Crespo, who was paid $2,775 by the Martis between 2002 and 2006, said he did not feel bound by the same ethical restrictions as a reporter.

A former U.S. Marine, he has appeared as a paid military analyst on the Martis as well as Miami's local Fox TV affiliate.

"It's not the same ball of wax," he said. "The Herald turned it into some tawdry secret thing."

Crespo, and others, stress the payments by the Martis were a matter of public record.

The Miami Herald said it came across the payments during a two-year investigation of the finances of the Martis. While the paper was aware that staff members were appearing on the stations, the payments came as a surprise, it says.

"Our managers had no knowledge of the payments at all," said Robert Beatty, the Herald's general counsel.

But Beatty said the paper saw no conflict of interest in staff making unpaid appearances on the Martis.

Some Herald staff privately scoff at the papers' official version, saying it was commonly known that El Nuevo's reporters were profiting from the Martis. They see the three reporters as scapegoats for a longstanding failure to make El Nuevo Herald's Cuba coverage meet U.S. media standards.

While most of the fault may lie with the journalists, the government is not blameless. The Martis have been notoriously mismanaged over the years.

Some say the stations are a colossal waste of tax dollars, not to mention a violation of international broadcasting norms. The TV station is especially notorious. Few Cubans even see it because Cuba has blocked the signal for years.

But many Cuban Americans argue that it is right to bring uncensored news to the Cuban people.

"Why are we for it?" asks Joe Garcia, a prominent exile political activist. "Because Cubans don't have access to information in Cuba." He compares the Martis to Radio Free Europe's broadcasts to Eastern Europe during the Cold War, which dissidents say provided oxygen to the pro-democracy movement.

But Garcia, and others, are deeply critical of the way the Martis have been managed under the Bush administration. "They have turned it into a banana republic radio station that is used for political patronage," said Garcia, who is a Democrat.

The payments to journalists also ensured that the management of the Martis rarely comes in for questioning in the Miami media. That perhaps is the biggest scandal of all.