The Herald Knew It, Then Blew It

Categories: Broward News

Castell�

After the Miami Herald broke the story that three reporters working for its Spanish-language newspaper, El Nuevo Herald, had been fired for receiving propaganda money from Radio and TV Marti, the question was inevitable: What did the Herald know and when did it know it?

After implying in reporter Oscar Corral's breaking story last Friday that the Herald was completely oblivious to the fact that its reporters were taking money from the government's anti-Castro media outlets for so many years, the truth is slowly trickling out. The newspaper company's journalistic brass clearly knew more than it initially let on.

In the latest development, Herald Managing Editor Dave Wilson has admitted to his staff and to the Pulp that he and other newsroom leaders made a mistake in not reporting more about what the newspaper knew about those payments in Oscar Corral's published this past Friday.

More on that below (including the text of Wilson's contrite message to staff on the matter), but first let's look

at the way the issue was addressed in the initial Corral story that sent shockwaves throughout the country's journalistic community:

El Nuevo Herald Executive Editor Humberto Castell� said he hadn't been aware that the three writers were being paid by the federal government.

''I lament very much that I had not been informed before by them,'' Castell� said. "We discussed the situation with them and they were both dismissed immediately.''

Okay, so the folks at the Herald were clueless, right?

Not at all. The problem with Castell�'s quote was that it wasn't true. At the very least, the executive editor knew about the payments to one of the reporters, Olga Connor, since 2002, when both the Herald and El Nuevo Herald published stories about her work and even cited the fact that she had a $45,770 contract with Radio Marti.

How do we know this? Castell� admitted it in a Corral article published Tuesday in which Connor complained that Herald managers were cognizant of her work for Marti. From the piece:

El Nuevo Herald Executive Editor Humberto Castell� said Monday in an e-mail responding to a reporter's questions that he did not dismiss Connor in 2002 because she was a freelancer.

Asked if he agreed with the company's decision Thursday to terminate her contract, he answered in Spanish: "I don't agree with the decision taken.''

First he didn't know and now he did know but decided not to do anything about it. The Herald never addressed the contradiction -- instead it just printed the differing versions of Castell�'s account without explanation. It didn't go unnoticed in the newsroom, though. On the Herald's internal message board, a reporter asked the following question:

"Just curious: How is it that El Nuevo Herald managers can claim not to know staffers were getting paid by Radio/TV Marti -- and we print such claims uncontested -- when BOTH El Nuevo and The Herald in English first disclosed payments to Olga Connor four years ago?"

Shortly thereafter came a reply from Miami Herald Managing Editor Dave Wilson. The Pulp obtained his explanation, which was published on the same newsroom message board:

"We were aware of the 2002 clip on Thursday evening when the story was coming together. That's the good news. In the fairly hectic writing and editing process to get this into Friday's paper we neglected to make sure we mentioned those clips in Oscar Corral's story. That's an oversight I wish hadn't happened and I'm as much to blame as anyone. I was in on the discussions about the '02 clips but in the final edit, I didn't realize we hadn't mentioned the clips."

That's quite an oversight. The article, after all, was full of quotes from media ethicists about how taking the money was wrong. The fact that the newspaper had reported four years before about one of the reporters accepting money and did nothing about it would seem particularly relevent.

But it also would have pointed a lot of questions at the Miami Herald. Readers might have asked: Why did the newspaper suddenly care about these payments now if it didn't care so much in 2002? When did it grow ethics?

And not only did the Herald fail to include information about the 2002 article, but it also left in the Castell� quote that basically denied it. I asked Wilson about it.

"It wasn't a false quote," Wilson told me. "He said what he said."

I understood the distinction: The quote was genuine, though the content was false. I asked him what the newspaper was going to do about Castell� 's apparent lie. "You're going to have to ask the publisher about that," he said.

When I tried to get through to Publisher Jesus Diaz, however, I was directed to Herald legal counsel Robert Beatty, who didn't return my phone call.

I asked Wilson if the 2002 articles were left out because they were so, um, inconvenient to Herald management. There was a long pause, before he said, "Do you think I'm going to dignify that question with a response?"

Fair enough. He said he learned about the clips on the day before the story was published. "A reporter came across it in a clip search," Wilson told me.

I was struck by Wilson's use of the word "hectic" in describing the day before the original story was published. This was an article based on months, even years, of reporting. Why was it so hectic then? I asked the managing editor if it was true that the story was rushed into the newspaper because the Chicago Tribune was close to publishing a story of its own on the payments.

"I wouldn't say 'rushed,'" he said. "I felt there was a sense of urgency in that the story would get out."

He confirmed that the newspaper was aware that a Tribune reporter was working on the story, but he was mostly concerned that after Corral started talking to sources and subjects about his findings, any number of media outlets might get wind of it. He also told me that a reporter from another newspaper -- he said he didn't recall which newspaper, but knew it wasn't the Tribune -- contacted the Herald about the story on Thursday, adding to that "sense of urgency."

In that regard, the Herald story might be seen as a preemptive strike: Sensing that another newspaper was about to expose three of its reporters -- along with several other South Florida reporters on the government's payroll -- the newspaper ran a big front page story breaking the news and prominently announcing the firing of those three reporters. Sort of like a good, if painful, P.R. move.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with the firings. Accepting money from a propaganda agency is a line that simply can't be crossed. Herald managers, to keep any credibility El Nuevo Herald might have left, had to take a strong stand.

But the circumstances under which it was done are certainly suspicious. Former Miami Herald columnist and current radio and TV personality Jim DeFede, himself a casualty of a harsh and unfair firing by the newspaper, certainly has a point when he says he feels the reporters were treated unfairly by management, that they were essentially taken out back and shot once they became a liability.

Especially when the managers knew, or should have known, about it years before.


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