As they debate the issue, all agree that the incident threatens the image of Hispanic media, which is already misunderstood by some.
"What amazed me about this incident," says Alejandro Manrique, editor of the Spanish-language Rumbo newspaper in San Antonio, Tex., "is that this was not the first time this happened: It was very common for people at El Nuevo Herald to make comments on Radio Marti." Even though what they did was wrong, adds Manrique, "it's hard if people have been doing this for years to suddenly punish these three journalists. This is a grey area. It's not black and white."
A Sept. 8 article in The Miami Herald revealed that at least 10 journalists from Hispanic media outlets in South Florida, including three from El Nuevo Herald, have been regularly paid to participate in programs on Radio and TV Marti, the U.S.-government sponsored broadcast to Cuba. The article compared the journalists to Armstrong Williams, the talk-show host who received $240,000 to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind education program in 2004.
Since 2001, El Nuevo Herald staff reporter Pablo Alfonso, who wrote an opinion column and covered Cuba, was paid almost $175,000 to host programs on Radio and TV Marti. During the same time period, staff writer Wilfredo Cancio, who covered the Cuban exile community and politics, received almost $15,000; Olga Connor, a freelance reporter who wrote about Cuban culture, was paid about $71,000. Both Alfonso and Cancio were dismissed, and Connor's relationship with The Miami Herald was terminated.
"There was a rush to pass judgment" among the mainstream media, says Jeannette Rivera-Lyles, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel who worked at El Nuevo Herald from 1997 to 2003. Rather than sparking a discussion about ethics, she says publications across the country leapt on the story as "another Armstrong Williams case," smearing the journalists' names without knowing the whole story.
In Miami, the newspaper's decision to fire the journalists generated hundreds of letters of protest and canceled subscriptions.
In an open letter to the Miami Herald and the McClatchy Company, and signed by hundreds of journalists at El Nuevo Herald and other media outlets, protesters accuse the Sept. 8 Miami Herald article of "yellow journalism."
The letter, online at
www.apoyoaperiodistasdelnuevoherald.blogspot.com, says the Miami Herald article "creates the false impression that the professional work of these colleagues (for TV and Radio Marti) was a clandestine political operation."
"I sat 20 feet across from them for six years," says Rivera-Lyles. "This was no secret. This was not something they hid in any way. It was openly discussed in the newsroom." Rivera-Lyles adds, "There was no specific policy precluding journalists at El Nuevo Herald from being able to work for Radio or TV Marti."
In fact, in 2002, both the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald published stories that quoted Radio Marti employees, among them Pablo Alfonso and Olga Connor, two of the journalists recently dismissed.
"I have no idea why this is happening now," says Rivera-Lyles. "This is the most bizarre thing ever."
Some journalists say comparisons to the Armstrong Williams case are inaccurate. "By definition a conflict of interest is when you compromise your position on something or compromise what you do in exchange for something," says Rivera-Lyles. "They were paid for rendering professional services, not to stick to certain talking points, discuss a certain issue or promote anybody's agenda. I do not believe they compromized their integrity," says Rivera-Lyles, who adds the journalists appeared on news, culture and literature shows, far from political propaganda.
Many well-known journalists for English-language newspapers and magazines have "for many, many years" received payment from the U.S. government to appear on the government-sponsored Voice of America radio program, a sister broadcast of Radio Marti, according to a report in the Sept. 14 edition of El Nuevo Herald. One of these, David Lightman, chief of the Washington, D.C., bureau for Connecticut's Hartford Courant, has since resigned from Voice of America.
"No one would have dared to put the name of the Washington, D.C., bureau chief of the Hartford Courant next to Armstrong Williams," says Rivera-Lyles. "There is a clear double standard here. Spanish media is treated as if they were second class citizens in this case."
But many editors at Latino publications across the country support the newspaper's decision to fire the reporters, saying no journalist should receive money from the government.
"We've fired people here for less than that," says Pedro Rojas, editor of the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion in Los Angeles. "We don't want to mess with La Opinion's name on the street."
"My main concern is that people will see this (conflict of interest) as a trend in ethnic media, and draw the conclusion that all ethnic media does this," says Rojas. "This is an exception to the rule."
"Quality is not relegated to mainstream media," Rojas adds. "Quality and ethics are for all of us in this profession."
For some, the readers' protests are evidence of the anti-Castro influence in Miami.
"I would be scared if I wanted to do independent journalism about Cuba in Miami," says Jose Luis Benavides, journalism professor at California State University, Northridge. "If the vociferous community supports the journalists, and if they are reinstated, that's a loss for independent journalism."
In the 1990s, Benavides adds, the former editor of the Miami Herald wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which he accused El Nuevo Herald of being unable to do objective journalism about Cuba.
"To me, (what the journalists did) goes beyond a conflict of interest. This is corruption. How can readers trust El Nuevo Herald as an independent source of information?"
Benavides says he hopes the recent crackdown reflects a change in policy from the newspaper's new corporate owner.
"I hope this is a way for the McClatchy Company to try to do something about El Nuevo Herald, to make it more responsive to the larger community of Latinos in Miami and not just the anti-Castro group," says Benavides. "Knight Ridder (the former owner) tried but they were unable to control it."
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Albion Monitor September
28, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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