Friday, September 07, 2007

Bias and mythmaking in the news

Though accusations of bias in the news, or of government censorship, since Washington launched its campaign against terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have reached a strident level, those phenomena — antipodes locked in a perpetual dance, if you will — are anything but new. In fact, they have haunted the business of reporting since its inception.

Anthony DePalma’s The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times takes a shot at untying that Gordian knot by following the controversial travails of the famous, or, to some, infamous, reporter who in 1957 went to Cuba and interviewed a young rebel named Fidel Castro, who until then had been believed killed, in the Sierra Mastra. The series of three articles that emerged from that fateful meeting, all published in the New York Times, became part of the myth that enshrouded Castro — and, as the leader’s image of a principled savior of Cuba soured with time, Matthews’ undoing.

Part history, part biography and part essay on history and revisionism, DePalma’s relentlessly captivating narrative describes not only the complex lifelong relationship that developed between Castro and Matthews, but also those that sprung between the US State Department, US ambassadors to Cuba, the CIA, the FBI (which put Matthews on its index over J. Edgar Hoover’s suspicion that he was a closet communist), the editorial staff at the Times, which as public and political pressure mounted failed to stand by its seasoned reporter, other journalists, and Cuban expatriates who at times hailed him as a hero while others (pro-Bastista or anti-communists) sent him hate mail and even death threats.

Throughout all this, the increasingly isolated Matthews never yielded to the growing criticism that his romantic coverage of the Cuban Revolution, and of Castro, had allowed a monster to emerge, contending throughout his life that he had always been right and that Castro, rather than having been a communist all along, only to deceive the world, had instead used the Soviet Union to maintain his hold on power. Later in life, in books and articles revisiting the revolution, Matthews did criticize Castro, especially over his dangerous gamble during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But enamored as he was of powerful figures, he never failed to balance his criticism with admiration for Fidel’s qualities. Accused of disrupting the truth, Matthews defended himself with the claim that he had never reported anything he did not believe was true.

But regardless of what he wrote later on, the damage had been done, and the public never abandoned the view that Matthews, if perhaps unintentionally, had been complicit in a political heist of global strategic proportions. Just as the Castro myth had been born in 1957, so was Matthews’, and to this day those illusions would be extremely hard to dispel.

Aside from shedding important light on this moment in Cold War history, DePalma’s book also asks important questions about the responsibilities of newsmakers and editorialists. Here again, the author uses Matthews — who through a special arrangement did both at the Times — to guide the reader. Under ideal conditions, reporters are supposed to be neutral in their coverage of events, while by virtue editorialists are expected to be opinionated, to “disturb the peace [...] to challenge accepted ideas and principles if they seem outworn or unsuited,” as Matthews himself once put it. What happens, then, when an individual is asked to wear both hats? Can he or she reasonably be expected to keep the two separate at all time, or is there not a risk that the lines will eventually blur until newsmaking becomes editorialized, with the author’s biases “polluting” the news item? Or is pure, unbiased news itself, as Martha Gellhorn, the future wife of Ernest Hemingway, who during the Spanish Civil War befriended Matthews, once famously put it, nothing but “objectivity shit,” something altogether impossible to achieve, given human nature?

Being an editorialist myself for a leading English-language newspaper in Taiwan, those questions were of special interest, especially as newspaper editorials are in fact not the author’s opinion but rather reflect an institutional position, that of the paper. The conflicts that arise — and there are many — stem from the eternal tug-of-war between the individual’s biases and those of the publisher, which do not necessarily always dovetail. In Matthews’ case, these differences led to a conflicted relationship with the editorial board, which toward the end of his career virtually shut him out (the news department had done this much earlier, on one occasion even barring him from visiting Cuba at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Political editorials are especially troublesome and Matthews, writing about Cuba and Latin America, experienced more than his share of angst writing them for the Times. Aside from the views of the newspaper itself, the context of the Cold War (much like today) and the ongoing witch hunt for supposed communists led to tremendous pressure from the White House on the media to toe the line, and the Times was not impervious to this. (Taiwan, being no less political than Cuba and the US were at the time, presents a daunting challenge to editorialists, as every word is weighed, with the assurance that whatever one writes will create anger in the opposite camp, such as exists in Taiwan’s overly polarized politics.)

In all, The Man Who Invented Fidel is a superb piece of reporting on an issue that remains much alive today. Without falling into an apology for Matthews, it nevertheless manages to portray him as a complex individual — much like el Jefe Maximo — in a way that defies the Manichean inflexibility of the imagination that sadly characterizes much of the reporting we encounter in the news, back then and in contemporary times.

With the benefit of hindsight and knowing what we know about Castro today, there is no question that with our without Matthews’ reporting, Castro would have found his way to power, and DePalma’s essential book does us all a tremendous service by dispelling the belief that Matthews is to blame for all the ills that befell US-Cuban relations. Matthews may have played an early role in helping create the image in the US — and to a similar extent in Cuba, despite the heavy censorship that prevailed there at the time — but in the end, Fidel did not need Matthews to achieve his objectives as much as Matthews needed Fidel to attain his as a reporter.

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