Fidel's Favorite Propagandist
How a New York Times reporter's passion for Castro led him astray
The Man Who Invented Fidel: Cuba, Castro, and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times, by Anthony DePalma, New York: Public-Affairs, 308 pages, $26.95
Aha! Finally we've discovered the missing ingredient in American journalism, the vitamin deficiency that's been shrinking newspaper circulation and TV newscast audiences all these years. What Americans clamor for is not information but passion. The heroes of the coverage of Katrina were not the reporters who got the most accurate stories but the ones who shouted the loudest or cried the hardest.
CNN's Anderson Cooper acquired the most accolades. "For the last four days I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets…I've got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated," he snarled at Sen. Mary Land-rieu (D-La.) as she tried to explain what she was doing to get help for the hurricane's victims. The on-air tantrum earned him the title "conscience of a nation" from Vanity Fair.
Such reporting may have been satisfyingly emotional, but much of it was also overwhelmingly, dumbfoundingly wrong. The orgies of rape and murder among refugees inside the New Orleans Superdome? Didn't happen. The stacks of corpses? Weren't there. The snipers firing on rescue helicopters? Imaginary. The wild-eyed warnings that the Katrina death toll would surpass 10,000? Off by 500 percent. A little less emoting and a few more hard questions would have served us all better.
This is hardly a new lesson in journalism, but it is a painful and difficult one. The consequences of the failure to learn it can range from obscurity (Anderson Cooper, meet Geraldo Rivera) to infamy (Judith Miller) to both. That last is the lot of Herbert Matthews, whose insistence on following his heart led him down a lonely trail from distinguished New York Times foreign correspondent to journalism pariah to forgotten exile halfway around the world. Matthews was the first American reporter to interview Fidel Castro and the last to recognize the man as a ruthless and slightly mad totalitarian murderer. He created, fell in love with, and ultimately was devoured by Castro's mythology without ever really understanding what was happening.
Only a fool, Matthews wrote, would argue that a reporter "should have had no feelings or emotions or even bias about a story like the Cuban Revolution." And a reporter's heart should be pinned on his sleeve, or at least his copy. "One of the essentials of good newspaper work is what F. Scott Fitzgerald called 'the catharsis of a powerful emotion,'?" Matthews said. "A catharsis is the escape hatch of the emotions that a drama arouses." That, Anthony DePalma notes in his biography of Matthews, The Man Who Invented Fidel, is exactly what destroyed him: "The same passion that can bring a correspondent's work to life also poses dangers, and has the potential to undermine both trust and credibility." DePalma, himself a New York Times Latin American correspondent, clearly takes no pleasure in this story, though he pulls no punches in his crisply told tale.
Dead three decades and gone from The New York Times for four, Matthews is little remembered in the United States these days. (Cuba is another matter.) But during the late 1950s and early '60s, at the height of the Cold War, he was the most controversial figure in American journalism. Conservatives-particularly National Review, which taunted Matthews with a cartoon of Castro astride a map of Cuba, over a Times classified-ad slogan of the day, "I GOT MY JOB THROUGH THE NEW YORK TIMES"-reviled him. Lefty academic symposia coveted his presence. Congress (and, according to DePalma, the FBI) investigated him, while rival groups of Cubans took turns demonstrating outside the Times building, praising him as the island's savior or damning him as its Judas. Through it all, Times executives huddled on the 10th floor, this mess confounding them as thoroughly as Judith Miller's weapons-of-mass-destruction mess would confound them years later.
It started as an apparently brilliant scoop. In February 1957, when many people-including the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista-believed the guerrilla leader Fidel Castro was dead, Matthews found him in the Sierra Maestra mountains, interviewed him, and took his picture. The news outraged Batista, electrified his opponents, and kick-started an armed uprising that ended two years later with Castro in the presidential palace, where he's been ever since.
If the story were as straightforward as that, Matthews' oft-repeated defense later-that blaming him for Castro was like blaming a meteorologist for a storm-would be nearly impregnable. It isn't, as a look at Matthews' very first story makes clear. While crowing at length about his own ability to learn information and get places that neither Batista nor the Yankee embassy could get near, he hypes Castro as Batista?s "most dangerous enemy" and declares that "hundreds of highly respected citizens are helping Señor Castro,? who is offering "a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist." We are assured that "thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands." Castro, while admittedly a "fanatic," is a "man of ideals, of courage and of remarkable qualities of leadership," with an "overpowering" personality.
There's more-much more, a whopping 4,000 words-but you get the flavor. Even in 1957, this must have struck many readers as the Weekly Reader version of foreign reporting: the swashbuckling self-promotion, the naked adulation for Castro, the embarrassingly crude attempt to link Fidel to the political heroes of the paper's editorial pages. Castro's "new deal"! If only Matthews could have foreseen Castro's version of court packing.
Matthews' flat declaration that Castro was an anti-communist would, of course, come back to haunt him. And though that was the most extreme example of the extraordinary credulousness with which Matthews treated Castro's claims, it is by no means the only one. Bluntly put, virtually everything in Matthews' story is a lie.
Castro, a former student opposition leader, had just returned to Cuba from a long exile in Mexico three months earlier and had been on the run ever since. At the time of his interview with Matthews, Castro had not "hundreds" of soldiers but 18, and barely enough weapons to arm them. He had staged not, as Matthews claimed, "a series" of raids but two-one of them an ambush of a Batista patrol that was hot on his heels-and had killed no more than half a dozen government troops. Matthews asserted that Batista was "losing" the war; in fact, Castro's forces, tiny to begin with, had nearly been annihilated by the government's air force and the continual betrayal of the local peasants. The latest traitor would be shot within hours of Matthews' departure from Castro's camp-possibly at the hands of Raul Castro, among the movement's most ruthless executioners. (A fleeting reference to Raul in Matthews' story was the only thing that really embarrassed the reporter. "I would never again call Raul Castro pleasant," Matthews would write in 1961, with a palpable shudder.)
We know all this from the publication of wartime diaries kept by Castro's top two lieutenants, his brother Raul and Che Guevara, as well as written accounts from some of his soldiers. But most notoriously we know it from Castro himself, who-apparently thinking himself among friends-bragged during a speech two years later at the Washington Press Club that he had deliberately manipulated Matthews during the interview. Changing their hats and other details of their appearance, the same handful of soldiers paraded back and forth through the camp, causing Matthews to write in his notes (now on deposit in a Columbia University library) that he'd seen about 40 different men. Then, to lend veracity to Castro's claim that he operated a chain of camps across the mountains where the rest of his troops were stationed, one of the men broke into the conversation to breathlessly (and fictitiously) report that "the liaison from Column No. 2 has arrived!" Replied Castro airily, "Wait until I'm finished."
A story that said that Castro, under continuous pressure from government forces, was fleeing across the mountains with 18 bedraggled men and that his only significant allies were bribed bandit gangs probably wouldn't have made much of a splash in The New York Times. But Matthews' melodramatic tale of an invincible guerrilla army bringing the government of an American ally to its knees, accompanied by a photo of Castro, his trusty sniper rifle clasped boldly to his chest, led the Sunday front page on February 24, 1957. It caused a sensation-not only in the United States but in Cuba. Castro allies in New York ran off more than 3,000 copies (including additional lengthy stories Matthews wrote the following two days) and mailed them to everybody in the Havana social register, effectively smashing Batista's tight censorship. (Stories about Cuban politics were even snipped from imported newspapers and magazines.)
Batista stupidly bolstered the stories' credibility by adamantly denying the one thing Matthews got right: that Castro was alive. The Times replied first with a photostat of Castro's signature, scrawled across Matthews' notes, then with a photo of the two men smoking cigars together. Within weeks, the trails of the Sierra Maestra were in sore need of traffic lights to handle the parade of reporters visiting Castro, representing every outlet from the Chicago Tribune to (no kidding) Boy's Life.
Almost without exception, they stuck to the formula invented by Matthews: Castro's beard and long hair, his youth, his overpowering physique and outsized personality, his vague but stirring references to democracy, the David-and-Goliath nature of his struggle. With a single story, Matthews had created a mythology that has lasted to this day.
Some of the reporters were even more awed by Castro than Matthews was. CBS producer Robert Taber, at the end of his worshipful documentary Rebels of the Sierra Maestra: The Story of Cuba's Jungle Fighters, simply handed over the microphone and invited Castro to tell Americans anything on his mind. The surprised but grateful Castro responded with a tirade demanding the end of U.S. arms shipments to Batista-a rant amplified when material from the documentary was published in Life magazine. Taber was so smitten by what he heard that he would eventually form the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, whose most famous member would be Lee Harvey Oswald.
Picking on mistakes in war coverage, any war coverage, is easy sport. The saying that in war the first casualty is truth has been reduced to a cliché, but that doesn't make it any less accurate. Everybody lies profligately during war-generals, soldiers, politicians, civilians caught in the middle-and verification is usually difficult.
In a guerrilla war, "difficult" quickly morphs into "nearly impossible." Troops cannot be located, much less inspected. Combat erupts and ends quickly, unwitnessed, in darkened jungle clearings, and even the participants may not know exactly what happened. Guerrilla movements by their very nature are deceptive, and their leaders tend to be constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. Put Fidel Castro at the top of the list: "Apparently a natural deceiver, he has improved with practice," John Silber once wrote of him. As DePalma notes, if Castro managed to convince 5 million or so Cubans that he was not a communist, it hardly seems reasonable to fault Herbert Matthews for believing him. "Matthews' most egregious error was not in misidentifying Castro," DePalma writes. "Rather, it was in persisting in his perception of Castro as an idealist long after he had transformed himself into a demagogue."
Seven months after the revolution, as Castro's leftward march was becoming increasingly clear, Matthews wrote that "this is not a Communist revolution in any sense of the word and there are no communists in positions of control." Privately, he was even more adamant, arguing to the U.S. ambassador to Cuba that Castro was actually "intellectually and emotionally anti-communist." When other Times reporters wrote differently, Matthews smeared them in secret memos to the paper's publisher and sometimes harangued them directly. When James Reston, the Washington bureau chief, wrote in 1960 that Cuba was turning into a Soviet satellite, Matthews sent him a blistering rebuke. "Cuba under its present leaders will neither go communist nor come under communist control or even great influence," he informed Reston, then added condescendingly, "This is a situation I have studied as deeply as anyone in the United States."
Barely a year later, Castro would publicly declare himself a communist, and a few months after that the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba would bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. Neither event changed Matthews' mind. As late as 1969, he declared in his biography Fidel Castro that it was all a big misunderstanding. "Fidel, as I have said, uses communism," Matthews explained. "He finds it valuable but that is different from believing in the communist ideology." Matthews had little sympathy for those who disagreed. When Castro jailed one of his most popular commanders, Huber Matos, in 1959 for having the temerity to suggest there were too many communists in the government, Matthews simply shrugged: "A revolution is not a tea party." Matos would serve every day of his 20-year sentence.
Matthews never tried to pretend he wasn't taking sides in his coverage of Cuba. In his 1961 book The Cuban Story, he bragged that he had Castro's "confidence, respect, friendship, even his ear….Many people thought that Fidel would listen to me, and only to me." Noting that some Fidelophiles in Washington had even pushed to make him U.S. ambassador to Cuba, Matthews wrote that it was a bad idea because "it is important for an envoy to be uncommitted. Considering how involved I had become, I am sure I would not have been a desirable candidate." That is, he was too committed to be a diplomat but not to be a journalist.
Many reporters who shared Matthews' initial rapture over Castro would soon recant. The Chicago Tribune's Jules Dubois, who once wrote that "it was not until Fidel Castro came along that the people of Cuba found the leader to fight for their lost liberty," saw enough disturbing trends during the early months of the revolutionary government that he published a book in 1959 titled Fidel Castro: Rebel, Liberator or Dictator? It included ample evidence for the last label. But Matthews never wavered. For nearly 20 years, he continued to act as Castro's personal publicist, praising him as "a man of destiny," comparing him to Oliver Cromwell and John Brown. Nothing-not Castro's thousands of kangaroo court executions, not his concentration camps for gays, not his reckless importation of Soviet missiles or his military adventures in Africa, not even the steady impoverishment of the island that sent millions of Cubans fleeing toward Miami-changed his mind.
Eventually, his praise for Castro grew so exuberant that the Times forbade him to write first news stories and then editorials on Cuba. (Matthews was a hybrid reporter/editorial writer, a once-common species at the paper that perished in the Ice Age of criticism touched off by his work.) Matthews dashed off one final paean (titled "Forward, With Fidel, Anywhere") and then resigned to write a series of books which made up for their paucity of readers with their abundance of fatuity. Sample: "If Fidel Castro brought some tragedy to some families, I believe that it is demonstrable that he brought a better life to a majority of Cubans-if not always today for the older generations, then for tomorrow and for the youth." How, exactly, anybody could "demonstrate" the future was not clear, but Matthews was certain of his mission. "I almost feel like a Boy Scout who, instead of doing one good deed in a day, has done one good deed in his life," he wrote his wife after yet another expedition to Havana.
Matthews died in 1977, three years before the Mariel boatlift, in which 125,000 people fled Cuba in a single month after Fidel Castro opened his borders in a fit of pique. No doubt he could have explained that too.
As the fantasy world that he created closed in around him, Matthews wrote plaintively that his work was not his undoing but a monument that would be recognized later, when a student doing research would "find my byline and know that he could trust it." DePalma concludes that Matthews' tomb is unmarked: "Much that he wrote turned out to be untrue." That was not because Matthews was a communist, as conservatives suspected and J. Edgar Hoover tried fruitlessly to prove. DePalma argues persuasively that Matthews was simply a romantic who got caught up in his own mythmaking. He had done so before, glorifying both the left's efforts in the Spanish Civil War (where he had a good deal of journalistic company) and Mussolini's ruthless crushing of Ethiopia (where he had hardly any). "A newspaperman should work with his heart as well as his mind," Matthews once wrote. Unfortunately, his heart took over.
Matthews may have been the first member of the American chattering class to give his heart to Castro, but unfortunately he wasn't the last. Contrast, for instance, the way Dan Rather ended a 60 Minutes piece on Castro-by walking him out to a limo and mewling, "Goodbye, Mr. President, take care!"-with his rude interruptions of then-Vice President George Bush during that infamous live 1988 interview. And Rather was practically Torquemada compared to Frank Mankiewicz, a former president of NPR, who interviewed Castro for a documentary a few years earlier. Typical question: "I suppose that what you are saying is that in a certain form, the socialist government of Cuba involves itself in the ordinary life of the Cuban in a more or less easygoing way-a less demanding way than other communist governments, right?"
When Katie Couric says, as she did on a 1992 NBC newscast, that "Castro traveled the country cultivating his image and his revolution delivered-campaigns stamped out illiteracy and even today, Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world," you can dismiss it as the kind of sloppy reporting you'd expect from somebody more accustomed to probing the sauce secrets of the chefs on the cooking segments of the Today show. For the record, Cuba was one of the most literate countries in Latin America long before Castro -it ranked fourth on the eve of the revolution-and countries like Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil have posted equal gains in literacy during the same time period without resorting to totalitarian governments. And Cuba already had the 13th lowest infant mortality rate in the world before Castro came to power.
But what does it say about American journalism when Newsweek's Eleanor Clift argues that Elian Gonzalez should be returned to Cuba not to be with his father but because Cuba is a better place than the United States, a place where "he doesn't have to worry about going to school and being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has access to free medical care and where the literacy rate I believe is higher than this country's"? What does it say when Diane Sawyer greets Castro by kissing him? Or when Barbara Walters, in a scene right out of a right-wing conspiracy nut's wet dream, helps him host a dinner party for a group of executives from Time, Newsweek, ABC, NPR, The Washington Post, and other elite news outlets? To be fair, the executives did bravely raise the question of human rights-their own. The Post's Sally Quinn wrote plaintively that dinner wasn't served until after 11 p.m. and the air conditioning was set really low. (Don't worry, investigative journalism triumphed: "Finally, Barbara Walters outshouts Castro and the rest of the guests loudly enough to ask him what kind of a host he is that he has a dinner party and doesn't even feed his guests," Quinn admiringly recounted.)
The problem is that passion, as the mother of any teenaged girl will tell you, can lead to big trouble. As DePalma gently observes, the foreign correspondents of the last century who wrote with the greatest passion-Richard Harding Davis on the Spanish-American War, John Reed on the Russian Revolution, Ernest Hemingway on the Spanish Civil War, Edgar Snow on Mao's Long March, Norman Mailer on Vietnam-were "not necessarily those most anchored to the truth." To turn Fidel Castro's favorite phrase on its head, history has not absolved them. Neither should their readers.
Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin (firstname.lastname@example.org), is co-author, with Ana Rodriguez, of Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison (St. Martin's). He writes about television for The Miami Herald.