Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin is the author of Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras and (with Ana Rodriguez) Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison. He is a columnist at the Miami Herald.

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