Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Herbert Matthews story to be told in new book.

A Reporter Unwilling To Admit His Mistakes

By Mark Falcoff
Posted: Wednesday, April 12, 2006

High-profile print journalists are feeling much put upon these days--publicly discredited, as so many of them have been--so it is only natural that a book like "The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times" (Public Affairs, 320 pages, $26.95) would eventually appear. It recounts the drama surrounding three stories that appeared over four days in the New York Times during February 1957--stories that supposedly changed history. In them, readers of the Times learned of the survival of the Cuban rebel Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains long after he had been declared dead by the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Even more than that, Americans were introduced to the existence of a supposedly democratic revolution a mere 90 miles from our shores.

The journalist who wrote these stories was Herbert Matthews, a veteran foreign correspondent who had already covered wars in Ethiopia and Spain. As a result of his stories, Mr. DePalma writes, "Matthews became a hero in Cuba." But his version of events was later revealed to be deeply flawed. Castro had many fewer men under his command than he claimed; he was by no means the only important figure in the movement to oust Batista; and, most important of all, Matthews's portrait of Castro's political views and ambitions was grossly off the mark. To Matthews, Castro at the time was "a pre-scientific, Utopian socialist, not a Marxist socialist."

In and of itself, Matthews's naivete would hardly have merited a footnote in journalistic history; mistakes of this kind are made every day in the news business. But Castro's subsequent embrace of Marxism-Leninism and his alliance with the Soviet Union produced a backlash that had an important impact on Matthews's career and on his relationship with his employers. That backlash forms the larger part of Mr. DePalma's book.

The author is himself a Times journalist who has covered Latin America and clearly drinks at the same ideological fountain as his idol. For him both communism and terrorism are purely figments of our imagination, and our reaction to them is nothing but paranoia and McCarthyism. And journalists can never be legitimately criticized for their version of the facts, no matter how at variance with the truth, if they sincerely believe what they are writing. Thus Mr. DePalma describes another Timesman, Walter Duranty, who lied to readers about the Soviet famine in the 1930s, as merely "biased."

In the case of Matthews, the problem was not a deliberate distortion of the facts so much as it was his dogged unwillingness to admit he had been wrong, long after overwhelming evidence to the contrary. To be sure, the Cold War environment invited the curiosity of the FBI and several congressional committees. But Matthews's real problem was with the Times management, who were frankly embarrassed by his apparent role in Castro's ascent. According to Mr. DePalma, Matthews felt "it was his own reputation that had died,the victim of savage criticism from outside the paper, as well as from within." After his Cuban debacle he never again occupied the same position of respect in his profession.

Contrary to the title of this book, however, Matthews in no way "invented" Fidel Castro, who was already a well-known figure in Cuban politics. All Matthews did was to introduce him to readers of the Times. (Thanks however to a momentary lifting of press censorship in Cuba, newspaper readers on the island could confirm from an unimpeachable source that Castro was not, after all, dead.) And the rebel leader's eventual seizure of power was the consequence of events over with which neither Matthews nor the Times had anything whatever to do: a failed attempt at assassination which ended in the eradication of the civic resistance in Havana, and Batista's studied refusal to negotiate with responsible leaders in the opposition.

Mr. DePalma vastly distorts the role of the United States in all of this, probably because--to judge by both the narrative and bibliography--he seems never to have stumbled upon the treasure trove of cables and other documents published by the State Department over a decade ago in "Foreign Relations of the United States: Cuba, 1958-1960." In point of fact, American policy from 1958 on was focused almost entirely on getting Batista to step down and hold honest elections; his failure to do so was based on a vast misconception--namely, that if he discredited all moderate alternatives, Washington would have no choice but to back him to the hilt. The unconditional support for Batista that DePalma attributes to the United States did not exist; if it had existed, Castro would never have come to power at all.

Thumbing through the pages of this book one cannot help reflecting on how much the Times--and by extension, elite journalistic culture--has changed since Matthews was writing. In those remote, almost prehistoric days, there was a vague sense at the summit of the Times that its purposes and those of America as a whole were broadly coherent, and even more important, that journalists had a responsibility to the truth. Today the paper would have stood firmly behind its correspondent regardless of the facts; he himself would have received numerous journalistic awards; and his critics would be tarbrushed as nothing but a bunch of right-wing loonies and deranged talk-radio hosts. Matthews's misfortune was merely to be born five decades too soon.

Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar emeritus at AEI and the author of Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro's Legacy, available from AEI Press.

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