2001

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INSIDE STORY: MEDIA SHARES HIGH EMOTION

BY CURTIS MORGAN

Five months into the intense coverage of the Elian Gonzalez saga - with no end in sight - the South Florida media find themselves under similar scrutiny, from both the outside and the inside.

Every story elicits dozens of e-mails from readers or viewers - usually split pro and con. News reports are studied for hidden messages.

A heartfelt, 13-page letter that reader Maria Lopez sent to 11 Herald reporters last week is one measure of the power of the microscope. Lopez pored over articles so closely that she questioned a description of Elian at his relatives' Little Havana home sitting in a ``sagging love seat'' and ``wearing a gold chain.'' The seemingly innocent words, she wrote, sounded as if intended to humiliate the Gonzalez family.

``Wouldn't a sofa be descriptive enough? Is sagging, new, lightly used, etc., relevant? . . . Is the gold chain indicative of something undefined by the writer?''

As the Elian debate has become one of South Florida's most polarizing issues in decades, staffers and managers inside newsrooms - The Herald's, among them - have grappled with the same powerful emotions and fine points of language. As in the community at large, the friction tends to run the ethnic faultline, the one between Cuban-Americans and other groups.

``People are really feeling under siege,'' said Ileana Oroza, a Cuba-born former assistant managing editor for The Herald who recently joined the journalism faculty at the University of Miami. ``People really feel like racist feelings that have been dormant are coming out. Cubans are feeling really sensitive.''

Within The Herald, there have been debates over coverage, concerns about bias in stories - from both sides - as well as reports of offensive remarks. There are differing views on the depth of the divide - including whether one exists at all - but the differences were compelling enough for The New York Times to put a reporter on the story.

Herald Publisher Alberto Ibargüen, echoing the paper's top news executives, said tension was only natural considering the diverse makeup of the staff and the controversy over the 6-year-old.

``I think it is impossible for the newsroom to be different from the rest of society,'' said Ibargüen, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage. ``I don't see this as a newsroom schism. I see this as a newsroom populated by human beings covering a story.''

The Herald and other media are not alone in this. Even before Saturday's outbursts over Elian's seizure, passions have often boiled over, with arguments raging among many kinds of workers in in all kinds of workplaces - nurses, teachers, bureaucrats, attorneys, waiters, bankers. Last week, two Miami-Dade Police Department employees were ``counseled'' for allegedly criticizing Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas' statements regarding the Elian showdown. Both employees, named in an anonymous memo, called the treatment unfair.

But such tension among journalists is relatively unusual.

So far, one of the most overt political statements by a Miami journalist has gone unreported. Early last week, Cenk Uygur, 30, a news producer for the WAMI show The Times went to the Gonzalez home with a sign advocating the boy's return to Cuba.

He was roughly set upon by the crowd before being removed for his own safety by Miami police. The clash made national television - but he was branded by demonstrators as a pro-Castro agitator, not identified as a journalist.

Uygur, a Turkish immigrant, called himself an adamant anti-communist and said he'd gone to the home on his own, not as a representative of the station. While some have told him the action was inappropriate, Uygur said he saw no conflict of interest. WAMI general manager Chuck Budt said Uygur would not be reprimanded.

``Our policy here is we do not make it a habit of trying to control what people do on their own time,'' Budt said. It did, however, show how easy it is to be caught up in the controversy, he added.

Roberto Vizcon, news director for Telemundo, said the story was a particular challenge for his almost exclusively Hispanic staff. ``Especially if you work in a minority media outlet like ours, it's very hard to distance yourself and cover the story from a cool, very unbiased way of thinking.''

Telemundo's coverage, he said, strives to be sensitive to viewers' feelings. Elian, for instance, will never go ``home'' even if he does go back to Cuba.

``I don't see it is a form of self-censorship. There's a lot of hurt out there,'' said Vizcon, who was born in Cuba. ``There's a saying in Spanish, `Our wine is sour, but it's our wine.' ''

SCRUTINY

In some newsrooms, the tension plays out with management moves scrutinized for hidden meaning. At the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, veteran Miami bureau reporter Luisa Yanez, who had covered the Elian saga for months, was recently transferred to an office in Weston.

Rumors flew. Several newsroom sources told The Herald the paper was removing Yanez, raised in a Miami exile family, because her views were too strong. But Joe Jennings, an assistant city editor who supervises the Sun-Sentinel's Miami coverage, says the move was totally unrelated to the story.

Yanez confirmed that but said several colleagues had called her to ask about the transfer ``to see if it was fair.'' She was surprised that some colleagues had apparently misinterpreted the move. ``I think maybe since it wasn't clearly explained here maybe people assumed it might have to do with that,'' she said.

At The Herald, the first internal strains showed April 6, when Managing Editor Larry Olmstead wrote a memo cautioning the staff: ``This is a sensitive, potentially volatile situation for the newspaper and the community. Our journalism should reflect that sensitivity.''

Olmstead, who is African-American, said the memo was sparked by a number of comments from Cuban-American staffers about isolated comments in the newsroom, including casual wisecracks, that had been construed as offensive. None of The Herald's news executives cited specific complaints.

While no staffers were reprimanded, some comments were considered serious enough - borderline slurs - that Executive Editor Marty Baron, a white non-Hispanic, this week asked department heads to call staff meetings to underline the message.

In the aftermath, some reporters said they believed the few offenders should have been talked to privately because the meetings fed fuel to a small fire that would have soon extinguished itself.

``In their quest to be sensitive and their unwillingness to be clear on what they felt was a problem, I think that caused more turmoil than anything else,'' said Frances Robles, a city desk reporter of Puerto Rican descent who has covered the Elian story in Cuba, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Baron said his intent was simple. He said he wasn't questioning anyone's journalistic integrity or intending to freeze the free flow of opinions.

``I don't think it's wise for us to be making jokes,'' he said. ``I think when people say the Cubans are this or the Cubans are that, that's the sort of phrase-ology that can be be offensive to any group.''

EXECUTIVES CAUTIOUS

Such reminders to news staffs, while rare, aren't unprecedented. Many newspapers issued similar cautions during coverage of the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trial.

Baron said concerns had been expressed - by staffers of differing viewpoints - on other issues related to the story as well. The ethnic mix of reporters and editors on the Elian story has been questioned, as have tone and content of particular stories. Some felt stories had been played too hard (the health problems of Marisleysis Gonzalez) or too soft (Juan Miguel Gonzalez's obscene gesture).

Columnist Liz Balmaseda also raised some eyebrows in journalistic circles when she appeared in a prayer circle outside the Gonzalez family home two weeks ago. Balmaseda, a Cuba-born columnist who is on leave while working on a film, said she didn't see a conflict and called her prayer ``personal and private.''

``I didn't set out to make a political statement,'' she said. ``In that situation, I took a friend's hand. I think it's dehumanizing to say I couldn't do this.''

News executives saw no violation of the paper's code of ethics - because Balmaseda's job is to express her own viewpoint. But, Baron said, all journalists also need to maintain an appropriate distance from stories they cover.

``In my 20 years as a reporter and later as a columnist, I've prayed many many times as part of an assignment,'' Balmaseda said - with the Dalai Lama, Holocaust survivors, inner-city school children and New Age gurus. She also prayed at a Haitian memorial while reporting a column that became part of a collection that won her the Pulitzer Prize.

``It's interesting to me that the only time flags go up is when I pray with Cuban exiles,'' she said. ``We went from Buena Vista Social Club to hell. We are so under the magnifying glass right now that anything that comes out of Miami is going to look unprofessional or wrong.''

Robles, a board member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, said she had received numerous suggestions on reporting the story from Cuban-American colleagues but did not believe the internal debates had created serious rifts or altered reporting. News executives and other reporters agreed.

``I think it's inevitable that any issue that agitates and divides the community to the level the Elian controversy has done, eventually finds its way into the newsroom,'' said Juan Tamayo, a Cuba-born reporter who covers the island.

``That said, I certainly haven't seen any major newsroom tension, and I have not seen it affect our coverage at all.''

FESTERING EMOTIONS

Deputy Features Editor Nery Ynclan, one of the top-ranking Cuban-American editors, pointed to the duration of the story as one reason for heightened emotions she expected would cool.

``This newsroom has endured hurricanes, riots, Mariel, O.J., bad bosses, bad pay raises and bad cafeteria food - this too shall pass, and we'll be better for it. I only hope the boy can survive all of us.''

Overall, news executives said they were proud of the paper's coverage, calling it tough, thorough and balanced.

``We've been covering this story right in the maelstrom for five months,'' said managing editor Olmstead. ``We've written other stories that have generated far more outcry at the newspaper. Even with our critics, I believe we're considered a credible source of information on the story. I'm very gratified that we haven't become a focal point in the controversy.''

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