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