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A Dictator’s Scribe (Fidel's Herbert L. Matthews)
National Review Online ^ | June 19, 2006 | RONALD RADOSH

Posted on 07/14/2006 1:50:22 PM PDT by neverdem

The Man Who Invented Fidel:
Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews
of The New York Times
by Anthony DePalma
(PublicAffairs, 320 pp., $26.95)

A Dictator’s Scribe


The late New York Times journalist Herbert L. Matthews is now an almost forgotten name, except, perhaps, among journalism students and those who remember the earliest days of the Cuban Revolution. It was Matthews who, while covering Cuba for the Times in February 1957, got the scoop of a lifetime. Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s authoritarian ruler, had announced that Castro and his small band of rebels had been killed by Batista’s troops three months earlier. Not trusting the official sources, Matthews sought out the truth. Claiming to be a tourist, he penetrated Batista’s military lines and made a harrowing journey through the jungle on foot, eluding government troops and eventually holding his now-famous rendezvous with the young revolutionary.

Matthews’s front-page story altered the fortunes of Castro and his beleaguered rebels. Opponents of Batista’s regime smuggled copies of the banned paper into Cuba, and within a short time Cuba’s people learned that Castro had not been defeated, and that he had more troops and followers than anyone had believed. For Americans, the story offered proof that conditions in Cuba were not as stable and calm as Batista had claimed, and that the charismatic young bearded guerrilla fighter was the new democratic hope for a nation tired of tyranny. Castro, after all, had told Matthews he sought only democracy, and was not interested in power for himself. Smitten by Castro, Matthews saw him as a heroic future liberator, a man whose cause he could make his own; Matthews would not just write a newspaper story, but help to make history.

Nor was this the first time that Matthews saw himself as the chronicler of activist heroes. In the 1930s, biographer Anthony DePalma points out, Matthews was a supporter of Mussolini, whose invasion of Abyssinia he backed and whose Fascist armed forces he extolled. By 1936, the civil war in Spain was the new hot story, and — moved by the valiant effort of the defenders of Madrid against Franco — Matthews switched his allegiances and wrote accounts meant to awaken the sympathies of American readers to the Republic’s cause. His stories won him the lifelong friendship of the American Communist volunteers who fought Franco in the so-called Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

As a boy, Matthews had admired the danger-defying journalist Richard Harding Davis, whose reporting on the Spanish-American War came to define Theodore Roosevelt’s reputation as the hero of San Juan Hill. Castro offered the perfect opportunity for Matthews to make his own left-wing version of TR. Moreover, Matthews was candid that his sympathies lay with Castro’s rebellion. “I feel about Cuba somewhat as I did about Spain,” he confessed. “One . . . wants to share . . . if only as a sympathizer, what the Cubans are suffering.” Thus Matthews, in his own words, became “the man who invented Fidel.” Of course, as DePalma notes, that was simple bragging. Castro did not need Matthews to create him; he needed Matthews as a propaganda and publicity tool in Cuba.

In those days, the Times had an ad campaign showing average citizens who had obtained jobs through its classified section. A soon-to-be-famous cartoon appeared in National Review, featuring a caricature of Castro with the caption, “I got my job through the New York Times.” Writing in The American Legion magazine, NR’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., charged that Matthews had done “more than any other single man to bring Fidel Castro to power.” Matthews, he asserted, had been guilty of “ferocious partisanship” when he displayed the future tyrant as “a big, brave, strong, rebellious, dedicated, tough idealist.” The headline of Buckley’s article was that of the cartoon. As DePalma notes, the charge “followed Matthews to his grave.”

The passing decades have proven Buckley correct. What DePalma reveals, in a riveting book that combines history with a study of the dangers of partisan journalism, is that Herbert Matthews did not want simply to report the facts — which had been distorted by the Batista regime — but to produce a journalism that put him as close as possible to the front lines of the revolutionaries’ fight. He was in a good position to accomplish this. Because of his friendship with the Times’s publisher, Arthur H. Sulzberger, Matthews enjoyed the particular status of both a member of the paper’s editorial board and a reporter who was able to go where he wanted and write news reports for the paper. The arrangement was a clear violation of the paper’s own standards, under which the editorial page was separate from the would-be objective reports coming from the paper’s working newshounds.

For a while, the Sulzberger/Matthews deal seemed to work well for all concerned. Matthews turned out to be correct about the essential strength of Castro’s movement, and setting the record straight was a major news story. Matthews, however, claimed that his visit proved that Castro had a few hundred viable troops under his command; later, Castro publicly humiliated Matthews at an Overseas Press Club meeting in New York, when he claimed that he had fooled the journalist by having the same few men parade around over and over to give the impression of a greater strength than he actually had. DePalma claims that, in fact, Matthews was essentially correct; he may have slightly overrated the number of Castro’s men under his command, but the truth was that Castro had more guerrilla fighters than Batista and others imagined. Castro’s speech was but another attempt by the up-and-coming caudillo to humiliate those, like Matthews, who wanted only to help his cause — and thereby show who was really in control.

But DePalma leaves no doubt that Matthews was snookered by Castro. More than any other reporter, Matthews presented Fidel as a bona fide democrat. As time passed and it became clear that Castro had forged an alliance with the Stalinist Cuban Communist party, and from the start sought a military and political alliance with the USSR — an alliance eagerly sought by Castro and not the result of supposed American economic and political pressure — Matthews refused to reevaluate any of his initial impressions.

Matthews, DePalma writes, “exulted in Castro’s triumph, for it could be said he had a hand in it.” All pretenses to journalistic objectivity were gone. He had now “chosen the winning side in an ideological battle.” For the rest of his life, Matthews remained true to his original mythical portrait of Castro as democrat, despite the vast amount of evidence to the contrary. He was pleased that he had helped bring down a “murderous regime”; the fact that Castro’s new government had within Matthews’s lifetime proven itself to be far more oppressive and violent than the Batista regime had ever been somehow evaded him. He remained uncritical of the regime’s early mass public executions. Indeed, he wrote an editorial the paper did not print, in which he sought to explain the executions by putting them “into a revolutionary context,” exactly in the manner Castro did in Cuba. This time, the publisher rejected Matthews’s article, because — in DePalma’s words — “it seemed to excuse Castro’s bloody brand of justice and would make it look as if the Times endorsed the killings.” The spike by Sulzberger would be only the first in a long list, as Matthews continued to submit articles that would end up rejected.

Matthews seemed oblivious to the growing number of Castro’s early supporters and comrades who, upon finding out the truth about Castro’s agenda for the island, broke ranks and went into prison or exile. He had been aided in his early reports by Castro’s revolutionary editor, Carlos Franqui, a key player in the 26th of July movement, whose paper reprinted Matthews’s interview with Castro and got it to the Cuban public’s attention. Yet Matthews never inquired why people like Franqui left Castro’s ranks, condemning him as a torturer, a dictator, and a man who instead of liberating Cuba had turned it into “one giant plantation.”

For Matthews, Cuba was a new decade’s Spain. Earlier, he and his Republicans had lost; now, in the twilight of his career, the forces of freedom had won over those of fascism. And he was on the right side. The truth, as DePalma notes, is that his blind spot was “never seeing how taking sides could slant his reporting.” Matthews did not see what others easily spotted: the growing influence of Cuba’s Communists in the revolutionary leadership. Matthews wrote in the Times that “there are no Communists in positions of control,” and told the U.S. ambassador that all the Cuban revolutionaries — including Castro — were “intellectually and emotionally anti-Communist.”

DePalma has produced a wise, nuanced, and important book, one that says a great deal not only about Herbert Matthews and his failings, but about the press and the way it covers world events. Matthews ended his life writing foolish books that sold poorly, and which — now that he was retired from the Times — people could easily ignore. His once-admired career ended in the production of apologias for Castro that were ever wider of the mark. His work was appreciated by Castro and his entourage: Che Guevara called Matthews a “cordial witness” to their revolution, a description Matthews cherished. As propaganda masters, Castro and Guevara welcomed the use to which Matthews’s writings could be put. They saw him as a journalist who could help them in their grasp of power, a role Matthews willingly played. His life and work serve as an example aspiring journalists should learn from, and seek not to emulate.

Mr. Radosh, adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote about the Cuban revolution in the 1960s and ’70s, and was editor of The New Cuba: Paradoxes and Potentials (1976), which contained his own essay, “Cuba: A Personal Report.”

TOPICS: Cuba; Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Government; News/Current Events; Politics/Elections; US: District of Columbia
KEYWORDS: fidelcastro; herbertlmatthews; mediabias; msm; newyorktimes

1 posted on 07/14/2006 1:50:30 PM PDT by neverdem
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To: neverdem

The NYT is old in treason and practiced in the dealing of lies.

2 posted on 07/14/2006 2:14:22 PM PDT by ikka
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To: neverdem

An excellent read, and William F. Buckley was fighting them 50 years ago.

"In those days, the Times had an ad campaign showing average citizens who had obtained jobs through its classified section. A soon-to-be-famous cartoon appeared in National Review, featuring a caricature of Castro with the caption, “I got my job through the New York Times.” Writing in The American Legion magazine, NR’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., charged that Matthews had done “more than any other single man to bring Fidel Castro to power.” "

3 posted on 07/14/2006 2:17:00 PM PDT by ansel12
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To: neverdem
Herbert Matthews

Any relation to Chris? Just wondering...


4 posted on 07/14/2006 3:31:05 PM PDT by nothingnew (I fear for my Republic due to marxist influence in our government. Open eyes/see)
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