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Special Report
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CNN: The Castro News Network

By L. Brent Bozell III,
President of the
Media Research Center
May 14, 2002

Jimmy Carter's visit to Havana this week should spur some nice exclusives for CNN, since it's the only American news agency with a bureau in the Cuban capital. Five years ago, the U.S. government and Fidel Castro agreed to let CNN open a Havana bureau, the first permanent American news presence since Associated Press was expelled 28 years before, with the understanding that "news gathering activities within Cuba be unconditioned and unrestricted." Sen. Jesse Helms supported the CNN presence, saying Mr. Castro was accepting "the rope with which to hang himself."

But CNN hasn't treated its Cuban exclusivity as a gold mine for tough scoops. In a Media Research Center study of five years of news coverage out of CNN in Havana, only four out of 212 news stories (less than two percent) focused on the harsh political realities of Cuba’s rigid one-party dictatorship, and only seven CNN reports (three percent) focused on the peaceful dissidents that “President” Castro keeps locked away in his dungeons. By contrast, CNN has done twice as many stories in just the first three months of this year about alleged human rights abuses by the United States against terrorist suspects held at its Cuban base at Guantanamo Bay.

Even these numbers are generous. In one story on one-party elections, CNN reporter Lucia Newman brazenly declared there was "no dubious campaign spending here" and "no mud slinging...[in] a system President Castro boasts is the most democratic and cleanest in the world."

Reporting like Newman's explains why it made sense for Castro to welcome Ted Turner's network in 1997, since Turner had spent millions producing pro-Castro propaganda films on his networks over the years, including a ring-kissing 1990 interview Turner himself awarded the dean of dictators.

The celebrity treatment has continued for Castro. In February of 2000, CNN's show "Newsstand" devoted one of its "Cool Digs" segments to describing the contents of Castro's office, right down to the worn tips of his erasers. "Years ago, our host worked as an attorney, defending poor people," declared anchorman Stephen Frazier. "He's Fidel Castro, Cuba's leader since 1959, who has been making waves lately in his fight for the return of young Elian Gonzalez." Instead of focusing on the regime's abuses of human rights, CNN has often focused on the personal instead of the political, with saccharine stories on cigars, promising young ballerinas, or a 94-year-old guitar player.

Most ironically, CNN has offered only two stories over five years on Cuba's lack of freedom of the press, and both of them ignored Castro's threats to expel foreign journalists who would "insult" his regime with any journalistic vigor. Reports on Cuban press crackdowns by Reporters Without Borders or other pro-free press organizations over the past five years have also been ignored by CNN.

The toothless performance documented in the MRC study mostly occurred when CNN was under old management, before Walter Isaacson and his crew took over last summer. Isaacson can and should issue new marching orders: CNN should use its Havana advantage and commit to increasing the amount of Cuba news, regularly reporting on the welfare of Cuba’s dissidents and doing real investigative journalism that will tell the real story of life in Cuba the way that no other U.S.-based television network can tell it.

It might look like CNN believes it's too dangerous for its Havana-based reporters to be as adversarial with the Castro regime as it is with America's elected leaders. But whether it reflects fear or favor, the lack of journalistic independence that CNN’s displayed in the past five years only fosters the harmful illusion that Fidel Castro has survived real, Western-style media scrutiny.




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