Megaphone for a Dictator
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Five years ago, CNN became the first U.S.-based news organization with a full-time news bureau in communist Cuba in nearly 30 years. As an independent and highly-regarded news organization, CNN’s mission was to transmit the reality of Castro’s dictatorship to American audiences. In 1997, then-White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters that “reporting of truth about the conditions in Cuba would further...peaceful, democratic change in Cuba.” CNN officials also had high hopes. Incoming Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman assured viewers “we will be given total freedom to do what we want and to work without prior censorship.”
CNN’s Havana bureau now has a five-year track record that can be evaluated, and the results are not good. Media Research Center analysts reviewed all 212 stories about the Cuban government or Cuban life that were presented on CNN’s prime time news programs from March 17, 1997, the date the Havana bureau was established, through March 17, 2002. MRC’s analysis found that instead of exposing the totalitarian regime that runs Cuba, CNN has allowed itself to become just another component of Fidel Castro’s propaganda machine.
CNN gave spokesmen for the communist regime a major advantage, broadcasting sound bites from Fidel Castro and his spokesmen six times more frequently than non-communist groups such as Catholic church leaders and peaceful dissidents.
CNN’s stories included six times as many sound bites from everyday Cubans who voiced agreement with Castro and supported his policies than quotes from Cuban citizens disagreeing with the government. This left American audiences with the impression that Castro’s communist government is overwhelmingly popular among the Cuban public.
CNN provided very little coverage of Cuba’s dissidents, who were the focus of only seven of the 212 Cuba stories broadcast during the past five years, or about three percent of CNN’s total coverage. That’s fewer than half as many stories as CNN produced in just the first three months of 2002 about alleged human rights abuses by the United States against prisoners held at its base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
CNN also practically ignored Cuba’s lack of democracy, a topic which was featured in only four stories (or just under two percent). One of those reports, in January 1998, consisted of Lucia Newman trumpeting Cuba’s rigged election as superior to those in the U.S. because they have “no dubious campaign spending” and “no mud slinging.”
Much of CNN’s coverage of Cuba focused on the tiniest slices of everyday life, which created the sense that Cuba was basically a normal country, not one in the grip of a dictatorship’s secret security apparatus. Instead of focusing on the regime’s human rights abuses, CNN showed Cubans waiting for ice cream cones, profiled a promising young ballerina, and interviewed a 94-year-old guitar player.
On CNN, Castro was treated more as a celebrity than a tyrant. Rather than revealing the dirty secrets of his dictatorship to the world, CNN reported on Castro’s 73rd birthday celebrations and, in February 2000, featured the dictator’s office in the “Cool Digs” segment of CNN’s Newsstand.
The MRC report concluded that “CNN could have used its unique bureau to add to the American public’s knowledge of the only totalitarian state in the Western hemisphere. But instead of enlightening the public about the regime’s repression, CNN’s Havana office has mainly provided Castro and his subordinates with a megaphone to defend their dictatorship and denigrate their democratic opponents.”
If CNN is interested in improving its coverage, the MRC report included the following suggestions: 1) increase the amount of Cuba news; 2) commit to doing real investigative journalism in Cuba; 3) broadcast regular reports on the welfare and status of political prisoners held by Castro; and 4) promote the reporting efforts of Cuba’s independent journalists. But if CNN cannot or will not commit to improving its coverage, it should close its Havana bureau rather than perpetuate the fiction that it is helping Americans better understand the realities of Cuba under Castro.