Megaphone for a Dictator

CNN's Coverage of Fidel Castro's Cuba, 1997-2002

Section 2: Sources Showcased the Party Line

Besides their choice of topics, another way to grade CNN’s Cuba news is to examine the different individuals the network put before viewers to tell the story. The rationale for establishing a permanent Havana bureau, after all, was that it would allow a greater diversity of opinion than merely passing along the latest pronouncements from the Castro regime, which could easily be done by monitoring the state-controlled Cuban media. On the ground, a reporter could — at least in theory — provide a far more nuanced and comprehensive view of Cuban public opinion.

Cuban talking heads were easily grouped into two categories: sources with an official designation of some kind (as identified by the CNN reporter) and everyday Cubans who were interviewed by CNN as a way to capture public sentiment on an issue.

Communists Dominated “Official” Talking Heads

As Figure 3 shows, Fidel Castro and officials of his government were quoted six times more often than either representatives of the Catholic Church or dissidents, the only other groups which were regularly quoted by CNN at all.

CNN included the communist point of view in all stories with political or policy overtones. As was noted earlier, government spokesmen were given a say in a pair of stories about the arrest and continued imprisonment of a group of dissidents. But that was a one-way street, as dissidents were barely mentioned apart from the tiny percentage of Cuba stories which focused on the dissident issue. There was one exception: A dissident spokesman named Elizardo Sanchez was quoted by reporter Martin Savidge in an April 20, 2000 report for The World Today, but he was shown criticizing not Castro, but the Miami exile community for having picked “the wrong battle” by focusing so intently on trying to keep Elian Gonzalez in the U.S.

Similarly, Cuba’s Catholic church leaders were given little play on CNN except when issues of religious freedom or the Pope’s visit were addressed. CNN’s Jim Bittermann, for example, paraphrased the comments of the archbishop of Santiago de Cuba at a mass held during the Pope’s trip: “The local archbishop was out-spoken. Many Cubans confused the communist party, he said, with patriotism. And he drew long applause when he told the crowd that the church represented the poor, and the poorest of the poor are those without freedom.”22 Such remarks from Catholic leaders, articulating a very non-communist perspective, were presented on CNN only one-seventh as often as statements from Castro and his spokesmen.

In covering American politics, reporters will try to maintain a balance of viewpoints in their stories by either quoting opposition figures or, if circumstances do not permit it, paraphrasing the other side’s known position. For example, during a special report about Cuba at the time of Pope John Paul II’s visit in January, 1998, Christiane Amanpour summarized the anti-government perspective in a report on Cuba’s bad economy: “Wherever you go, whoever you talk to, you always hear people blame the U.S. embargo for all their woes, but the fact is that Cuba’s rigid socialist structures are as much to blame for this country’s dysfunctional economy. A few openly admit that, and they complain about a growing elite.”23

But balance such as Amanpour’s was rare. Even as CNN’s reporters allowed Castro’s officials to dominate their news, they also did not do much to counter even their most outrageous statements. Thus, after President Clinton signed a bill allowing food and medicine sales to Cuba, a report by Lucia Newman consisted solely of the regime’s perspective. “Cuba says that the new legislation is a farce, a kind of political Trojan horse which appears to improve trade possibilities with Cuba when it, in fact, leaves things the same or, in Havana’s words, worse.... Cuba’s position is, thanks for nothing.”24

Everyday Cubans Were Depicted As Pro-Castro

The MRC study determined that everyday Cubans, interview subjects who were not identified as being part of any official or dissident group, were the most commonly quoted type of talking head in CNN’s Cuba coverage. As Figure 4 shows, while a majority of the quotes in this category were neutral (meaning they did not address a salient policy issue), the remainder were split six-to-one in favor of the communist view. The impression left by such an imbalanced presentation was that Castro and his ideas were overwhelmingly popular among the Cuban public.

For example, Lucia Newman found two Cubans to comment on a public ceremony honoring “revolutionary icon” Che Guevara as his body was returned to Cuba 30 years after his death. Plucked from “seemingly endless lines” of mourners, both praised the late communist militant in a story that included no dissent: “This means a lot, because he is our heroic rebel commandant. It’s something historic for the Cuban people,” a man told CNN. “It’s a mixture of sadness, because he is not alive, but also happiness because Che is once again with us,” a woman stated.25

A year later, Newman filed a story for a special Postscript program which followed the episode of the CNN series Cold War which focused on the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. She reported on Cuban fears and attitudes toward America 36 years later, quoting five Cubans — two farmers, a housewife, and two students. Only one offered a political comment, but it perfectly matched the government’s perspective: “I feel attacked by the United States because, although the aggression is no longer physical, that they’re going to come and throw bombs on me, it exists in the form of the embargo that the Americans have imposed on us.” Castro couldn’t have said it better himself.26

Reporting on Cuban attitudes during the Elian Gonzalez story, Bill Delaney showed only those who argued that life was good under Castro: “If there are children in the world that are happy, they are in Cuba. We have schools, teachers, fun, and there’s no hunger here,” a music teacher told CNN. He was followed by a woman who exclaimed, “I tell you, I have my own children here, and I have my grandchildren, and what they say about Cuba is just untrue.” The third and final talking head was a young student, who declared that “There may be freedoms in other countries, but there is freedom here, too.”27

It’s not unusual for an American reporter to walk down a city street and find a range of opinions on any issue, including disparaging comments about officials from the President on down. By mimicking the same style of person-on-the-street interviews, CNN reporters implicitly contributed to the idea that Cubans are as free to speak as citizens in other countries. At the same time, the heavy slant in favor of communist views only helped bolster Castro’s respectability. Of course, there may not be very many Cubans who wanted to be videotaped by CNN disagreeing with Castro, since the government would surely notice. This is an understandable obstacle to reporting on public opinion in a totalitarian society, but it was one CNN hardly ever mentioned. (See sidebar.)

Instead, the words of the Cuban public were often heard on CNN bolstering the arguments of the dictatorship. During the custody dispute over Elian Gonzalez, many Americans criticized Cuba for forcing parents to send their children to labor camps during the summertime. For a May 26, 2000 report, Lucia Newman found four sources — two 13-year-old girls, a camp official, and a father — all of whom praised the practice.

 Newman told CNN’s audience the program instills “respect” for “hard work” and that while students “say at first they were homesick,” they soon boast that they “are having a great time” and learning “the importance of camaraderie.” But as the screen showed a boy walking with his arm around a girl, Newman warned that “some parents are concerned their children may be learning more about the birds and the bees than about agriculture.”28 Obviously, nothing to worry about at Castro’s labor camps except teenagers’ puppy love.