Madam Chairman, members of the subcommittee:
I thank you for inviting me here today and I applaud your decision to exercise long-needed oversight of our government’s broadcasting to Cuba.
Radio Marti’s audience share has plummeted to five percent in 2001, down from nine percent in 2000 and 71 percent ten years ago, according to professional survey research commissioned by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Radio Marti’s oversight body. This is an alarming statistic, considering that Radio Marti is expressly produced to appeal to the Cuban audience.
Radio Marti has an important role in the U.S. government’s public diplomacy mission. Those of us who believe strongly in that mission, regardless of the views we hold in the separate debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba, should take these figures as a sign that Radio Marti’s programming needs serious examination.
Failures of news judgment
Journalists mark major news events as defining moments that test their professional mettle and – if they do their jobs right on big stories – can give the public reason to rely regularly on their particular newspaper or radio station. By this standard, it is useful to examine Radio Marti’s treatment of two events of major importance to its Cuban audience.
On April 22, 2001, when Elian Gonzalez was taken from his Miami relatives’ home and returned to his father, Radio Marti delayed reporting this news for four hours – two hours after Cuban media began broadcasting the event.
BBG’s internal monitoring of Radio Marti found that the station’s coverage on April 22 was “Miami-focused,” emphasizing local opposition to the Administration’s policy and its decision to act with force at the expense of coverage of the Administration’s position, which was “not extensive.” BBG also found that even in the context of “comprehensive” coverage of the Elian story, there were three-hour delays one week earlier of important policy announcements by the Attorney General and President.
Last month, former President Carter made history in Cuba when he addressed a University of Havana audience and his remarks, delivered in Spanish, were carried live on Cuban state media. He advocated greater respect for human rights; told the Cuban people of the Varela project and described its proponents as loyal, patriotic Cubans; and expressed his opposition to current U.S. policy toward Cuba. Radio Marti failed to cover this event live; it broadcast it the next day after the Voice of America’s Spanish service carried it.
In neither case has there been an adequate explanation for the failure to cover these major news events. In neither case was there doubt as to facts that might have justified a delay in reporting the news – Elian Gonzalez was in Miami, after all, and President Carter’s speech was a public act.
The failure to provide timely coverage of these events shows that the newsroom management of Radio Marti operates not according to standard news judgment, but according to some other criteria. It seems quite clear that both stories were withheld because they were controversial in Miami, where many opposed Elian Gonzalez’s return to his father’s custody, and many opposed President Carter’s views on Cuba policy and his dialogue with Cuban authorities.
Worse, this failure is surprising in light of Radio Marti’s need to rebuild its audience. According to a State Department report last year, American diplomats in Havana find that Cubans tend to turn to Radio Marti at times of breaking news. If this is so, Radio Marti turned away from its audience just as Cubans were turning to it for reliable information. In both cases, Cuban state media beat Radio Marti to the story.
I have been able to find no indication that Radio Marti management sees these lapses in coverage as failures of news judgment, nor have they resulted in consequences for any member of Radio Marti management.
A long pattern of newsroom troubles
One might view the Elian Gonzalez and Carter cases as isolated errors, but in fact there is a long history of substandard journalism at Radio Marti.
A survey of Radio Marti programming in 1998 was done by an independent panel of journalism experts. The panel found significant problems affecting the station’s credibility and professionalism, including “lack of balance, fairness, and objectivity and lack of adequate sourcing” and “poor news judgment in story selection.” The panel found that “hard” news coverage was generally good, but many programs mixed news and opinion in ways that seemed to be designed more to persuade than to inform. Examples from this survey:
- One program discussed legislation to ease the U.S. trade embargo; it featured comments by two U.S. legislators, both from Miami, both opposed to the legislation, and none from supporters of the legislation.
- Another program discussed a U.S. intelligence community report issued by the Pentagon on the extent to which Cuba poses a security threat to the United States; it featured only commentators who opposed the report as too soft an assessment.
- A newscast carried Cuban American criticism of Bahamas policy toward Cuban migrants but no statement of the Bahamian government’s position.
The following examples are drawn from other sources.
Talk show host Nancy Crespo recently led a discussion of “Cubans in the United States who work for the Castro regime,” by which she meant advocates of engagement and normalization of relations. She labeled Max Castro, a University of Miami sociologist and contributor to The Miami Herald, “Fidel Castro’s columnist in The Miami Herald.” Such characterizations violate Radio Marti’s own editorial guidelines, which prohibit inflammatory and derogatory descriptions of individuals. This is a longstanding problem that affects Radio Marti’s image and credibility, and it persists even under current management. Just two months ago, an internal BBG program review found that the problem continues, citing a case of a “highly derogatory” commentary about former President Carter that was withheld from the air because of its content. BBG recommended that commentators be reminded of the editorial guidelines rather than be removed from Radio Marti altogether.
Last February, Cuban independent journalist Manuel David Orrio reported that, “Every day, Radio Marti is turning more and more to the positions of the extreme right of the Cuban exile community…it raises the question whether for the current management of Radio Marti, political opinion is more important than credibility.”
Orrio’s views are not isolated. According to Vicki Huddleston, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, dissidents “really don’t like programs that reflect prerevolutionary events. They say that this is just nostalgia.” According to Huddleston, Cuba’s dissidents say Radio Marti “must be different in tone and substance from Radio Mambí and La Poderosa,” two commercial Miami stations.
The late exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa was covered frequently on Radio Marti. When his brother’s 1989 libel judgment against him was dismissed, Radio Marti covered the story by putting it at the top of its hourly newscast for 48 hours. Mas, in addition to being the head of the Advisory Commission on Cuba Broadcasting from its inception to his death, had political ambitions in post-Castro Cuba.
In 1994, when tens of thousands of Cubans took to sea in rafts and many ended up at the Guantanamo naval base, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana protested that Radio Marti broadcasts did not adequately present the U.S. government’s point of view, and that its programming at times had the dangerous effect of encouraging rafters to go to sea. For example, a program based on interviews with scores of Cuban Americans in Miami carried their opinion that all rafters should be brought to the United States, not to Guantanamo, and gave the impression that this reflected American public opinion in general.
Not even the Bush Administration is spared from Radio Marti’s bias. In his speech last month, the President presented the possibility that political reform in Cuba could bring an easing of American sanctions, even under Cuba’s current constitution and even with Fidel and Raul Castro in office. This relaxes a provision of the Helms-Burton law and is opposed by many Cuban Americans, who cannot fathom democratic reform under Fidel Castro. Reflecting this view, Radio Marti’s website put a sarcastic headline above its story on the Administration’s policy: “Comunismo Democratico.”
An event that needs clarification is Radio Marti’s broadcasts last February of remarks by Mexico’s foreign minister that indicated that the doors of Mexico’s Havana embassy are open to all Cubans. The remarks were made in Miami and broadcast repeatedly. On February 27, 21 Cuban men slammed a bus through the gates of Mexico’s embassy, and some have alleged that Radio Marti’s broadcasts played a role. Radio Marti denies that its broadcasts were inflammatory, and released tapes and transcripts of its broadcasts. However, Miami journalists have reported that the actual broadcast differed from the version that Radio Marti released in response to the controversy.
Auditors’ recommendations and current management
Based in part on the 1998 independent journalists’ survey, a June 1999 audit by the Inspector General of the United States Information Agency recommended a series of management changes, including:
- strengthening internal program review procedures, including to evaluate whether Radio Marti clearly and effectively presents U.S. policies;
- reviving focus group evaluations or Radio Marti programming;
- establishment of a program log system to have a full record of all Radio Marti broadcasts; and
- establishment of external oversight procedures.
Since last year, Radio and TV Marti have been managed by Salvador Lew. Mr. Lew deserves credit for expanding the station’s news content, increasing the number and frequency of news broadcasts.
However, Mr. Lew tends to belittle criticism of Radio Marti operations rather than use it to search for ways to make improvements in the station’s operations. In an article he wrote in Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, “Why They Attack Radio Marti,” he admits that there are critics whose views are “welcome when they act in good faith.” He goes on to explain that criticism of Radio Marti comes from disgruntled employees and from “Fidel Castro, his spokesmen and sympathizers.” “The enemies have been aroused,” Mr. Lew writes, and Fidel Castro “ordered his instruments to carry out a defamation campaign against Radio Marti.”
One can certainly question whether such statements are worthy of a senior official of the American government. However, it is clear is that Mr. Lew does not appreciate that for years, Radio Marti has been criticised by people who believe in its mission and who believe that Radio Marti itself has failed to live up to the Voice of America’s high standards.
Considering that the failure to broadcast President Carter’s speech and violations of VOA broadcasting standards have occurred on his watch, it is also clear that Mr. Lew not only inherited a pattern of questionable journalistic practices, in some cases he is perpetuating them. And in conjunction with BBG, he is taking a slow approach to implementing management changes, such as establishing a program log and reviving focus group research and independent program monitors, that can improve the station.
Recommendations for change
Radio Marti operates in a competitive environment against Cuba’s variety of state media and other international broadcasts. Its low audience share is obviously related to programming quality – a fact that is reflected in messages that the Voice of America’s Spanish service receives from Cuba, and in the high rate of Cuban responses, by telephone and e-mail, to VOA’s audience participation programs.
It is inconceivable that a private sector investor would pour over $20 million annually into an enterprise that has no discernible television audience, a small and declining radio audience, serial failures to exercise sound news judgment on major stories, and an inability to adhere to broadcast quality standards over a period of years.
Congress should demand better results for the taxpayers’ money. Rather than tolerate the current go-slow approach that is typical of the federal bureaucracy, Congress should approach Radio and TV Marti with a private sector mentality and press for prompt, radical change.
I recommend the following steps:
1. Terminate TV Marti in light of its failure to establish an audience in Cuba and its inability to overcome Cuban jamming.
2. Move the Radio Marti newsroom and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting headquarters back to Washington, retaining a news bureau in Miami. This will preserve reporting resources in Miami, but it will allow closer supervision by the Voice of America and Congress. It will also contribute to fulfillment of a key element of the VOA Charter, that VOA broadcasts should “represent America, not any single segment of American society.”
3. Overhaul Radio Marti’s newsroom management. In addition to personnel with roots in the Cuban American community, there should be news and programming supervisors who are not Cuban American, have no links to Miami politics, have strong journalism backgrounds, and have an ability to produce programming that is more reflective of our entire country and more compliant with the VOA Charter. In addition, full English language proficiency should be required of all newsroom personnel as an essential tool for reporting and news judgment. The current management of Radio Marti’s newsroom, Lazaro Asencio and Agustin Alles, do not speak English.
4. Demand immediate implementation of basic reforms such as establishment of a program log, utilization of focus group research, and termination of broadcasters who fail to adhere to Radio Marti’s standards of professionalism and fairness.
5. Restore Radio Marti’s reseach department. Congress abolished this office in 1996 without conducting hearings at a time when personnel in this office were known to be critical of Radio Marti’s program quality. The department had four analysts who made recommendations, collaborated in program development, consulted with news and feature programming staff, and generally provided a source of long-range perspective. The department also had an excellent library of Cuban history and current affairs. In light of the need to improve program quality, this office should be restored.
6. Use independent monitors. Radio Marti would benefit from regular monitoring reports by diverse groups of American professional journalists who are not U.S. government employees, and who would be free to give candid assessments of the quality of Radio Marti’s programming.
7. Increase Congressional oversight. This hearing is a good beginning, but continued oversight is needed to end the culture where criticism of Radio Marti’s programming is interpreted as rejection of the station’s mission. Congressional oversight will be particularly helpful in addressing program quality issues, and in resolving the widely reported allegations of mismanagement and sexual discrimination at Radio Marti.
8. Broaden programming horizons. Congress should expect that Radio Marti live up to the VOA standard that its broadcasts reflect all of America, not just one sector. Congress could usefully ask whether Radio Marti is covering significant stories that reflect sectors of American society that are involved in Cuba. One major story is Cuba’s purchase of $100 million in American food since last fall. Is Radio Marti covering the companies that are making these sales? Is it describing the way this food is being distributed in Cuba? Is it covering those who support these sales as well as those who oppose them? Another major development is the large numbers of Americans who are visiting Cuba with or without U.S. government licenses. What is the experience of these visitors? What interaction do they have with Cuban citizens? What difference do they make in Cuba?
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The Voice of America’s Charter is a brief and clear statement of its mission and standards, and it is worth reviewing in light of Radio Marti’s troubles. “To win the attention and respect of listeners,” the Charter states, VOA must be “a consistently reliable and authoritative source” of “accurate, objective and comprehensive” news. VOA’s mission is to “represent America, not any single segment of American society.” The charter concludes: “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on those policies.”
It is a shame that Radio Marti has gone so far off course that it often falls short of the standards of that Charter and does not live up to the VOA’s long and honored tradition.
Radio Marti needs to rebuild, first by focusing relentlessly and exclusively on its mission to deliver comprehensive and professional news coverage. If it does so, it will begin to rebuild its audience in Cuba and fulfill the important public diplomacy mission assigned to it. I hope the attention you are lending to this issue marks the beginning of that process.
The Lexington Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization. The author was a State Department official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations; see www./lexingtoninstitute.org/cuba; to contact the author, firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Philip Peters, a State Department official during the Reagan and Bush administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
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