[Marxism] "Taking Sides" - NY Times review of "The Man Who Invented Fidel"

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sun Apr 23 10:46:59 MDT 2006

The New York Times has never forgiven itself for the brief moment
in time when it reported sympathetically on the Cuban Revolution.
The implication of the headline is, of course, that something is
wrong with "Taking Sides", as if the Times itself would NEVER,
"take sides". Of course, the Times is relentlessly partisan as 
this review makes clear. It's tone of relentless reviling of its
subject, and really nothing about the book which is supposed to 
be under review, is profoundly revealing - about the NY Times.

It's been trying to make amends for all the subsequent years and 
it seems nothing gets in the way for them. Anthony DePalma's new
book, which should be assigned reading in journalism classes to
teach students the meaning of the term "hatchet job", here gets a
glowing review from the publication which presumably instructed 
the author to write the very book he produced. 

About the only decent and really memorable thing we get out of this
review is the link to a reproduction of one of the original three
articles by Matthews, which you can see here:

If you try to print it out, however, you'll find that the print on the
second page is too small to read. Fortunately, you can find a readable
version here:
http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/cuban-rebels/matthews.htm and
at the same site you can find Matthews' second and third stories, too.

Walter Lippmann, CubaNews

April 23, 2006
'The Man Who Invented Fidel,' by Anthony DePalma
Taking Sides

IN August, Fidel Castro will turn 80, with no final reward in sight.
The small island nation he has tyrannized for an astonishing 47 years
has played an outsize role in modern history, from the 1962 Cuban
missile crisis, which brought the superpowers "thisclose" to nuclear
war (in the words of Robert McNamara), to the Elián González case,
which helped tip Florida and thus the 2000 presidential election to
George W. Bush.

At a deeper level, Castro has influenced the American culture wars of
the last half-century. The beard and fatigues he presented to the
world in 1957 anticipated the rebellious romanticism of the 1960's.
The curdling of the Cuban revolution offered at least some
vindication to the American right, while extending the ferocity of
American ideological combat long past the end of the cold war. And,
as we learn in Anthony DePalma's fascinating and admirably
dispassionate book "The Man Who Invented Fidel," today's tussles over
the "liberal media" in general, and The New York Times in particular,
are merely an extension of an old story from the precomputer age — a
story that helped create Castro and, even now, illuminates the
enduring power of bias and myth.

The explosive consequences of reporters growing too fond of their
sources are all on display in the case of Herbert L. Matthews, one of
the most famous — and infamous — men ever to write for this
newspaper. Born in New York in 1900, Matthews barely missed combat in
World War I and thought about becoming an academic. Instead, he
drifted into secretarial work at The Times and by the 1930's was a
foreign correspondent — "brave as a badger," in the words of his
friend Ernest Hemingway. Matthews's journalistic hero was Richard
Harding Davis, the swashbuckling turn-of-the-century correspondent
known as Theodore Roosevelt's "personal publicist" for creating the
myth that T.R.'s charge up San Juan Hill was a pivotal battle in the
Spanish-American War.

Matthews's first big story for The Times was the 1935 Italian
invasion of Abyssinia, where he openly sympathized with Mussolini's
Fascists. In Spain the next year, he switched sides and drew close to
the Loyalist cause. Hemingway's wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn,
believed Matthews was the model for Robert Jordan in "For Whom the
Bell Tolls." To the end of his life, members of the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade, made up of American leftists and Communists who took part in
the Spanish Civil War, considered him a sympathetic friend.

In 1957, Matthews was an aging Times editorial writer whose strong
relationship with the publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, allowed him
to double as a roving straight-news reporter, an arrangement that was
a departure from Times policy. After The Times and other newspapers
reported that the young Cuban rebel leader Fidel Castro was dead,
Matthews — always a resourceful, enterprising correspondent — decided
to go see for himself. Posing as tourists, he and his wife made their
way through the dictator Fulgencio Batista's military lines before
Matthews alone completed the difficult journey into the Sierra
Maestra on foot.

The front-page scoop that followed and two additional articles
predicted "a new deal for Cuba" if Castro's insurgency won and
reported that the romantic revolutionary was no Communist; in fact,
the local Communists opposed him. [From the archives: Cuban Rebel Is
Visited in Hideout.] The exclusive was a sensation at the time and
transformed Castro's image from a hotheaded Don Quixote into the
youthful face of the future of Cuba. Unfortunately for Matthews and
The Times, it didn't age well.

By 1958, Times editors were already growing uncomfortable with
Matthews's pro-Castro bias, and by 1959, when Castro credited the
articles with helping to bring him to power, the remarkable access
afforded Matthews began to boomerang. On a celebrated visit that year
to the United States, the charming new Cuban leader bragged that when
Matthews met him in the mountains two years earlier his movement was
down to 18 soldiers — one bedraggled column that walked in circles to
fool the reporter. DePalma shows that this was almost certainly
untrue — one of Fidel's cruel jokes — and that Matthews's larger
estimates of Castro's troop strength came from careful reporting in
Havana. But the damage to Matthews's reputation was done. For all the
years since, conservatives who distrust everything coming out of
Castro's mouth have chosen to believe their enemy on this single
point, so as to make a fool of Herbert Matthews.

His career did not crater all at once. In 1961, John F. Kennedy asked
him to the Oval Office after the failure of the C.I.A.-backed
invasion at the Bay of Pigs. A candid president, trying to learn from
his mistakes, had earlier told The Times's managing editor, Turner
Catledge, that "you would have saved us from a colossal mistake" if
the paper had gone ahead and printed what it knew about the operation
beforehand — a sharp contrast to President Bush's attitude toward
critical reporting. In his private chat with Matthews, unearthed by
DePalma, Kennedy told the reporter that if it hadn't been for the
failed invasion, "we might be in Laos now — or perhaps unleashing
Chiang." In other words, the botched invasion of Cuba may have spared
the United States a much more disastrous invasion of mainland China.

DePalma shows that Matthews was a determined liberal but not a faker
like Walter Duranty, the Times correspondent who won a 1932 Pulitzer
Prize for his fawning coverage of Stalin and was probably in league
with the Soviet secret police. Matthews's articles were for the most
part factually accurate. But he comes across as a self-righteous and
credulous analyst who sided with those who gave him access and then
refused to reassess, whatever the changing facts. While other
reporters who also misread Castro toughened their coverage after he
began ordering summary executions, Matthews stuck stubbornly to his
original myth.

While his pacing and historical context are first-rate, DePalma —
himself a correspondent at The Times — might have quoted more
extensively from the many rationalizations of Castro that Matthews
undertook in books and articles in the 20 years between the famous
interview and his death in 1977. Did he ever go beyond comparisons to
Oliver Cromwell and John Brown and call Castro by his proper name —
dictator? Apparently not, though DePalma doesn't say.

The Matthews story is about the power of myths. The most enduring on
the left are that the United States drove Castro into the hands of
the Soviets (DePalma explores documents from the Soviet archives that
suggest the Soviets offered to send military trainers into Cuba well
before the relationship with the United States deteriorated) and,
most perniciously, that there is still something romantic and
appealing about the Cuban revolution. The most persistent myths on
the right are that a trade embargo makes sense (it actually helps
perpetuate Castro's power) and that the dictator is just a
garden-variety Communist; in fact, he has always been an original and
unpredictable chameleon whose only commitment is to his own survival.

Herbert L. Matthews didn't invent Castro, as he initially claimed
with characteristic self-regard. As DePalma suggests, Castro's charm
and will to power were such that he most likely would have triumphed
without Matthews's notorious articles turning him into a romantic
hero. The rabid Cuban exiles who continue to revile the reporter
nearly 30 years after his death simply wanted to shoot the messenger.
(Some literally: the F.B.I., while spying on Matthews, also reported
a death threat against him.) But Matthews's critics were more right
than wrong, and his career is an object lesson to anyone with
aspirations to being an accomplished reporter. Passion for sources
and causes can make you famous, but they often pull you farther from
the brambled path of truth.

Jonathan Alter, a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, is the
author of "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of
Hope," to be published next week.

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