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Given all the confrontations he had with his editors over Cuba, Matthews didn't expect them to acknowledge the value of his work. Nevertheless, he exulted in Castro's triumph, for it could be said that he had a hand in it, a remarkable feeling for a journalist used to merely recording events.

After the frustration of backing the losing side of the Spanish Civil War, and his change of heart with the fading fortunes of fascism, he had finally chosen the winning side in an ideological battle. He was convinced that Castr meant to push Cuba into an entirely new social and economic direction, and he believed that the Cuban Revolution would have a more lasting impact than the one in Mexico or any other since the French Revolution.
    -Anthony DePalma, The Man Who Invented Fidel

In 2001, having served the NY Times as a Bureau Chief in Cuba, Anthony DePalma was assigned the task of preparing an obituary for Fidel Castro. Central to the story of Cuba's dictator is that of a fellow Timesman, Herbert L. Matthews, whose profiles of Castro from the Sierra Maestra mountains, at a time when he was thought dead, revived what had been an abortive revolution and gave him a legitimacy that eventually at least contributed to the fall of the Batista regime and began the mythologizing that made Castro an iconic figure on the Left. Both because Matthews wrote of Castro as essentially a liberal democratic romantic -- and he not only turned out to be the opposite in power but claimed to have hoodwinked the journalist in the process -- and because of the easy parallel to Walter Duranty, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning reports on the Soviet famine of the 1930s had intentionally white-washed Stalinism, Matthews was not just reviled by the Right but viewed with no little embarrassment even in the Times newsroom and corporate offices. With the Jayson Blair scandal and the Judith Miller kerfuffle adding a contemporary angle, Mr. DePalma became fascinated by the Matthews story and the questions surrounding where simple reporting ended and where misunderstanding, misinformation, or propaganda began. He unravels the tale in this excellent book that reads like a tragedy, though perhaps focuses too much on the personal tragedy of Herbert Matthews and not enough on the national and even international ones caused by the Castro regime.

Mr. DePalma essentially clears the reporter and the Times of any actual Communist sympathy early on when he establishes the arc of the tragedy in Mathews youthful ambition to follow in the footsteps of Richard Harding Davis, who made Teddy Roosevelt the hero of San Juan Hill. Indeed, Matthews career suggests that Castro was little more than an incidental character in a personal psycho-drama where he was bent on playing the mythmaker to some man--any man--on horseback. When he was sent to cover the Italians as they invaded Abyssinia, Matthews became a fan of Mussolini and fascism. Sent to cover the Republican side in the Spanish War he sided with them. The sense that Mr. DePalma leaves is that had he been assigned the other side of either story Matthews would have adopted its cause as his own. And, finding a revolutionary in the jungles it seems likely he'd have turned him into his own version of Lawrence of Arabia whether he was Fidel, Batista or even Pol Pot. Of course, this is even more troubling in its own way.

In Spain, Matthews had become friendly with Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn and all believed that it was perfectly legitimate for a journalist to be a partisan of the cause they were covering, that objectivism was inappropriate. It is against the claim of the Times and the rest of the press that it is an impartial institution, merely reporting facts, and against their asserted entitlement both to First Amendment protection and to maintain an adversarial relationship with the American government that this sort of subjectivism -- which can hardly ever be avoided, though it was rather open in the instance of Herbert Matthews and Fidel Castro -- becomes appalling. In his recent book, Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, Fox News media critic Eric Burns has posed what seems a false dilemma:
It does not seem to make sense. It is almost incomprehensible. Yet the golden age of America's founding was the gutter age of American journalism. The era that produced such works as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers also produced newspapers that lied, slandered and incited violence.
Given the realities of human nature, isn't it likely that we were just better served by a press that made no bones about rooting for certain sides and which readers approached with the expectation (understanding) that the version of events they'd be getting would have first been filtered through a politically partisan lens? The lesson that the life and work of Herbert Matthews ultimately teaches us is that it just didn't much matter whether he was a willing Communist dupe or a naive victim of Castro's charm or a willfully blind participant in a bit of political theater--what mattered was that he approached the story replete with his own simple human failings and the influenced the dispatches he filed, with results that were disastrous to his own reputation and catastrophic for the Cuban people.


Grade: (A-)


Anthony DePalma Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Man Who Invented Fidel (Public Affairs Books)
    -EXCERPT: from The Man Who Invented Fidel: Chapter 7: The Best Friend Of The Cuban People
    -ARCHIVES: Anthony DePalma (NY Times)
    -ARTICLE: NAFTA's Powerful Little Secret (Anthony DePalma, 3/11/01, New York Times)
    -ESSAY: The Soul of a University (Anthony DePalma, Spring 2004, Notre Dame Magazine)
    -ESSAY: Myths of the Enemy: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times (Anthony DePalma, July 2004, The Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies)
    -INTERVIEW: North America: Ray Suarez talks with author Anthony DePalma about his new book Here: A Biography of the New American Continent, about the North American neighbors of the United States. (Online Newshour, September 4, 2001)
    -INTERVIEW: Fidel Castro's image in the 1950's and 60's interview (Marco Werman, 5/15/06, The World: PRI)
    -INTERVIEW: JUNGLE LOVE (Brooke Gladstone, April 21, 2006, On The Media: NPR)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times by Anthony Depalma (Jonathan Alter, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Invented Fidel (Tom Blackburn, The Palm Beach Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Invented Fidel (Brett Sokol, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Invented Fidel ( KEN FRANKEL, Globe and Mail)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Invented Fidel (Mark Falcoff, The New York Sun)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Invented Fidel (IKE SEAMANS, Miami Herald)
    -REVIEW: of The Man Who Invented Fidel (Rebeca Chapa, San Antonio Express-News)

Book-related and General Links: