Feb. 17, 2007 will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most famous interviews in the history of journalism. On that date in 1957, Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times first interviewed Fidel Castro, then leading a small, ragtag group of insurgents fighting against Cuba's corrupt dictator, Fulgencio Batista. To this day, we are living with the consequences of that interview.
By 1957, Castro had already been fighting Batista for several years and had mounted a failed coup against him on July 26, 1953, for which he was jailed and later deported. On Dec. 2, 1956, Castro re-entered Cuba with an armed force of 80 men. This mini-invasion was crushed by the army, which claimed that Castro had been killed.
Thus the most important news coming from Matthews' interview, which took place deep in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Cuba, was simply that Castro was still alive. Knowing that this fact would be denied by the Cuban government, Matthews documented his interview with photographs and even had Castro sign his interview notes.
After his three-hour interview, Matthews quickly headed for New York to file his story, which ran on Page One of the Times on Feb. 24, 1957. It was nothing short of sensational. Matthews painted Castro in glowing terms, as a legitimate heir to the revolutionaries who established the United States in 1776.
Of Castro, Matthews said, "He has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections."
Matthews quoted Castro as saying, "You can be sure we have no animosity toward the United States and the American people. Above all, we are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship."
Castro's movement, Matthews said, "amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist."
Although an experienced foreign correspondent, at this point in his career Matthews was no longer reporting for the Times. He was, rather, a member of its editorial board, who normally wrote unsigned editorials. Consequently, when the Times ran Matthews' report on its new pages, it was violating one of its own journalistic principles -- separating news from opinion. Matthews blurred that distinction, which was decried by many editors at the Times, but supported by its publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.
Current Times reporter Anthony DePalma examines the Matthews case in a new book, "The Man Who Invented Fidel" (Basic Books). He finds that the paper's indulgence of Matthews was extremely costly in a number of ways.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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