Fidel, the dictator-celebrity

Posted: Oct 15, 2002 12:00 AM
Journalism is never more amoral than when dictators are the mandatory "get" for a news puff piece. For the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the network anchors were all scrambling to get an interview with Fidel Castro, the dictator-celebrity. Which network superstar would get the first opportunity to reward the communists for their exclusive by lauding the achievements of the glorious revolution? Best known (or caricatured) as the woman who asks the ridiculously offbeat questions like "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you like to be?" Walters also has the chops to ask tough questions. In the middle of the Clinton years, when Hillary Clinton parceled out only rare interviews and expected utter servility in return, only Walters was willing to dig deep into Whitewater obscurities, asking, for example, who it was who handled the legal work for the corrupt Castle Grande real estate development. (It was Hillary.) She was certainly capable of bringing the heat to Fidel Castro. But she didn't. Her "20/20" interview did get to the point of dictatorship, but only by glorifying supposed social achievements that are dubious at best: "It is true that you have very high literacy; you have brought great health to your country. However, you still do not have freedom of the press. You do not have -- your newspapers, your radio, television -- everything is controlled." Other television reports that document the so-called "great health" of Cuba, omit natty details like clinics that are lucky to have a box of Band-Aids and a clean syringe, and the fact that people aren't exactly hopping on boats to Havana for open-heart surgery or a kidney transplant. People who need the latest, greatest medicine come to Castro's Great Satan of the North. Barbara's question wasn't based on thorough, accurate research. It was based on pandering. While she gave him a decent battle on the lack of press freedom, she didn't get to the tougher point: political enemies and potential crusading journalists are oppressed not only by fear and intimidation, but also by imprisonment, torture and execution. What must Fidel think of some American journalists and their gullible ways? I suspect even he was amazed to hear Walters report this: "For Castro, freedom starts with education. And if literacy alone were the yardstick, Cuba would rank as one of the freest nations on Earth." For the life of me, I can't figure out how networks who prance around about their own rights in this country can visit another country that meets the dictionary definition of totalitarianism and then post this offensive garbage about literacy being equivalent to freedom. Maybe it's something in the water over at ABC, because this isn't the first time on ABC a reporter has fainted over Fidel. In 1993, fellow star interviewer Diane Sawyer made Fidel sound like the hero of a Schwarzenegger action film, with his "death-defying two-year fight" for communism, driven by "his invincible certainty of their destiny" and "his burning desire to crush Cuba's American-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista." But Barbara gave this monster too much respect. She set him up as some sort of independent thinker on world politics: "President Castro, you oppose an attack against Iraq, yes? ... In your view, is Saddam Hussein a good leader for the people of Iraq?" It would be nice if reporters had the decency not to honor dictators with democratic titles like "president" when they have in no way earned them. But to ask one dictator if another dictator is "a good leader for the people" is clearly inappropriate. It sends the message that somehow Castro is an expert on that which makes one "a good leader for the people," that he has experience at being "a good leader for the people." One cannot imagine Barbara Walters clamoring to interview Augusto Pinochet to salute his social achievements and asking if other dictators are good leaders. But Pinochet was dictator of the right, not the left. Even more than a decade after communism's failure became too obvious to be ignored, communist leaders are still being honored with the notion that they are close to the people, fulfilling their material and intellectual needs. The Cold War may be over, but the liberal media attitude remains like an odor you just can't blow out of the house. Liberals still pay tribute to this "romantic revolutionary" bilge, and blur the blacks and whites of Castro's oppression with the alleged moral sophistication that both American and Cuba have a long way to go to Utopia. Barbara Walters could have done better. And her audience deserved better.