Politics, Lies, Money And The Press

by John Marino

May 16, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOHow a 27-year-old serial liar could not only keep a job at the venerable New York Times but also thrive there, winning choice national assignments, has prompted soul searching by journalists across the nation and sharpened the sabers of media critics from the west coast to the east coast.

But down here in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the local press has been taking a bashing as well.

Federal court testimony this week implied that a prominent columnist might have exposed himself to financial or political influences in writing a column that attacked the integrity of the federal government’s star witness in the first San Juan AIDS Institute case, where Institute coordinator Yamil Kourí and his cohorts stole $2.3 million in federal funds destined to help desperate AIDS patients. An unnamed newswoman also allegedly relied on defense briefings in preparing her coverage of the trial, according to the testimony, given by none other than the mastermind of the AIDS Institute fraud scheme, Kourí -- another serial liar.

Last week, former Gov. Pedro Rosselló said he would sue Claridad, a socialist weekly, after it claimed that he and several former administration officials and allies opened secret foreign bank accounts in Panama, the focus of an active federal investigation, according to the report. The report lit up radio airwaves, insinuated itself in daily and television coverage the next day, and prompted a rare statement from the US Attorney’s Office denying the former governor was the target of any federal investigation. After announcing he’d take legal action, Rosselló signed a sworn statement saying he has never opened a foreign bank account, and suggested that reporters ask Gov. Calderón about that matter.

Also last week, Nelson Irizarry, who announced he would resign as head of the Regulations and Permits Administration to take a post with the Cooperative Institute for Hemispheric Security in Georgia, said he planned to sue El Vocero after the Spanish language daily, citing unnamed sources, reported that the governor had asked for Irizarry’s resignation after he was seen dancing with another man at a gay bar. "I want to say for the record that all the allegations are false and we will be taking the corresponding legal actions against this news organization," said Irizarry, who was actually at a military base during the alleged encounter.

Gov. Calderón and members of her family, it should be noted, are already suing El Vocero, after it reported during her gubernatorial campaign that she had mistreated a former domestic employee at her home — charges roundly denied by family members and current and former employees.

Kourí’s allegations this week centered on Ismael Fernández, a respected veteran columnist who for years has written for El Nuevo Día. Kourí said his attorney Benny Frankie Cerezo suggested hiring a respected writer who would attack the government’s star witness and "raise doubts about the credibility of that witness." He then said he paid former House Speaker Edison Misla Aldarondo, today a convicted felon, $5,000 after he phoned Fernández.

What Misla actually did with the money was unclear, but given recent revelations, it’s probably not hard to imagine he kept it. An Associated Press reporter, one of the few to get a conversation with Fernández, never asked him if he was paid off for the column, a key failure that could have as easily worked to clear the columnist as to taint him.

Fernández did say he met Kourí, after the Cuban doctor phoned him at the suggestion of an unnamed friend. He acknowledged a friendship with Misla, but denied that it had any connection to his meeting with Kourí. At the meeting, Kourí presented some documents that he then corroborated with federal court papers and other sources before coming out with the column, entitled: "The Prosecutor’s Angel."

His denial of the Misla connection is key — the House leader had already been accused of trying to derail the AIDS Institute investigation at Kourí’s behest.

Given those pointing the fingers, most reporters believe Fernández should be taken at his word. And they are probably right.

That fact might actually have a positive local effect on news coverage, given the fact that most of the time politicians and their cronies are at the receiving end of fraud charges in testimony given in federal court. The local press is not nearly as suspicious of such testimony when political figures are tainted by it.

New Progressive Party Rep. Oscar Ramos, the former State Insurance Fund director under the Rosselló administration, was said to have received $75,000 by a contractor convicted by federal authorities for extortion. Federal charges have never been filed against Ramos, and a local judge threw out most of the local charges filed against him based on the testimony last week. Yet his impending indictment has been reported now for months.

If soul-searching by local reporters were prompted by the recent events, then it would only be good for the local press.

The stringer problem at the New York Times

The staff written four-page correction and statements by top execs that it was the storied daily’s darkest hour were awe-inspiring, and the paper should be credited for the gusto in which it attacked the scandal went after themselves. But there was also something so pompous about its response to the whole affair — as if the fact The Times screwed up, royally for many, many months, just had to be front page news.

Buried in the myriad of cross-signals that allowed Jayson Blair to progress at the paper, despite obvious warning signs, may lie its foolish policy towards not giving published credit for the stringers working for it on its national news stories. .

These unnamed reporters, often responsible for the very shape of news stories, are not given credit for their work in the news pages, even though that work may be substantial, allowing Times bylined reporters to be great distances away from people they are quoting in their stories, and great distances away from events they are reporting as if close up.

Often, stringers may be wholly responsible for a news report — when you see those strange dispatches bylined Special to the New York Times.

The Times does give published credit for business, sports, travel and other non "news" sections. But its policy towards its news stringers is paternalistic and contradictory. Ostensibly, the Times does not name its stringers because they do not put these reporters on the same level as its staffing — they are not worthy of a byline in the Times.

But its staff often rely on such stringers to do everything from provide important background, undertake interviews and research and write up substantial portions of articles. And I bet most editors don’t know how much of a given story is actually based on a stringer’s reporting.

The stringer issue has not been brought up in the Blair scandal, but it will be if Blair had the ability to work with stringers. Indeed, hiding behind a network of stringers could have been one way for Blair to weave his web of deception.

Lesser papers than The Times take pains to credit every source contributing to a story, as a simple way of not only covering their butts but also being fair.

The Times should do the same.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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