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Megaphone for a Dictator

CNN's Coverage of Fidel Castro's Cuba, 1997-2002

Introduction

On Monday, March 17, 1997, CNN became the first U.S.-based news organization to open a permanent news bureau in Cuba since the Associated Press was expelled from the communist-controlled island 28 years earlier. Both the United States and the Castro regime agreed to the arrangement, with the American government requiring that “news gathering activities within Cuba be unconditioned and unrestricted.”1 Many opponents of Castro’s repressive, undemocratic regime believed the presence of free and independent reporters would help the cause of freedom.

Then-White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters that Clinton administration officials expected “that the reporting of truth about the conditions in Cuba would further our policy, which seeks to bring about peaceful, democratic change in Cuba.”2 Republican Senator Jesse Helms also supported CNN’s desire for a bureau: “If Castro wants to open Cuba to the roving eye of the American news media, we should by all means give him the rope with which to hang himself.”3

CNN officials indicated that the goal of the network’s new Havana office would be to provide more and deeper coverage than was possible when journalists were limited to short stays on the island. Incoming bureau chief Lucia Newman told USA Today’s Peter Johnson that she wanted to accurately portray the full range of life in Cuba — “what people are like, what problems there are and how they live.”4

As for concerns that CNN reporters would be harassed by communist authorities, on the first night of her new assignment Newman assured her audience that “the Cuban government has told us that while they will be keeping close tabs on what we say and what we broadcast, we will however be given total freedom to do what we want and to work without any prior censorship. And that’s what we’re certainly looking forward to.”5

During the half decade that CNN has had a home in Havana, Fidel Castro probably has not lost much sleep worrying whether the network would reveal his dictatorship’s dirty secrets to the world. In fact, CNN has aired extremely few stories revealing the dark side of one of the world’s last communist regimes, and the network’s treatment of Castro himself is mainly docile. Dashing hopes that a free media presence would expose the regime’s abuses to the world, CNN has instead allowed itself to become Castro’s megaphone, providing the dictator with an international platform even while allowing him to claim that he’s being scrutinized by free and independent journalists.

These conclusions are the result of an exhaustive analysis by the Media Research Center of all 212 stories about the Cuban government or life in Cuba which aired on CNN’s prime time news programs from March 1997 through March 2002.6 According to the MRC’s analysis, CNN reporters elevated the voices of Fidel Castro and his communist regime far above those of political dissidents or the Catholic Church, while the issues of Cuba’s dissident community, the treatment of political prisoners, and the lack of democracy in Cuba amounted to merely a tiny fraction of CNN’s news agenda.

At the same time, the Cuban public was depicted as overwhelmingly supportive of the dictator and his policies, with six times as many ordinary Cubans shown on CNN expressing support for Castro’s positions than even the slightest disagreement. Instead of exposing the truth about the totalitarian regime that runs Cuba, as both Republicans and Democrats had hoped five years ago, CNN has allowed itself to become just another component of Fidel Castro’s propaganda machine.