Once Upon a Time, Bad Journalists Faced Consequences. Now They Get Promoted.

The Times ousted Castro sycophant Herbert Matthews but HuffPo elevated Ryan Grim

Evening Standard staff working on the night edition in the newsroom, London, 21st September 1971.
Evening Standard staff working on the night edition in the newsroom, September 1971. Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fidel Castro obituaries last week noted how New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews resurrected his career with sycophantic profiles in 1957 that cast the young guerrilla fighting to overthrow the Batista regime as an avowed anti-Communist.

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But Matthews’ own professional fate soured after the articles that catapulted Castro to power were quickly proven atrociously wrong. Embarrassed, the Times barred him from writing about Castro; Matthews soon left the paper in disgrace and never returned to daily journalism.

Compare that to how POLITICO handled reporters Ken Vogel and Glenn Thrush when leaked emails revealed they were shilling for the Hillary Clinton campaign and DNC by giving both veto power over stories.  POLITICO spokesman Brad Dayspring insisted to the Observer that the collusion was ultimately irrelevant because both reporters’ published stories were objective.

After praising Vogel and Thrush to the hilt, Dayspring conceded they violated the website’s standards. But neither was disciplined.

Just the opposite. During a contentious phone call last month, Vogel repeatedly refused to say if he ever gave advance copies of his stories to Republicans. He hung up within roughly 90 seconds.

The hot-shot investigative reporter later said his caller embarrassed himself by asking these questions.

Of course, the Matthews analogy is inexact because Matthews’ sins are small compared to what reporters at the New York Times and others regularly do these days.

Matthews didn’t give Castro veto power over his work.  And as far as can be determined, although utterly entranced ideologically and personally by Castro, he didn’t knowingly publish falsehoods for political purposes. In fact, to former New York Times reporter Anthony De Palma, who wrote a book about the affair, Matthews was at worst guilty of “sloppy reporting.”

Compare that–to cite one of many examples—to the way New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro claimed for his paper’s lead election story that Trump won because many voters felt like losers and sought grandeur through him.

Barbaro hung up when asked for evidence to back his defamatory assertions, which actually contradicted serious reporting about them; nothing could be located online congruent with Barbaro’s absolutist assertions. Politics editor Carolyn Ryan ignored tweeted inquiries today.

Things used to be very different at the Times. The history with Castro and Matthews is a vivid reminder of how much sway the paper once held over the powers that be.

In 1956, the Grey Lady published a wire service dispatch saying Fidel Castro, young guerilla leader hoping to overthrow the Batista regime, was killed in a battle with the dictator’s armed forces.

The next year, Herbert Matthews, an editorial writer at the Times, left his post in New York for greater personal and political glories. He traveled to a remote area of Cuba and managed to get an exclusive interview with the alive and well Castro.

Matthews wrote three sycophantic articles that lionized somebody whose movement was assumed vanquished, regarding him as the bright shining Democratic hope for Cuba.

“The only power worth considering in Cuba is in the hands of Premier Castro, who is not only not Communist but decidedly anti-Communist, even though he does not consider it desirable in the present circumstances to attack or destroy the Reds — as he is in a position to do any time he wants.”

Got that? Castro abstaining from fighting Communists in Cuba actually proves just how avowedly anti-Communist he really is.

This sounds remarkably similar to Huffington Post honcho Ryan Grim last year explaining to readers last year that–contrary to Donald Trump’s own public pronouncements, decades long serious engagement with current affairs, huge ego and everything else that was reason to believe he was determined to capture the Republican nomination–he was not a serious candidate and belonged in the entertainment section.

Events, of course, quickly proved otherwise.

Nevertheless, after founder Arianna Huffington left, Grim was promoted to HuffPost leadership. But remained just as arrogant–and wrong. Just days before the election, he accused respected pollster Nate Silver of skewering the data in Trump’s favor and assured everybody Hillary would prevail.

Wrong again.

Yet, Matthews’ politically-motivated predictions proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“His heroic portrayal of Castro as a scruffy mountain rebel leading an insurrection of Cuban youths against Batista was the image on which American perceptions of the revolution would be widely based for several years,” De Palma recounts in his 2006 book, The Man Who Invented Fidel. “By highlighting Castro’s promises to restore Cuba’s constitution and hold free elections, his articles and their prominent display in The Times (two of them on the front page, a third inside, and all three heavily promoted within the paper) increased pressure on Washington to stop shipping arms to Batista.”

Castro took power on January 1, 1959.

Months later, despite, growing signs to the contrary, Matthews continued to insist the new leader was no Communist.

“There are no Reds in the Cabinet and none in high positions in the Government or army in the sense of being able to control either governmental or defense policies. The only power worth considering in Cuba is in the hands of the Premier Castro, who is not only not Communist but decidedly anti-Communist,” he asserted in that famous passage.

And then, in 1961, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist. Matthews continued to sing his praises. But when a new publisher took the reins in 1962, he barred Mathews from writing either news stories or editorials about Castro.

Matthews soon retired from the Times in disgrace. He wrote books but never returned to print journalism.

Moral of the story: once upon a time, reporters paid a heavy price for malpractice.

Today, it’s a really nifty career move.

Once Upon a Time, Bad Journalists Faced Consequences. Now They Get Promoted.