Another media valentine to Fidel

Herbert Matthews with Fidel Castro in New York City in 1960.
Herbert Matthews with Fidel Castro in New York City in 1960.

I imagine devout atheist Fidel Castro would demur. But surely he is the patron saint of bad journalism. He literally owes his half-century as Cuban dictator to a fanboy New York Times reporter named Herbert Matthews.

In 1957, when Castro was a beleaguered guerrilla leader in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains with just 18 bedraggled, ill-armed soldiers under constant attack, Matthews wrote a mammoth 4,000-word series of stories that depicted him as commander of a mighty insurgent army that controlled vast swaths of territory.

“Thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal” — get it? a Cuban Roosevelt! — “for which he stands,” Matthews wrote. That puff piece in the world’s most powerful newspaper was so important to Castro’s eventual victory that he would later erect a monument honoring Matthews.

Mattthews was the first American reporter to turn to reverential mush in the presence of Castro — a biography of his life is titled The Man Who Invented Fidel — but far from the last. From Diane Sawyer greeting the dictator with a kiss — think she ever did that with George W. Bush? — to Dan Rather hailing him as “Cuba’s Elvis,” all that gritty talk about speaking truth to power dissolves into gushing hero-worship where Castro is concerned.

Reporters never ask him why so many millions of Cubans have fled the island to escape his rule, many jumping into the sea without much more than an inner tube and a prayer. Or why he’s entitled to hand his government over to his brother as if it’s a family cow.

I’ve watched this process for years without understanding it.

Journalists never cuddled with right-wing Latin American despots like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet or the Argentine military junta the way they do with Castro.

But the media valentines to Castro just keep coming. CNN’s Spanish-language cousin CNN en Español, as part of its new series DocuFilms, this weekend airs a revealing and slightly revolting account of one session of heavy petting between an American reporter and Castro.

A Trip With Fidel (it airs Sunday at 8 p.m. and repeats Nov. 14-15), follows much-honored filmmaker Jon Alpert, then a freelance reporter working with NBC, as he gets exclusive access to Castro on a 1979 trip to New York to address the United Nations.

Castro was very much in the headlines at the time. Cuban troops were intervening in Ethiopia, to the dismay of not just the United States but countries across North Africa and the Middle East. The Cuban economy was in a tailspin, producing political tensions that would soon erupt into the Mariel boatlift, with 100,000 people fleeing the island in a single month.

So, Alpert had plenty of meaty questions from which to choose as he sat down with Castro on the plane to New York. And he asked . . .

“What do you wear around the house?”

“Did you pack anything special?”

“Do you take all your food with you?”

These mindless, puerile questions go on endlessly and get even worse. In Castro’s hotel suite, Alpert asks to see first the inside of the refrigerator and then the bedroom. The bemused Castro waves him in.

“This is your bed, Fidel?” the awed Alpert asks. “This is where Castro sleeps,” comes the magisterial reply. Stop the presses! Or whatever they say on TV.

Sadly, it wasn’t even the most egregious example of Suck-up Journalism during Castro’s trip to New York.

That would come later, when Barbara Walters helped Castro throw a dinner party for her media pals from ABC, Time, NPR and the rest. The Washington Post breathlessly reported Castro’s iffy sense of decor (“the appointments of the room would send a shiver of horrors down the spine of any astute hostess”) and his careful attention to the menu (“Never, never boil a lobster, he says. Always bake it.”)

To be fair, the reporters did ask Castro some tough questions about human rights — their own. As the clock hit 11 p.m. and the table was still bare, Walters demanded to know “what kind of a host he is that he has a dinner party and doesn’t even feed his guests.”

Too bad nobody thought to ask what kind of a man takes over a government and doesn’t let his people vote for six decades. But I guess we know the answer to that anyway.