This past September the Sun-Sentinel got a license from the Cuban government to open a bureau in Havana. Permission to operate down there is something of a coup for the paper, particularly because its biggest competitor, The Herald, is likely to receive permission for an office on the island only when Fidel dons red, white, and blue boxers to march in a Fourth of July parade.
In January the Sun-Sentinel installed a young, Yale-educated reporter with minimal experience named Vanessa Bauza in Old Havana. Editor Earl Maucker trotted out all the journalistic chestnuts in an editorial marking the occasion, describing the paper's mission of "fair and balanced coverage," "honest journalism," and "direct reporting.... Our purpose in Cuba will not be to make friends or enemies, but to exercise our judgment as a free and independent press," he blustered.
So what do they have to show for it so far? Eleven flat, soft stories so bloodless they might as well have been filed from Davie. Highlights include a stinging indictment of the lack of Internet access in Cuba, an insightful tale of transportation woes faced by housing project residents, and a warm dispatch about a band of government-approved poets who pop up here and there in Havana spreading good cheer. The most recent installment, published this past Sunday, was a fawning account of a meal at the Presidential Palace to celebrate the bureau's opening. El Jefe himself was there, looking dapper in his pressed, olive-green fatigues and spewing nonsense that Bauza, serving as stenographer for the day, dutifully took down. She quoted him at length about the revolution, his legacy, and the delicious lobsters served for lunch. Pesky dissidents are dealt with in a dismissive paragraph at the end of the piece: "If those people did in the United States what they do in our country with money they receive covertly and overtly... you would keep them in jail for 30 years," proclaimed Castro in a statement that, like everything else that afternoon, apparently went unchallenged.
"I don't think [Sun-Sentinel reporters] should be there unless they have the balls to report about dissidents and such," opines Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami and an avid follower of journalism about the island. Journalists from the Sun-Sentinel, the Associated Press, and CNN are worried about being kicked out, he says, and it shows in the reporting. "You can't be timid. That's one thing the media should not be."
Sun-Sentinel state, national, and foreign editor Alina Lambiet (who is, by the way, Cuban-American) says it is too early to pass judgment. "We're just getting started. I don't really feel like we are in rock 'n' roll mode yet." Because the government provides little valuable information, good sources are paramount in Cuba, she says. And those sources take time to develop.
As for tougher coverage, stay tuned, she adds. "Are we going to cover dissidents? Yeah, of course. But we will also cover all of life in Cuba as it now exists, including those who are resigned to life there and some who are happy with life there."
When Roger Mann first moved to Oakland Park 27 years ago, the city was a rollicking mix of hookers, mobsters, massage parlors, and nightclubs. At least that's the way Mann remembers the place where he served as a cop and firefighter for a combined 24 years.
Today Oakland Park is a city where a man who believes deeply in guts, guns, and heterosexuality can't even get a seat on the city commission. At least that's the way he sees the place now.
Mann, age 49, is locally infamous as the candidate whose campaign centered on his heterosexuality. His March 13 loss to Larry Gierer, who is openly gay, was Mann's second shot at a commission seat. Might he try again? After all he came in second in a three-way race, beating John P. O'Sullivan by a solid 140 votes of 2202 cast. And Gierer beat Mann by only 200 votes.
The ex-cop/ex-candidate is a six-foot, four-inch, 275-pound hulk with a receding hairline and an advancing waistline. When he met Undercurrents in front of the Borders on East Sunrise Boulevard last week for an election postmortem, he shook our hand and asked our name three times. Then he yanked open the front door of the bookstore and strode through the narrow aisles so fast we nearly had to jog to keep up. He bore down on the newspaper racks in the back by the restrooms, grabbed a copy of the local gay-and-lesbian newspaper The Express, and rifled through it until he found an article about himself. The paper ran a photo of him over the caption: "Homophobe Roger Mann."
""Homophobe,'" he reads, shaking his head, then repeating a plank in his campaign platform. "Sounds like a bug. I prefer heterosexual."
Mann spent $5000 of his own money on the campaign and gathered a few hundred more in donations. He's puzzled and more than a little miffed by the loss. Playing to straight voters was, he thought, a good publicity ploy. "How does a guy with limited resources get his name out there?" he says. "That's what it was all about."
Not prone to introspection, Mann pegs his defeat as owing to several factors. It didn't work because turnout was low, he posits. It didn't work because neither the firefighters nor the police union endorsed him. It didn't work because Oakland Park isn't the same city it was in 1974. It has changed. He hasn't.
After a cup of Borders Blend, Mann concedes he's not likely to try again. "I think I'm going to sell my house to homosexuals and move to Montana," he says. Then he laughs. "That was a joke."
As a public service Undercurrents herein begins a semiregular feature aimed at making you, the reader, a more savvy news consumer. We're calling it "More Reasons Why You Don't Want to Know How News Is Made."
This week's topic: press conferences.
Last Friday Undercurrents, along with a handful of other print and broadcast operations in town, received a tantalizing press release from Mike Kent, president of Club Atlantis in Fort Lauderdale. Kent is angry at the city for passing an ordinance restricting anyone under the age of 21 from entering a club that serves alcohol. His livelihood depends on stuffing his cavernous dance floor with as many young, writhing bodies as possible. But the city's old fogy¯inspired rules make that difficult. He has sued, and he has steamed. And, as his Friday afternoon press release hinted, he has videotaped Fort Lauderdale city commissioner Tim Smith doing something naughty!
Minutes after receiving this tantalizing tidbit, Undercurrents rushed down to Club Atlantis, visions of hot tubs, cocaine, and undercover FBI agents dancing in our head. Then Kent rolled the video, shot by his own people. The assembled media -- three TV crews, both daily newspapers, and a radio guy -- were treated to footage of Smith and his wife, Cindy, supposedly selling plants. From a residence. Without charging sales tax. Without a business license.
Not exactly Marion Barry, this Tim Smith. He says he's duly licensed. Who cares?
The press corps should have pelted Kent with reporter's notebooks for wasting our precious time. He does, however, get kudos for offering free drinks.
A subsequent check of news archives shows only Herald scribe Fred Grimm took the bait. Perhaps one of the TV news stations aired a clip, but Undercurrents was too preoccupied with our own hot tub later that evening to notice.
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