Film & TV

Carmel Cafiero Changed the Way South Florida Does News

Miss Cleo — AKA Cleo Harris — walks briskly across the parking lot of Sawgrass Mills mall, her face hidden behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses. But Carmel Cafiero has already recognized her.

Dressed in a plain navy suit and clutching a Channel 7 microphone, Cafiero chases down the fraudulent TV psychic, finally catching up to her outside the Burlington Coat Factory.

"A lot of my friends' parents were there to see me on the cheerleading squad, but my mom didn't get to see that."

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People around the country have called Miss Cleo for free psychic readings and ended up receiving astronomical bills in the mail, Cafiero explains while shoppers walk by. How can Cleo justify that?

"See, I don't own any of that stuff," she tries to explain, clearly flustered.

Cafiero isn't buying it. "So you can say anything you want. Is that what you're telling me?"

Cleo shakes her head and turns to go inside the store. "I think you are quite finished, my dear," the TV psychic says with more than a little menace in her voice. The screen goes black.

That's Carmel Cafiero, investigative reporter and trailblazer. She was the first female news anchor in Louisiana and a groundbreaking reporter — a tough, aggressive, sometimes-abrasive single mom who let nothing stop her for decades as she exposed liars, cheaters, cons, Ponzi schemers, and corrupt business owners in America's Casablanca.

Decidedly not a Barbie doll, she was known for substance at South Florida's most popular station — WSVN, Channel 7 — which changed the face of TV news with a shoot-'em-up, "if it bleeds, it leads" style. When Cafiero retired this past July, it marked the end of an era. Now that she's gone, it's hard not to wonder if serious journalism on local television is also finished. WSVN says it's conducting a national search for her replacement, but you can be sure it won't be a tough-as-nails grandmother.

Moreover, as the internet comes to dominate the news market, the future of local TV news is uncertain. The station now devotes most of its airtime to car accidents and drive-by shootings. Meanwhile, Channel 7 has already been blacked out twice this year because of disputes with AT&T over carriage fees, suggesting not all is well at South Florida's most popular news station.

So without her, why bother tuning in?

One winter night in 1970, the call came in to WWL-TV's New Orleans headquarters. There was a fire in the historic French Quarter.

As a cameraman rushed out the door, Carmel Cafiero, then a sheltered 23-year-old Loyola University student, begged her instructor, an anchorman at the station, to let her follow. "Well, as long as you promise not to sue us if you get hurt," he reluctantly agreed.

"If you watch 'Crime Check' regularly, you'll believe that black folks do nothing but commit crimes."

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In a small sedan that belonged to the station, they sped to the scene, adrenaline flowing as they dodged revelers and bounced over potholes. Together, she and the photographer ducked under yellow crime tape and headed toward the flashing lights of the fire engines and squad cars. A crowd of 50 or so drunken bar patrons had gathered.

The fire turned out to be a non-event: a couple of drunks had burned a mattress. "There wasn't a story there, but it was as if something bit me — the news bug — and I became obsessed," Cafiero says now. "I mean, I just had to do this."

Growing up outside New Orleans, she'd been a popular cheerleader who played softball, organized dances, and had no ambition besides getting married and having babies. Still, she was no passive Southern belle. As her longtime friend Tobie Craig puts it: "She doesn't take any guff from anybody — never has. I think it has something to do with the fact that her parents ended up splitting up, which didn't happen a lot back then, and her mother had to work."

Her father was an architect and general contractor, and her mother worked at a large New Orleans department store after the divorce. After graduating from Jefferson Parish High School, Cafiero did a brief stint at Louisiana State University, where she says she "majored in football and boys." Two years in, she dropped out to get married. Her daughter, Courtney, was born in 1968.

Cafiero doesn't like to speak about her first marriage except to say that early on, she realized it wouldn't last. "It was dark days for me," she says. "Let's just say that. You can fill in the blanks."

That drove her to enroll at Loyola University when her daughter was still a baby.Cafiero was 22, a serious-looking woman with copper-colored hair and a deep voice that surprised people. "I didn't really know how to do anything, so I figured I needed to finish my education," she says.

When she filed for divorce in 1971, she was an unpaid intern at WVUE in New Orleans. There was no way she could work for free, pay for school, and still feed herself and her daughter, so she gave up on college. "I did not graduate, which is something I always feel bad about, but I had a 2-and-a-half-year-old, so I had to support us," she says.

A producer at WVUE knew about a job at a low-power AM/FM station in Slidell, Louisiana, on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Driving to the interview, Cafiero listened to the announcer read stories from the local paper into the microphone. "You could hear him turning the pages of the newspaper. I thought, Well, I could do better than that."

She was quickly hired to replace the guy and then worked six days a week, doing three newscasts per day and running the station's swap show. "People would call in and say, 'I got a pig, and I need a ladder,' or whatever, and they would trade things on the air."

When she interviewed for better jobs, she found that news directors often struggled to wrap their heads around the idea of hiring a woman. "I remember being interviewed for one station. I had a little suit on, and they asked if they could expect me to dress like that if they hired me," she says. "I said, 'Well, sure. Why? What would be the concern?' They said, 'Well, we wouldn't want you to show up in any of them there hot pants.' I was like, 'Uh, OK. Not a problem.'?"

After a quick stop at a Shreveport radio station, she broke into TV at WAFB in Baton Rouge as an on-air reporter covering politics. "There were whispers and things that if I beat somebody on a story, I had slept with somebody to get it," she says. "After a period of time, you'd have to be sleeping with the world." She was so good that soon she became the first female anchor in Louisiana.

In 1973, John Camp, a former co-worker who had moved from Baton Rouge to WSVN in Miami, let her know the station was looking to its hire its first female reporter. He suggested she apply. At the time, the North Bay Village-based station consistently came in third place in the ratings. It had the smallest staff, oldest equipment, and lowest pay.

But, former employees say, it was serious about journalism. A wall in the lobby was covered with awards. The Mariel Boatlift, the Miami River Cops, and drug wars were still in the future, but there was no shortage of excitement.

Cafiero's 88-year-old mother, whose name is also Carmel, says she had hoped her daughter would stay in Louisiana. "She knew maybe one or two people in Florida, but she had the courage to put all her worldly belongings in her car and drive there," her mother says. "It worried me, of course — a girl on the highway by herself. [But] she was the type of person who, once she made up her mind, that was it."

At WSVN, she was the only woman who wasn't a secretary. As soon as she arrived, she says, the news director asked her to promise not to get pregnant.

WSVN was notoriously demanding. Many reporters quit because they couldn't handle the workload. But Cafiero managed — even though it meant spending a large portion of her paycheck on childcare. At the end of the day, she would hurry home to Miami Shores to heat up a tuna casserole or a premade stew and see Courtney before bedtime.

"She dedicated her time to work, and my time came after her work," recalls Courtney, now a single mother herself and the revenue manager at the Setai Hotel. "It was difficult — she wasn't able to attend a lot of school events during the day... A lot of my friends' parents were there to see me on the cheerleading squad, but my mom didn't get to see that."

Soon Cafiero got the nod as weekend anchor. She would bring along Courtney, who quickly determined she didn't want to follow her mother into the often-superficial world of TV news. "I can remember I'd be waiting for my mom to finish the 11 o'clock news so we could go home," Courtney recalls. "I'd sit by the lady at the switchboard and hear 'That lady needs to fix her hair... That anchor needs a new jacket.' People are extremely judgmental."

During the McDuffie riots in 1980, Cafiero left Courtney, then 12 years old, with a friend who lived near WSVN headquarters. Cafiero reported live from the scene. "A tire company had been set on fire, so there were huge plumes of black smoke scarring the skyline," she remembers. "We were doing a live shot, and the helicopter was flying back and forth through the black smoke to illustrate what was going on. All of a sudden, the helicopter went way up high and we lost the live shot. I asked the pilot why, and he said, 'They're shooting at us.' I said, 'Go higher.'?"

Cafiero's male co-workers rarely grasped the difficulty of single motherhood. "We knew she had a daughter because we saw Courtney when we were all off and would have picnics, but at work, you would never know," recalls Wade Hill, who was the station's assignment editor until 1981. "That probably helped other women who were coming in."

"A tourist is set on fire, and two men are accused of the crime," a puffy-faced Rick Sanchez soberly intones while the headline "Torching Trial" appears on the screen. His petite, blond co-anchor, Sally Fitz, looks wide-eyed at the camera.

"If you thought the World Trade Center was a bold and big target for terrorists, there is more tonight — the next target may have been bolder," Sanchez continues, pausing for dramatic effect as grainy black-and-white footage of firefighters searching through debris appears. "Try Richard Nixon. Try Henry Kissinger. More when we return." They go to a commercial break.

"Sometimes there's a tie between good reporters and people who fish."

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That was the beginning ofChannel 7's 10 p.m. broadcast exactly 23 years ago, on Labor Day 1993. It bombarded viewers with one gory story after another. The focus was on crime and catastrophe — the bloodier, the better. Although President Bill Clinton was visiting Miami to view the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, he merited only a few seconds of screen time.

In the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan deregulated the television industry, and broadcast news went through massive upheaval. Corporate owners bought more stations, and sales regulations were relaxed. The result was what became known in South Florida as "The Big Switch": After close to 30 years of ownership, NBC ditched Channel 7 and its perennially low ratings, and bought Channel 4, which had been a CBS affiliate. Carmel Cafiero's Channel 7 was left with no network affiliation — and hours of empty airtime to fill.

"When we lost our affiliation, everybody said we were over and we were toast," Bob Leider, the station's general manager at the time, remembers. "At the time, no one thought you could be a bona fide station and deliver news without a network affiliation."

Leider, a jovial, squinting man with a gray comb-over who retired in 2014 but still works as a consultant to the station,recalls that Ed Ansin, who had owned the station since 1962, walked into Leider's office and told him they needed to become more aggressive. Rather than show reruns, they decided to devote seven hours a day to news — more than any other station in the nation — and spice up broadcasts with bold graphics and catchy headlines like "Kids Who Kill" and "Mauled to Death." The newscast took its visual cues from Miami Vice, which had brought a bolder and more colorful look to TV while simultaneously redefining the city.

The station hired an in-house composer whose dramatic music punctuated slow-motion footage of car wrecks and live shots from the scene of murder-suicides. Raw video was edited to give it a grainy, film noir quality. Reporters used a casual, chatty tone — the police chief became "Miami's top cop."

The strategy was engineered by news director Joel Cheatwood. (He later made Jerry Springer a commentator at Chicago's WMAQ in Chicago, which caused several longtime anchors to resign in protest.) Two years after losing its network affiliation, WSVN became number one in the market, according to the Nielsen ratings. By 1993, it was turning a $20 million profit.

Tourism leaders were displeased. Miami was just emerging from the turbulent 1980s, and WSVN's insistence on capturing the most lurid stories of the day hurt the city's reputation. In 1994, nine of South Florida's largest hotels blacked out the station because it was bad for business. "It is a continuous barrage of the body bags on the street and the blood coming out of them," Don Lefton, who owned the Grand Bay in Miami, complained to the New York Times.

There were also concerns that WSVN's "Crime Check," a segment that featured Sanchez — who would go on to anchor at CNN and MSNBC despite drunkenly crashing his car into a pedestrian after a Dolphins game — played up racial stereotypes. "If you watch 'Crime Check' regularly, you'll believe that black folks do nothing but commit crimes," former anchor Denise White told New Times in 1990, shortly after she left for a job in Tampa.

Plenty of criticism came from the journalism establishment. The New York Times snottily headlined a story about WSVN "It Might Be News, but It's Not 'MacNeil/Lehrer.?'" The American Prospect called its piece "Diary of the American Nightmare." It began, "The Book of Revelations does not say whether the apocalypse will be televised. But if it is, WSVN in Miami will not have to interrupt its regular programming."

Joseph Angotti, a former NBC reporter who was teaching journalism at the University of Miami at the time, began tracking how much airtime Channel 7 dedicated to violent crime. In November 1993, for instance, he found it made up 48.9 percent of the station's news coverage. The other half was mostly sex — roadside rapes, teenage promiscuity, and a high-school girls' volleyball team posing in bikinis, among other things. As a result, virtually no attention was paid to the city council or the school board — "all those other things that people probably need to hear about but don't necessarily want to," he says.

"People were saying this was the future of television news," Angotti, who now teaches at Monmouth College in Illinois, remembers. "The future, as far as I was concerned, was pretty disappointing."

Today his concerns sound hilariously retro — who actually expects to see news about the school board on local TV unless there's some kind of sex scandal? In the decade following WSVN's shakeup, almost every station in the nation switched to what became known as "Miami-style news." Soon, no matter where you were, you could turn on your TV set and watch a zookeeper being mauled by a tiger, or cemetery vandals breaking into a casket and beheading a corpse. Stations that insisted on covering serious topics such as education and the environment found themselves behind in the ratings.

Cheatwood, who got most of the credit for WSVN's turnaround, was hired as the executive director of program development for CNN and then became vice president for development at Fox News. Most recently, he had a short-lived stint at the Blaze, Glenn Beck's network. Rick Sanchez went to MSNBC and CNN, was fired after he made anti-Semitic comments directed at Jon Stewart, and now contributes occasionally to Fox News Latino. Sally Fitz left Miami for Chicago and doesn't seem to have worked in TV news since.

"There were all these conservative news people who knocked us," Leider, the then general manager, says. "The irony is that after ten or 15 years, they all started to do what we were doing. What it was — news was boring. "

Cafiero doesn't agree with the "if it bleeds, it leads" characterization of Channel 7, however. "I think we aggressively covered breaking news, that's all. People use that phrase because it's catchy, but I just don't buy it. I think people were jealous, frankly."

The man's face is blurred out as he steps into a white sedan with Kentucky plates. He's wearing worn-out blue jeans and a baggy white T-shirt that hangs off his wiry frame. He twists the lid off a prescription bottle, shakes out a handful of pills, crushes them in a dollar bill, snorts the powder, and slumps back in the driver's seat. A second, heavily tattooed man in the back seat, who has been mixing crushed pills with water in a bottle, pulls out a hypodermic needle. He puts it into the bottle, sucks up some of the fluid, and then injects the mixture into his bloodstream. They drive off.

Cafiero and her cameraman, Anthony Pineda, follow in an undercover van. When the men stop at a convenience store down the road, she approaches, with Pineda right behind her. The driver, whose face is visible now, is fuming. "We have pictures of you in the car here," she says, sounding pleased with herself, "pictures of you shooting up."

"No, you don't," says the passenger, wearing a backward Hard Rock Cafe baseball cap and clutching a pack of Marlboros.

Cafiero laughs drily. "Yes, we do. Sorry."

The men look at each other, confused.

"So y'all are here from Kentucky to do what? Buy pills and take them back home?"

Unconvincingly, the driver lifts up a bottle of Mountain Dew Code Red. "I'm here to get a pop," he says.

In 2009, South Florida was ground zero for the opiate epidemic. Doctors at so-called pain clinics, most of which were located in Broward County, handed out prescriptions for oxycodone to virtually anyone who asked. Fake pharmacies and shady storefronts sold thousands of pills a day.

Cafiero and Pineda decided to investigate. The two had worked together since 1992, spending countless hours in unmarked vans, listening to oldies on satellite radio — '60s for her, '70s for him — while they collected undercover footage.

"We still had to do our regular stuff, but every time we could steal a couple of hours to do surveillance at these pill mills, we did," Cafiero says. "Every time they moved someplace, we followed them." The pair's tenacity was rewarded with a duPont Award from Columbia University, one of the highest honors in broadcast journalism.

Cafiero had found a niche at Channel 7 by going after scammers and con artists. When she became the station's consumer reporter in the late '70s, she covered fluffy topics such as hotel openings and new rides at Disney World — the kind of "soft news" often assigned to women. But the role ended up giving her the ability to report on people who had been duped by unsavory businesses — tow companies, crematoriums, animal breeders, and the like. Because Florida for decades had led the nation in the number of reported scams, according to the Federal Trade Commission, there was no shortage of material. And when Channel 7 went tabloid, it was simply an opportunity for her to become more aggressive, former general manager Bob Leider says.

"Consumer reporting was one of the things Channel 7 did well back in the '70s and '80s, and when it came time to do more news, that was one of the things they expanded," observes Andrew Barton, who teaches broadcast journalism at the University of Miami. "Carmel was part of that, both before and after... They wanted to be known as the station that's looking out for the consumer."

Over time, Cafiero's name became synonymous with those stories. In 2003, news director Alice Jacobs decided Cafiero should have her own show, which was titled Carmel on the Case.

It was a hit from the beginning. People loved watching her confront everyone from the president of the local Better Business Bureau to fortuneteller Miss Cleo. Some signature Cafiero lines:

"How can you justify giving out a million oxycodone pills?"

"I'm wondering how you're able to park in a disabled spot."

"Don't you think that, as a public official, you ought to answer our questions?"

"What do you think your father is going to say? Do you think he's going to be humiliated?"

"We've been given a video of you pleasuring yourself in your office at this school, and I need to ask you about that."

Doors were slammed in her face. Grown men tried to run away from her. Viewers loved every minute of it. As Jim DeFede at Channel 4 explains: "She knew how to do both good journalism and good TV."

Of that period, her daughter Courtney recalls, "When I was in high school, the boys were always afraid of her. They didn't want to bring me home too late because they didn't want Carmel coming after them."

But she had a softer side. Her family, friends, and co-workers describe an inveterate animal lover who doesn't like to complain about poor service at a restaurant, always answers the phone when her mother calls, and has a deep sense of compassion.

"After Hurricane Andrew, we were looking at homes that were devastated — a woman was sitting outside in a chair, and her house had been flattened," cameraman Pineda recalls. "I remember Carmel taking the woman and comforting her. She just wrapped her arms around her and tried to tell her that we were going to get through it."

In 1992, Cafiero met Bob Gordon, a construction manager who came to her house to provide an estimate on refinishing a table. Their first date was a trip to the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, and he insisted on picking her up Sunday at 7 a.m. "I thought he was so cute that it was worth getting up early for," she says now. "I had kind of given up."

She was hesitant to rush into a relationship. "My first marriage was a failure, so I tried to be much smarter," she says. Eventually, Gordon won her over. Nine years after they met, they were married on a fishing trip in Alaska. (Fishing is Cafiero's favorite activity. Her former co-worker Mark Potter has a theory about this: "Sometimes there's a tie between good reporters and people who fish. It's the same technique: sneaking up on things, being quiet, being patient, knowing when to strike.")

Meanwhile, she made plenty of enemies. Pineda, who is still a photographer at the station, became concerned for Cafiero's safety. "I was the one who always did all the worrying — I had to. She just wanted to go," he says. "I remember one time we approached a sexual predator who lived across the street from an elementary school. When he saw Carmel with the mike, he turned around and picked up an object that turned out to be a two-by-four but could have been a gun. We went running that time."

Cafiero says plenty of people are glad she retired — though she won't name them. In fact, for someone who spent close to five decades in the news business, she's shockingly unwilling to indulge in gossip, go off the record, or express cynicism. "If you can make things a little bit better or you can stop somebody from doing bad things... it's just amazing to me, the feeling," she explains. "It's like nothing else."

Without a doubt, the greatest high came from her series on opiate abuse. Her stories were taken to Tallahassee and shown to lawmakers, and in 2010, the Florida Legislature passed a bill requiring close monitoring of doctors who were writing pain prescriptions. That, along with a series of police raids, ultimately forced pill mills to shut down.

But critics argue her reporting was detrimental to people suffering from chronic pain. "I think Channel 7's coverage led to some of the worst laws in this state," says Broward County public defender Howard Finkelstein, a self-described fan of Cafiero's. "It was a horror show, don't get me wrong. But Florida's Legislature went crazy and passed all these laws that now have chronic-pain patients being treated like junkies."

On a Wednesday afternoon at WSVN's North Bay Village headquarters, half the people sitting in the Newsplex are slim young women draped in cardigans and blankets to fend off the air-conditioned chill. The assignment desk is quiet, aside from the buzz coming from the satellite feed. Writers and producers in noise-canceling headphones swivel on desk chairs and stare at their computer screens.

Behind the news desk sit Belkys Nerey and Robbin Simmons, waiting to deliver the 5 o'clock news. "We need high-definition makeup for these high-definition cameras!" Nerey jokes. "They show everything." Simmons laughs and nods, though it's difficult to see what either would need to hide — both are seemingly ageless, with perfectly smooth, poreless skin.

Cafiero turns cold when asked how her age affected her job security.

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The low-slung building off the 79th Street Causeway looks different than it did when Cafiero arrived in 1973. Visitors are no longer greeted by a wall of journalism awards. Instead, news director Alice Jacob's office is decorated with several decades's worth of framed certificates declaring WSVN to be number one in the sweeps. A fishbowl office holds the station's social media team, which posts stories about credit card skimmers at gas stations and alligators spotted on the Rickenbacker Causeway to Facebook and Twitter around the clock.

These days, increasing numbers of viewers are giving up cable subscriptions and switching to on-demand streaming. Between 1949 and 2010, the number of people watching television grew every year. But beginning in 2010, Nielsen has documented, viewership began to fall at every station and in every time slot. In 2015, primetime broadcast ratings were down 16 percent from the previous year.

Ad revenue too is in decline. Stations around the country have been forced to lay off staff and cut back on original programming. Because it's family-owned, WSVN has so far been able to avoid a similar fate. But there's a sense of uncertainty about the future. The station still claims more viewers for its news programming than Channel 4, 6, or 10, but critics say that's only because it has more hours of news.

Which raises the question: Could anyone starting out today have a career like Cafiero's? Talk to journalists from competing stations, and you'll hear the same thing again and again: She was one-of-a-kind.

"She was a very serious investigative reporter on television, which is unfortunately a rare commodity," says Bob Norman of Channel 10.

"What amazes me most is she maintained the same quality of work throughout her career," DeFede says. "She was always dogged, always passionate, never played favorites. Carmel never phoned it in."

When she retired July 1 at the age of 68, Cafiero had outlasted everyone else at the station except the owner — which would be less remarkable if she weren't a woman. Though male reporters gain credibility as they age, women tend to disappear. In 2008, when Marilyn Mitzel, a 51-year-old health-care reporter, was terminated by WSVN, she sued for age discrimination, testifying that news director Alice Jacobs once told her: "No one wants to look at old, ugly people on TV."

"I think everyone in this business knows there's a shelf life," Mitzel says. "For women, it just comes sooner." After she celebrated her 50th birthday, she never returned to the anchor desk.

At trial, the station trotted out Cafiero, who was then 63, to testify in its defense. It didn't help the channel's case much. For one thing, out of more than 300 employees, she was the only female reporter older than Mitzel. And, Mitzel's lawyer pointed out, Cafiero was paid less than several younger and less experienced male reporters. In 2005, after 32 years at the station, she was earning $112,500 annually. Patrick Fraser and Derek Hayward made $123,500 and $117,500, respectively. A jury awarded Mitzel nearly $1 million in compensation, though that was later overturned on appeal owing to a technicality.

Cafiero turns cold when asked how her age affected her job security. "At Channel 7, it just wasn't an issue," she says. "I just worried about doing my job."

But it was hard not to notice how, at the end of her career, she stood out from the seemingly endless parade of ridiculously fit young women whose long, perfect hair and flawless makeup were impervious to heat and humidity. Cafiero had put on weight and aged visibly, and looked like what she was — a grandmother in her 60s.

Her reluctance to talk candidly is somewhat understandable. You don't last 43 years in one place by routinely pointing out examples of institutional sexism. The Carmel who confronted felons, drug addicts, and sex offenders on TV was a fighter. The real Carmel simply wanted to do her job and go with the flow. That's apparent from the advice she gave Danny Cohen, who was her producer in the last six years before she retired. "Keep your head down — that's what she always told me," he recalls. "Keep focused on what you're doing."

Despite all the barriers she broke, Cafiero takes a deep breath and pauses for a long time when asked if she considers herself a feminist. "Um. I'm not comfortable with labels. I just... I just wanted to be treated the same as anyone else, male or female... I think it's taken a long time, but if you look at newsrooms across the country, they're full of women. For those of us who came before, it does your heart good."

Women in TV journalism still get paid less than their male counterparts, are given less desirable assignments, and face discrimination if they're not young, thin, or attractive enough. But those are battles Cafiero is leaving for the young women sitting around the Newsplex.

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Antonia Farzan is a fellow at New Times. After receiving a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, she moved to South Florida to pursue her dream of seeing a manatee and meeting DJ Khaled (ideally at the same time). She was born and raised in Rhode Island and has a BA in classics from Hamilton College.
Contact: Antonia Farzan