When Fidel Castro first came on the scene more than half a century ago, the New York Times famously disgraced itself by serving as his chief PR tool. When he died a few hours ago, the Times again brought shame upon itself with a jaw-droppingly fawning obituary headlined “Fidel Castro, Cuban Leader who Defied U.S., Dies at 90.”
Let’s make this clear: Castro wasn’t a “leader”; he was a totalitarian dictator. But the Times, alas, has plainly never gotten over its schoolgirl crush on him. The first paragraphs of its obit, which carried the byline of Anthony DePalma, were studded with the kind of words customarily used to eulogize heroes and saints. Castro was a “fiery apostle of revolution.” He was “a towering international figure.” He was a man who “dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly entered Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, and completed his overthrow of Fulgencio Batista by delivering his first major speech in the capital before tens of thousands of admirers at the vanquished dictator’s military headquarters.”
DePalma’s account of the events of that day fifty-seven years ago was nothing less than nauseating – useful stoogery at its purest:
A spotlight shone on him as he swaggered and spoke with passion until dawn. Finally, white doves were released to signal Cuba’s new peace. When one landed on Mr. Castro, perching on a shoulder, the crowd erupted, chanting “Fidel! Fidel!” To the war-weary Cubans gathered there and those watching on television, it was an electrifying sign that their young, bearded guerrilla leader was destined to be their savior.
Accompanying all this laudatory prose were photographs (we’ve reproduced them here) that seemed to have been selected with the objective of showing Fidel at his most glamorous, rugged, and heroic.
To be sure, DePalma went on, after his first dozen or so (long) paragraphs, to acknowledge the negative aspects of Castro’s rule. But these obligatory doses of truth about what was, in fact, a thoroughly monstrous regime were brief, grudging, and muted. Every mention of something less than admirable, moreover, was paired with yet more sickening – and baseless – words of praise. For example: “His legacy in Cuba and elsewhere has been a mixed record of social progress and abject poverty, of racial equality and political persecution.” Social progress? Racial equality? Utter hogwash. For the zillionth time, furthermore, the Times served up the ubiquitous, ridiculous lie that Cuba, under Castro, has undergone astounding strides in education and health care.
It’s not really surprising to see the Times serving up nonsense like this. It is rather unexpected to see Anthony DePalma signing his name to it. DePalma – who left the Times in 2008, and presumably filed a draft of this obit some time before that – is the author of The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times, in which he doesn’t pull any punches about Castro being a bloodthirsty tyrant – and about the key role the Times played in making him an international icon. One wonders how much editorial tweaking DePalma’s piece has undergone since he first filed it.
Once upon a time, people referred to the New York Times – with a straight face – as “the newspaper of record.” Now, that phrase is increasingly likely to be uttered with a smirk. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Times‘s publisher and executive editor felt compelled to express public regret – sort of – for its appallingly slanted coverage of the recent U.S. presidential election and to promise “to report America and the world honestly.” But this obit oozes dishonesty – an eagerness to whitewash Communism and lionize dictators that, unfortunately, seems to be written into the Times‘s DNA. DePalma’s article should go down in the record books as a classic in useful stoogery.
UPDATE, November 30: The Times has actually posted a whole feature about the history of its Castro op-ed. It turns out, indeed, that many hands other than DePalma’s were involved.