BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's February, 1957. Would-be Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro is assumed by his government and many news outlets, to be dead. But then, Ruby Phillips, long-time Cuba correspondent for The New York Times, is approached by some men who say that Castro is, in fact, hiding in the jungle and wants to meet with an American journalist. Phillips did not jump at the chance. Cuba had become her home and she knew she'd be deported. Plus, her long tenure had earned her good access to the increasingly repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista. It didn't seem worth the risk, since Castro wasn't likely to win. But finally, she cabled The Times, urging Herbert L. Matthews, former war reporter turned aging editorial writer, to come to Cuba right away. He'd been there before and was eager for adventure so, despite the concern of his editors, he went. And that's where the story really begins in the new book by New York Times reporter Anthony DePalma, author of “The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times.” Matthews was, in a sense, the best and the worst person for the job. He wrote vividly and passionately but had a dangerous tendency to fall in love with the causes and characters he covered.
ANTHONY DePALMA: So when he was covering the Italian invasion of Ethiopia – Abyssinia, then – in the early 1930s, he believed that Mussolini was doing a great thing and admitted that for a while he believed in the Fascist cause. He later on retracted that. When he covered the Spanish Civil War, he believed that the side that he was covering, which were the Loyalists, were the side of righteousness. And then in 1957, he shows up in Cuba and interviews Fidel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The trip there was so taxing and he spent all those many hours in the car and trekking through the jungle, talking about the great revolutionary cause with the people who were guiding him and protecting him. Therefore, once he sees Fidel, he's ready to fall in love.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Well, it's six o'clock in the morning. He's been up all night. He's muddy and cold and dirty. Dawn is just breaking in the Sierra, and Fidel comes through the foliage like some apparition. And Matthews immediately, even in the article, describes him as physically powerful, talks about the glint in his eye, and almost from that moment, falls for him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was the kind of stage management that Castro applied to the scene?
ANTHONY DePALMA: They're basically sitting on a log for three hours. Castro has it all prepared, and he lays out an image of himself as a young democracy-loving defender of the Cuban constitution. He says that he's got a number of men with him armed with telescopic rifles. They've had a number of major battles. They've got Batista on the run. The truth is he had 18 men, at most. He had one telescopic rifle. He has his brother, Raul, who's second in command, send over someone and say, “Commandante, we're getting a report from the second column. Of course, with 18 men, there was no –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
ANTHONY DePALMA: - second column.” But in defense of Matthews, he had checked with the U.S. Embassy in Havana. They told him hundreds of men. We had run a story the week before citing a figure from the rebel representative in New York saying they had hundreds of men. And our resident correspondent, Ruby Phillips, who had lived in Cuba for 30 years, said, “We believe he's up there and has several hundred men behind him.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about then what happened. Matthews returns to New York. He writes a three-part series. It's published in The New York Times. Now, Batista was famously censoring the press at the time, and, in fact, those papers, when they arrived, literally had the stories clipped out of them.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But an anti-Batista character was dispatched to New York to buy up the papers, clip those stories out and send them to thousands of very important people in Cuba. So the stories got around, and they were talked about.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Absolutely true. I spoke to that man, who's still [CHUCKLES] alive. Mario Llerena is the man's name. He's now in his nineties, but he remembered the story very well. He was a supporter of Fidel's. He was called in by another one of the supporters and said, “We need you to go on a mission. And the mission is to go New York, get the articles.” He handed him the money for the ticket and a copy of the Social Registry of Havana.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [CHUCKLES] So they went to a great deal of trouble to get the story to the Cuban people. What was the impact?
ANTHONY DePALMA: Just last week, I spoke to someone who was there at the time – he's now an academic in New York – and he said it was electric. Here was the first real news that he was alive. It was coming from a source outside of Cuba, so it was trusted. And it presented this image, which Castro's image in Cuba at this time was a little bit of a roughneck, kind of a loose cannon. He had gone through a couple of other attempts at overthrowing the government that failed utterly, but here he was being presented as a leader, as a romantic figure. Remember, he was only 30 years old. He was young. He had a beard. He had these men up in the mountains.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So he was made a hero, at least initially, by Matthews. But wasn't Matthews made into something of a hero by Castro, as well?
ANTHONY DePALMA: Absolutely. They both became heroes. Matthews – remember, a 57-year-old editorial writer at the newspaper - one day had to go through the doors of The New York Times on 43rd Street in Manhattan and pass by a demonstration, not protesting anything that he wrote but supporting the articles that he wrote. So it was a demonstration in his favor. It might have bolstered his ego, but it probably made it pretty embarrassing for him to deal with his colleagues in the paper.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, in fact, you write that he was already in a peculiar position of writing both for the news pages and the editorial pages, a position that no reporter is ever allowed to be in. He kept saying, “trust me, I'm a great asset to your paper.” But by dint of writing his opinion in one section of the paper and what was ostensibly objective news in another part of the paper, he couldn't be trusted in either section.
ANTHONY DePALMA: It was a dangerous precedent that was set at that point and never repeated. It was a personal relationship he had with the publisher at the time, and they came up with this super correspondent. The New York Times didn't back away from it. In fact, they used his position as editorial writer and correspondent in advertisements at the time, and they were very proud of what he did. When Castro turned and showed that his revolution was intent on becoming a Communist revolution, people looked for someone to blame, and Matthews was the target. And he was blamed by Cubans who didn't like Fidel, he was blamed by our United States Senate in congressional hearings, he was blamed by the journalistic community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think he deserved that blame?
ANTHONY DePALMA: Someone once said, a professor at Stanford, that blaming Matthews for Castro is like blaming the meteorologist for a storm. I don't think I would blame him for what happened because I think it would have happened anyway. As a correspondent, he was asked to judge what was the truth at that time. It turned out not to be the truth, but even today, 50 years later, people are writing biographies of Castro and they still can't say, with any real authority, whether or not Castro was a Communist at the time, in 1957, that he did the interview. We still don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You defend Matthews quite a lot in this conversation, but it was a dark chapter in the history of American journalism.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Did he make mistakes? Absolutely. Did he do things that the newspaper, The New York Times, should not have allowed through? Absolutely. Do I, as a correspondent and a long-time staff member of The New York Times, feel proud about everything that he did? Absolutely not. What I was simply trying to do was to look at the story behind the myth, and I found that there was far more myth than there was truth to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.
ANTHONY DePALMA: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: New York Times reporter Anthony DePalma is author of “The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times." [NEWS CLIP – MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
REPORTER: Six years of surface prosperity and government corruption, of repression and police brutality bred explosive discontent. Now Batista has fled. A new leader is on the scene - Fidel Castro, in many ways an unknown quantity in his politics and policies, but certain to be dominant in Cuba's new era just begun. [END NEWS CLIP] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Up next, political indoctrination for the single-digit demographic, and political analysis of the sartorially challenged.