The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S.-funded broadcaster failing to spread fair and balanced news, independent review says

A U.S. agency that is supposed to broadcast objective Spanish-language news programs into Cuba fails to meet basic standards of journalistic fairness and last month let an anchor describe Trump administration officials as the “dream team” for Cuba policy, according to an independent review.

The analysis of content aired and published by Radio and Television Martí, a sister agency to the better-known Voice of America, was launched by the broadcasters’ parent organization after reports that Martí had aired anti-Semitic segments disparaging philanthropist and prominent Democratic donor George Soros.

The review of Martí content, conducted by Spanish-speaking academics and former journalists and released Tuesday, found the news organization routinely allows “almost any criticism of the Cuban government and its leaders” on the air. The effect, the report concluded, is that the station has sometimes resembled anti-communist propaganda and has failed to be a broker of fair and unbiased broadcast journalism, as is mandated by Congress.

John F. Lansing, the chief executive of the station’s parent organization, the U.S. Agency for Global Media, said the review did not find that the biased coverage had been directed by any political appointee of the Trump administration. Rather, he said, the failures flow from a “broken culture” at Martí, which has relied on Cuban dissidents as on-air personalities and on a small group of anti-communist organizations as sources for some content.

“I know it’s tempting to make an assumption about the Trump administration, particularly given the terms that have been used about the press, but I can tell you unequivocally that there has been no influence by the Trump administration,” said Lansing, a holdover from the Obama administration. Rather, he said, the report reveals “a lack of basic journalist standards across the board.”

In one recent example, a 30-minute program last month on Martí afforded State Department and National Security Council representatives ample time to explain a new Trump administration policy. The policy lifted a restriction on Cuban-born Americans and their descendants bringing suit against companies “trafficking” in lands confiscated during Cuba’s socialist uprising a half century ago, including, for example, its international airport.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce criticized the Trump administration decision a day earlier, saying it could lead to a “protracted legal and diplomatic morass that ensnares U.S. courts, companies and partners.”

But the Martí report aired no criticism of the policy. Instead, on the April 18 broadcast, a longtime anchor “turned to being a cheerleader and referred to the Trump Administration officials who are lifting the suspension as the ‘dream team’ for Cuba policy,” according to the review.

Martí, which is beamed into Cuba and spread to a broader audience online, also routinely disparages Cuba’s ruling Castro family.

In one recent online article, an author identified as a “writer and journalist” criticized former president Raúl Castro’s sense of culture, saying that if forced to utter the word, he would choke on it “like a big piece of sweet potato stuck in the alcoholic breath of his mouth.”

The authors of the content review said that such reports mean Martí, which spends nearly $29 million in taxpayer money annually to spread “accurate, balanced and complete information” to residents of Cuba, has become “self-defeating.”

“There are subjective lines based on American values that have to be drawn in selecting content,” the panel wrote. But “we also need to know the adversary and hear what it has to say from time to time. Martí is derelict on these grounds. It has let the pendulum of being guided by well-meaning subjective values to swing to an extreme position that is undemocratic and self-defeating.”

In a first round of fallout from the Soros reports, the U.S. Agency for Global Media in February moved to fire eight reporters and editors.

Martí also stopped publishing content from two other authors, including one whohad written that an “Islamization” of Europe by migrants is destroying the continent’s Christian character.

Lansing said he views the content review as a call to rebuild Martí “from the ground up.” Asked if additional staff changes might be coming, he said “everything is on the table” — except dissolving the outlet.

Martí’s “mission is still an important one, to bring truth-telling on the island where residents are still fed a litany of lies and deception,” Lansing said. “Until there is evidence the Cuban people have open access to news and information, [Martí] will have an important role.”