One of the most positively commented on articles I have written recently was the piece on freedom of the press and Cuba–US relations, published on September 9, 2015. The emails coming from the US, Canada, Europe and Cuba reflected a pent-up frustration – and even a barely veiled anger – at how some of the US press deals with Cuba. Readers of the article seemed to breathe a sigh of relief that writers are not getting caught up in illusions, in the wake of the new Cuba–US relations, about the traditional media war waged against Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. Another writer, Iroel Sánchez from Cuba, took on The Washington Post for its misinformation and bias regarding Cuba. My piece did not target CNN USA, but challenged one high-ranking CNN anchor, Jake Tapper. Furthermore, it dealt initially only with his reporting from Havana of the August 14, 2015 reopening of the US Embassy and the flag-raising ceremony conducted by John Kerry.
As we follow the chronological exchanges between Tapper and me and others, what conclusion do we reach? One can only deduce that resistance to the media war and misinformation is more necessary than ever under these complicated conditions in which the Cuban Revolution finds itself. In order to be fair and get Tapper’s side of the story, I tweeted him on September 10: “What do you think of my piece on you and CNN? ‘Cuba–US Relations and Freedom of the Press’” with a link to the article. In his response, Tapper did not even come close to exhausting Twitter’s 140 character limit: “Not much.” I persisted: “Well, how about dealing with the points that I make?” He responded: “I would hardly know where to begin.” My rebuttal offered him a chance out: “Well, as an experienced journalist you should be able to deal with at least a few points.” Tapper’s answer: “Ask me in a couple of weeks and I will try to come up with more constructive criticism as I am busy with debate prep right now [the Republican presidential candidates’ debate in September that he hosted for CNN].”
“OK, agreed,” I tweeted back. I also sent him my email address in case he would find this more convenient than Twitter.
In order to deepen the debate, I tweeted him on September 22 with regard to a partial insert of a Reuters interview with me regarding the Pope’s visit to Cuba. The Reuters report reads as follows:
“‘Dissidents in Cuba may be seen abroad by some as brave freedom fighters because much of the mainstream media describe them in this way. It is part of what I call continuous disinformation with regard to Cuba,’ said Arnold August, a Montreal-based author who sees Cuba as more democratic than most analysts.”
I tweeted Tapper: “My comment in Reuters: #Cuba #Dissidents #Disinformation #CubanDemocracy http://reut.rs/1KsHZkN #PopeFrancis.” His response tweet to me just confirms the quote in Reuters: “Why you’re proud of your opposition to human rights and democracy activists is a mystery.” In any case, relishing a serious debate, I tweeted back to him: “Let us firstly deal with my article and your response. You promised to do it after the debate. Then I will deal with your comment.”
Seeing as he was also reporting on the Pope’s visit to the US, I did not push the two-week waiting period, giving him more leeway. However, I did notice in his reporting from Philadelphia on September 26 that he arbitrarily interpreted the Pope’s comments there that day on “tyranny” as applying to Cuba. Here is what he said in an exchange with CNN senior Vatican analyst John Allen:
“John Allen, to talk for a second about the religious liberty, the religious freedom aspect of this, there was a part where he talked about various forms of modern tyranny seeking to suppress religious freedom. He was in Cuba, a place where there is literal modern tyranny… Was there any one specific kind of tyranny he was addressing do you think or was it all of them?
JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think it’s all of them and more. Because what you just mentioned were church state tensions vis-à-vis a government. And you’re right, in Cuba it takes a very certain form than it does in the United States, but tensions [in] both places.
TAPPER: That’s literally a tyranny as exact to figure it out.
ALLEN: Metaphorical tyranny, sure.
It seems that even the Vatican expert was not that interested in pointing to Cuba. In fact, he did not raise Cuba. Thus pushed to the wall by Tapper, the Vatican expert indicated it was only tyranny in a “metaphorical” manner, not literally applicable. Perhaps that was his polite way to register disagreement with Tapper, as the terms “metaphoric” and “literal” are opposites. In any case, I tweeted to Tapper: “Why did you say today that the Pope may be referring to #Cuba when he mentioned “tyranny”? #CubaUS #PopeInPhilly?” Tapper did not respond.
On October 2, I tweeted Tapper: “The debate is over and so is the Papal visit. How about letting me know about your constructive criticism?” (in reference to the September 8 article).
He never responded. Let us be clear that Tapper is not representative of CNN USA in the post-December 17, 2014 period, that is, since Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama publicly announced the reopening of embassies. For example, when another CNN anchor, Chris Cuomo, covered the Papal visit in Cuba from the island, Cuomo never made any derogatory comments about Cuba and its political system or leaders. In fact, CNN is part of the new move in some media to convert the image of Cuba in the eyes of the world so that it is no longer seen as the demon, but rather as a sympathetic friend and a very trendy place to visit.
So, what is the issue with Tapper? Why does he stand out even among CNN anchors? Is there a missing link? Yes, there is – and it was discovered only after the September 8 article. When my piece was tweeted, it got an immediate and very favourable response from other Twitter accounts. These Twitter users consist of organizations such as Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) and mostly individual Cubans residing on the island and other Cubans living in the US. These social media exchanges go back to August 15–17, 2015, just one or two days after the flag ceremony in Havana. This Twitter debate predates mine and so I owe it to them for providing the missing link.
Here is a transcript of some of these tweets: First salvo: “@jaketapper went to #Cuba not as a journalist but as propagandist of #USembargo groups. He should say it openly.” Second tweet: “No doubt, especially after reading @BurgosGOP immediately cheerleading him on.”
Who is @BurgosGOP? He is Alex Burgos, Communications Director for US Senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
Another tweet from opponents of the Tapper reporting: “Perhaps @jaketapper needs interview w @marcorubio that’s why he doesn’t ask about embargo-violation-Human Rights.” Alex Burgos engaged by tweeting back: “Understandable you’re mad. @cnn @jaketapper challenged your b.s., & too bad for you, Cuban media couldn’t censor it.”
The link and the possible career motivations of Tapper surfaced on October 6, 2015. CNN published an article complaining in its headline:
“Marco Rubio: Everywhere…but CNN.” [It went on to lament]: “For more than two months, CNN has sent daily interview requests to Marco Rubio. And each time, the campaign has passed. Over that same period, every other GOP candidate has given multiple interviews to CNN. Only Rubio has been absent. Meanwhile, the Florida senator has appeared on several other news networks.”
The same article pointed out that, on the one occasion that Rubio was interviewed [on CNN] way back on August 7, 2015 by CNN’s Chris Cuomo, it “got tense.” Among other points, this shows again that CNN International does not have a uniform position on Cuba. There appears to be one section in this cable network that opposes the thaw in relations and is against lifting the blockade. Others, however, take a more open-minded approach to the tactics, consistent with the Obama administration, even though the strategic goal remains. Moreover, one has to keep in mind that Tapper is not your run-of-the-mill anchor. Over the years, he has accumulated myriad contacts with many press outlets and developed the image of a policy-decision influencer. A Politico article on Tapper claims that he has the 4 p.m. weekday slot on CNN because “It’s when Washington decision makers are at their desks, with their TVs on, metabolizing the day’s news.”
Contrary to the belief that the media war against Cuba is over, resistance to this disinformation and misinformation is all the more important to isolate those who are in favour of maintaining the blockade against Cuba. Thus, the media war is far from being over. After all, the lifting of the blockade is the Cuban people’s and government’s main international preoccupation at this time.
(By Arnold August)
Arnold August, a Canadian journalist and lecturer, is the author of Democracy in Cuba and the 1997–98 Elections and, more recently, Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion. Cuba’s neighbours under consideration are the US, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Arnold can be followed on Twitter @Arnold_August.