Saturday, January 06, 2007

Paging Dr. McClatchy

Wire eds, a reminder: You might get credit from the glass offices for running lots of copy produced by members of your newspaper chain group, but that doesn't mean the copy's worth running. Here's one that's likely to have had some currency among the 2506th Foil Helmet Brigade in the originating paper's circulation area, but by the time it crosses the northern border ... well, let's have a look:

U.S. doubts Castro is cancer-free
Intelligence officials believe Cuban leader is terminally ill

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials are sticking to the belief that Fidel Castro is terminally ill, saying they doubt a Spanish doctor's assertion that the Cuban leader doesn't have cancer.

"The bottom line: He is terminally ill," said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the agency that coordinates the work of 16 U.S. intelligence-gathering centers.

Where was it Dr. Feinstein did that oncology residency again? Just asking.

... U.S. officials have been claiming that Castro suffers from cancer, which prompted a denial by Spanish surgeon Jose Luis Garcia Sabrido after his trip to Havana last month to examine the Cuban leader.

The U.S. ambassador to Madrid, Eduardo Aguirre, told reporters Friday that Garcia Sabrido's comments might have been part of a Cuban "propaganda" ploy.

Yep. And what sort of ploy do you suppose Dr. Feinstein's and Dr. Aguirre's comments might be part of?

... "From what I've read (in media reports), a well-qualified doctor traveled a great distance to see a patient for a short period and tell us what he does not have," said Aguirre, a Cuban American and former banker.

"I'm not sure if his visit was focused on a professional, medical angle or a propaganda angle," he said.

Well, who indeed can look into the hearts of men and discern their true thoughts? (I'd start with somebody who claims to be able to look into the intestines of men from a few thousand miles away and discern cancer, but maybe that's just me.)

Garcia Sabrido has said he had contacts with the island that go back many years and met with Fidel Castro for about 90 minutes last month. He said Castro had had "very grave" surgery and then suffered a series of complications that he declined to reveal, but he insisted Castro does not have cancer.

His was the first independent assessment of Castro's health by a medical specialist since Cuba announced the 80-year-old leader had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding and temporarily handed power to his brother Raul on July 31.

... The press office at the Council of Consumption and Health -- the local Madrid government agency that runs the Gregorio Maranon hospital that employs Garcia Sabrido -- said the doctor is not granting any more media interviews.

Ain't objectivity great? The guy who has a medical qualification and has seen the patient isn't giving further interviews. The banker with the honorary doctorate from UConn calls the former a propaganda tool. And which one goes where on the inverted pyramid?

Unless you have a lot of city-edition readers who want 1A space for every anti-Castro rumor that floats across the straits, there's only one reason for running a story like this, and that's to make clear what sort of bush-league political hack represents the country in the capitals of some major European allies. But somehow the smilies cleverly placed at the end of each line seem to have fallen off. One is left with the impression that this story is meant to be taken seriously.

And that's too bad. Long-distance medical diagnosis is risky business, but you don't need a weatherman to know that that the BS detectors at some major newspapers are in pretty bad shape. It's still "propaganda" when your side does it, guys.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

While I agree with your comments re propaganda and divining people's true thoughts and intentions, I should point out that there may be very firm grounds for an intelligence agency to be making pronouncements such as the ODNI spokesman made. Who knows what his sources were? Not us. They may be bogus, but they may be good.

5:40 PM, January 06, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

True enough. We don't know what his sources are. But I don't see any indication that we asked, either. Or asked how the sources might be reevaluating their information in light of the doc's visit. Or asked anyone closer to the data than a spokesman for the director's office (I'm not suggesting he's a political appointee, just that his day job probably involves less analysis than others at his rank).

So we're left with a reassertion, but no way to evaluate it against a statement from someone closer at hand. If I'm putting out a paper anywhere but Miami, I'm lost as to why this is news.

6:51 PM, January 06, 2007  
Anonymous Robbie said...

I don't know -- I'd be inclinged to go along more with the first comment. I'd heard about the doctor's report before this, so I think getting a U.S. response from the intel office for a second-day story is an OK lede. And I would expect/hope that, if an intelligence offcie spokesman made a fairly point-blank statement that Castro's critical (which Negroponte has more or less said before), there would be some basis for it, even if they couldn't say exactly what. Likewise, I don't quite get the ambassador's value standing alone, but it sounds like this confirms some off-record material from other (possibly more well-informed?) officials.

You're right that we don't have more background on the intel office's reason for saying this, but there's also no explanation here about this particular doctor. I found a Reuters report describing him as "a digestive system specialist who knows the Castro family and has been a regular visitor to Cuba over recent years for medical conferences and to provide treatment," which could explain this, but could also spark some questions about his interests in this case.

So while it's not great reporting, I'd say it's a decent story, and I could see running it. I'd much rather hear about this than get more on Obama and the '08 horserace...

4:34 AM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Nice points and nicely made. Hope you won't think I'm monopolizing the conversation if I expand on 'em a bit.

A week and a half on is kinda long for a second-day story, but as it turns out there's been precious little written to folo the doctor's visit (Havana's its usual loquacious self). So granted, it's worth checking in on again.

Oddly, though, Miami already did, sort of, in a Jan. 4 story (the Bachelet tale I was quoting appears to have run both Jan. 5 and 6, and I'd love some clarification on that). Here are two relevant grafs from that story, quoting Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere:

"Shannon acknowledged that the U.S. government has no clear idea what ails Castro. Last month the U.S. director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, told The Washington Post that Castro had 'months, not years' to live.

"'We know he's really sick, that he's not really getting any better,' Shannon said. 'But it's not clear to us what his problem is and what his timeline is, if I can speak of it crudely. Negroponte said that the information available to us portrays his demise in a question of months as opposed to years, but the reality is that we don't know because the Cubans don't share that information.'"

Thus I'm inclined to wonder: Why another folo? Is this a turf battle between State and National Intelligence, or between the pros and the politicals? Does somebody think somebody's off message?

When two people are arguing about something that neither can know firsthand, my inclination is to trust the one who admits to some uncertainty over the one who knows it all. And when the supporting evidence for (b) is an ad hominem shot from some guy who's neither a doc nor a diplomat (I'd guess that the assistant secretary is probably a real FSO, not just a big contributor from Texas), I might become outright suspicious.

Which, I suppose, means I think it's a story too -- but a story about GOP politics, the exile community and the foreign policy elite, rather than a story about Fidel's digestive tract. So my first guess is that the Herald took an easy story to serve up some red meat. But I don't know either. So -- over to y'all.

9:46 PM, January 07, 2007  
Blogger Strayhorn said...

I have at home a press plate made up on the occasion of my leaving the harness at the Star-Gnus. At the end of one entirely bogus story is the footer: "This proves we use the NYTRNG wire."

It's one of my all-time favorite in jokes.

8:53 AM, January 08, 2007  
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