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Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2000 /12 Shevat, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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When editorial writers collide -- TO PARAPHRASE Will Rogers on the subject of the Democratic Party, I belong to no organized press group; I'm a member of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

There's a reason we call ourselves a conference, and not an association, union or congress. Because we're about as easy to herd as a bunch of particularly egocentric cats. That's why it's my favorite organization: It's so unorganized. Attending its annual meeting is the highlight of my year; it's like going to a convention of anarchists.

Through the years, the members of the NCEW have tried to teach me about editorial writing, but what I learned most about was friendship. You see the same folks once a year for a few days -- same time, next year -- and you get attached in a distinctive way. It's like forging friendships in a series of time exposures.

By now we've grown old together, mourned each other's losses, celebrated each other's joys, clucked over each other's scandals, partied in so many cities they all blend into one, and, oh yes, fought like hell.

It'll grow on you, this outfit. It's got so that I even like the editorial writers I don't like, if you know what I mean. If the National Conference of Editorial Writers had the equivalent of a Masonic apron, I'd want to be buried in one.

The editorial writers have gone to some fascinating places together -- like Russia when it was still the Soviet Union. I spent three of the saddest and most educational weeks of my life there in 1983, thanks to the NCEW. We started that trip as the usual collection of walking American egos and opinionations, and came back uniformly anti-Soviet, the liberals most of all. (Maybe they were the only ones with any illusions to shed.)

And now the NCEW has given me one more gift: It has returned the spirit of my youth. Because a royal brouhaha has broken out over another of our trips, this one to Cuba, and I haven't had so much fun since the Cold War. Back then, a number of our more enlightened members solemnly proposed that no editorial writer should cooperate with, or even speak to, the CIA -- lest we compromise our journalistic neutrality. Neutrality between freedom and tyranny, I suppose.

It struck me as a strange thing to ask of a newspaperman, or of any American, and I for one did not propose to let any organization, even a disorganized one I love, tell me whom I could or could not talk to. I'm proud to report that a majority of my fellow editorial writers turned out to feel the same way at that annual conference-cum-ideological brawl. Don't believe I've had as much fun since.

Until now. Because even though the Cold War has gone a-glimmering, and evil empires have grown scarce, the NCEW suddenly found itself faced with another little matter of conscience -- little to some, anyway. It seems that Fidel Castro's regime in Havana, a rare holdover from the bad old days, refused to grant a visa to an editorial writer from the Miami Herald who signed up for this Potemkin tour of his happy realm.

As soon as I heard about it, I cast my e-mail vote early and often, beginning with: ``Although interested in the Cuban trip, I was unable to make it. Now I regret even more not signing up because, after the Cuban regime's denying one of our people a visa, it would have been so satisfying to cancel out.''

But instead of calling the whole thing off, a number of my good buddies patiently explained why they should go off to Cuba without our blacklisted colleague. Their explanations for playing along with tyranny will be familiar to anyone who has survived this century of totalitarianism. For tedious example: leaving a colleague behind is better than not going at all; the Cuban authorities felt sandbagged when the Miami Herald showed up on the list for a visa; the planning for the trip has taken a lot of work. ...

One excuse is as good as another once editorial writers decide to let a Communist caudillo tell us who will and who will not be allowed to represent us on a tour of his prison isle.

It was left to Susana Barciela, the editorial writer and persona non grata in question, to clear away all this murk in her response to these explanations that explained so little:

``The Cuban government controls the press in its own country, and it tries to control the foreign press by screening what journalists get visas. It is particularly harsh with The Herald because we cover it more than anyone else, and, yes, our opinion of the Cuban government is not favorable. Read the human rights assessments of Cuba by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Pax Christi, or the U.S. State Department and you'll see why.''

Ms. Barciela, who must be one heckuvan editorial writer to have been so honored by the Cuban regime, was only getting started. Replying to one of the excuse-makers, she continued: ``What really appalls me is your comment: `... Cuba has not pulled some radical move here. It has maintained a policy in force for many years.' Since when is selectively barring journalists an acceptable policy for anyone who believes in a free press and free speech?''

Since now, apparently, for I'm unaware of any other time the NCEW was willing to allow a dictator veto power over who gets to go on one of our tours. I'm on Susana Barciela's side, and freedom's.

But I'm not sure I'd go along with all the implications of her rhetorical question to an editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: ``If a million Tibetan exiles lived in Minneapolis and the Star-Tribune covered Tibet better than anyone else, would you think it acceptable for China to bar your reporters? Of course not. You would defend the professionalism of your reporters and editorial writers, and you would condemn an authoritarian government for its attempts to stifle the press.''

I'm not so sure about all that. I can see the Star-Trib, which is nothing if not consistent, accepting the exclusion of its editorial writer from some foreign tour on any of various grounds: peace and friendship, international goodwill, technical difficulties or just general spinelessness.

And yet Ms. Barciela's powers of imagination impress: What repressive left-wing dictatorship in the world would bother to deny a visa to a representative of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune?

This just in: In the most instructive development of all, the authorities in Havana got miffed and decided to cancel the visas not just of the lady from the Miami Herald, but of all of the 38 editorial writers who had signed up for the trip. Why? Among the reasons given: The editorial writers might be getting information from other than official Cuban sources. Can't have that.

Who would have thought it? Fidel Castro saved us from ourselves. I regret he beat us to it, but it's still an honor. My congratulations to all 38 involuntary heroes. They can put this on their resumes. I'm even sorrier now that I never signed up so I could be turned down.

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