Clash of the Newspaper Titans

Vicky Peláez

Vicky Peláez

If the recent Russian spy case wasn’t enough to take you back in time (to the Cold War, to be precise),  then the war of words that erupted this week between two daily newspapers should do the trick.  In an episode reminiscent of the legendary 19th century newspaper battles that pitted William Randolph Hearst against Joseph Pulitzer, the Wall Street Journal this week attacked El Diario/La Prensa.  The Spanish-language daily responded with a vigorous defense that included a harsh critique of the Journal‘s journalistic methods.

The controversy began with an editorial in the Journal that calls on El Diario to apologize to its readers for its association with Vicky Peláez, a long-time El Diario columnist who, along with her husband, was arrested and deported as part of the Russian spy case.  The Journal characterizes Peláez, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Peru, as someone who “certainly seemed to hate the America that took her in.”

Peláez was known for her extreme leftist views.  But the Journal claims she was more than a reporter with strong opinions:

Peláez published regular anti-U.S. diatribes and routinely praised Castro, and the paper adopted her politics in its news coverage. Sometime in the late 1990s Peláez was made Latin American desk editor. Her work, as well as that of former El Diario editor-in-chief Gerson Borrero, was reprinted in Granma, Cuba’s state newspaper. Justo Sánchez, who was once the paper’s editor for arts and culture, described her articles as “poorly disguised agit-prop.” Mr. Sánchez adds that it was common knowledge around the newsroom that the Cuban government paid for Peláez’s trip to the island in 2006.

El Diario then published an editorial of its own, accusing the Journal of trying “to tarnish” the Spanish-language paper’s “97-year reputation.”  El Diario (a media partner of Feet in Two Worlds),  claims that the Journal “relies on unsubstantiated charges, such as ‘the Cuban government paid for Pelaez’ trip to the island in 2006,’ which is blatantly false.”

The editorial goes on to further question the Journal‘s methods: “We are surprised that so many of the statements in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal ran without the appropriate verification.”

The El Diario editorial acknowledges that the Peláez case poses challenges for the paper, and it lays out a plan to address them: “in the interest of transparency, we are assembling an independent academic commission to review our editorial practices. We know that maintaining trust is at the essence of what we do.”

The exchange between the two papers is notable for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s unusual for a media giant like the Journal to pay attention to a smaller ethnic media outlet like El Diario.  Spanish-language and English-language media in the U.S. typically operate in separate universes.

The Wall Street Journal is known for its conservative editorial page.  It’s not surprising that they would harshly criticize Peláez. The Journal also recently launched a Greater New York section, designed to make the paper more competitive in the New York market.  Newspaper industry observers have said that the new section is intended to lure New York Times readers, and weaken a major competitor to the Journal.  This week’s editorial may suggest that the Journal also wants to attract disaffected Hispanic newspaper readers.

If that’s the case, El Diario‘s response shows that the Spanish-language paper won’t let its readers go without a fight.

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