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By Glenn Garvin
''News you can use'' is an old concept in journalism, but let's give CNN credit for expanding it into brave new frontiers. A few days ago, in a bold bid for the all-important Felons Aged 21-55 ratings demographic, CNN Headline News offered a detailed primer on how to travel to Cuba illegally. Early-morning anchor Robin Meade and Atlanta travel consultant Chris McGinnis, who regularly contributes travel pieces to the network, offered the advice in one of those cute live interview segments that Headline News added last year when it discovered the median IQ of its viewers was rising dangerously close to average.
Explaining how to celebrate ''a romantic getaway to Cuba,'' McGinnis noted: ``There are ways you could go legally, some ways you can go illegally. Now, of course, we need to tell you that you probably should try to go legally first.''
But that, he admitted, isn't easy, since the U.S. government generally approves trips only for government officials, journalists, athletes competing in a specific event or those with close family members living in Cuba.
''If you want to kind of go around the legal way to go, you have to travel to a third country,'' McGinnis told the ever-smiling Meade. ''So you have to go to either Nassau in the Bahamas, a few cities in Mexico, Toronto in Canada, or via Montego Bay.'' A slide prepared by CNN's art department popped onto the screen to diagram the routes helpfully.
McGinnis followed that with information on hotels and currency exchange rates, and then warned viewers not to pay for anything with credit cards lest the fed snoops find out. ''What you're doing down there is trading with, supposedly, the enemy, and it's illegal,'' he said. He failed to mention that violators can be fined $55,000, a fact that might have caused even Meade to de-perkify.
Plenty of news organizations have done stories on U.S. tourists illegally visiting Cuba; that's a legitimate story. (And, certainly, from those stories, a reader or viewer could figure out how to do it.) But helping them to break American law crosses a line into something that's not journalism. I've been watching television for more than 40 years, but this was the first time I've ever seen a network provide a detailed blueprint on how to violate the law.
Alas, no CNN news executive was willing to talk to me about it. So I can't tell you if the network plans further features on how to freebase cocaine, cheat on your taxes or smuggle a box cutter onto an airliner. But rest assured, CNN would never urge you to do any of those things without pointing out that they're illegal. ''The report made it very clear it was illegal for American citizens to visit Cuba except under under special circumstances,'' CNN spokeswoman Edna Johnson said.
I wish somebody from CNN's news side would have talked to me because there's something I would have liked to ask: What is it about Cuba that makes TV newsmen go soft in the head?
It's illegal for Americans to visit North Korea, too, but I guarantee CNN will never do a how-to piece on visiting Pyongyang. Just as I can guarantee that Ted Turner will never travel there to go duck-hunting with Kim Jong Il, or offer him a free satellite dish to watch CNN -- though he did both with Fidel Castro.
Turner and CNN are not the only ones to turn lapdog in the presence of Castro. CBS President Les Moonves went to Havana last year for four days of partying and came back with Castro's autograph on a cigar box. 60 Minutes once ended a piece on Castro with tape of Dan Rather escorting him to his limousine and calling out, as it sped away, ''Goodbye, Mr. President, take care!'' (Contrast that with the insults Rather shouted at George Bush during that infamous live 1988 interview.)
And ABC's Barbara Walters, in a stunt so stupid it sounded like a right-wing conspiracy nut's fantasy, once helped Castro host a dinner party for a group of powerful executives from Time, Newsweek, ABC, NPR, The Washington Post and other elite news media. To be fair, it wasn't just a social occasion; the news executives bravely raised the question of human rights -- their own. The Post's Sally Quinn wrote plaintively that dinner wasn't served until after 11 p.m. and the air conditioning was turned very low.
I spent 18 years as a foreign correspondent and I've probably interviewed 20 presidents. Let me assure you, this is not the way it's ordinarily done. I can't imagine an American journalist offering Alberto Fujimori a free satellite dish, or calling ''take care!'' as Augusto Pinochet's limo pulled away, or hosting a dinner party with Papa Doc Duvalier. I look forward to the day when the network explains to me why the rules are different for Castro.
But enough unpleasantness. Let's get back to the cheerful stuff. In my next column, I'll provide detailed instructions on how to steal CNN's signal off the satellite without paying for it. But don't worry, I'll make it very clear that it's illegal.