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Full Text





FNP55 CARL HIAASEN
Interviewed by Julian Pleasants, May 21, 2001, Islamorada, Florida.
Interviewee is Carl Hiaasen



P: Talk about your time at the University of Florida and your journalism studies.

H: Well, I had transferred there in the fall of 1973 from Emory University, where I

was an English literature major. I had wanted badly to get into the journalism program. I

knew I wanted to go into newspapers at the time, and Emory did not have a journalism

program. Florida had one with a good reputation, and so I transferred there. I started

doing some columns for the Alligator, political, kind of satirical columns.... I do not know

if the columns at that time would have qualified as journalism, but they appeared on the

Op Ed page a couple times a week in the Independent Alligator. That was coinciding

with my immersion in the journalism curriculum for the first time. It was, I think, the best

move I have ever made, in terms of being right-off-the-bat inspired. I think I started out

having some bizarre notion that I wanted to write for television, and I was taking some

broadcasting classes the first semester. I also had a writing class with Jean Chance....

At the end of it, I remember she took me aside and said, you really do not want to go

into broadcasting; you will be frustrated, you will not really get to write what you want to

write, and you are really better suited for newspaper work. Of course, she was right....

So I took her advice, and it was the best thing I ever did, I think.

P: What impact did Buddy Davis have on your career?



H: He was tremendous. I do not know anybody in the business who [had] Buddy

Davis [and] was not profoundly affected by working with him. Opinion writing was the









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 2

course I think that is what it was called at the time.... With Buddy, what he taught you

was, if you are going to have the audacity to write an opinion piece, editorial column,

whatever it happened to be, you better get off the fence, you better write what you say,

you better have a target and say what you need to have, what needs to be done to fix

the problem you are writing about, and hit home, have your research and your facts

right. I mean, he was a stickler. Of course, all of us remember the brutal experience.

You would submit your piece of writing to Buddy, and he graded it. You would get back

a cassette.... It was Buddy giving you an oral grade.... You had to sit there... and listen

to this cassette where Buddy would just sort of [give] a running monologue, a running

critique, of your editorial piece that you had written. At the very end of it, he would lay

your grade on, you would hear the grade, and... you would be trembling in your chair,

and you would be thrilled as punch if it was anything above a C, you just did cartwheels

on your way out the door. But he drilled it into you. Some kids hated it, and they did not

make it through there, but that was his whole point, was that if you are serious about

being in the business, you got to be serious about expressing yourself in a way that

people can understand it and backing it up with facts. I think all of us left with an

appreciation for how to be tough....There is nothing to this day more aggravating than to

pick up, all over the country, when I travel, an editorial page and read a newspaper's

editorial on a subject and not have the faintest idea where they stand at the end of the

editorial, and you can tell it was a committee decision and you can tell it was a

committee writing job. You are not doing anybody any service by that, and that was

Buddy's point, is that this is an important privilege that you have, this opportunity to

address the readers of your publication. You should use it to say what you think and









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 3

deal with important issues, and if you cannot make up your mind about something, you

[have] no business writing about it. To this day, a lot of editorial writers have trouble

with that idea, that they do not want the phone to ring in the morning, they do not want

the letters to come in. I think Buddy would tell them what he told all of us: you are

getting into the wrong business. Go do something else.

P: You have never had that problem.

H: Well, you know, it is not easy. I mean, I have always been opinionated, and there

is a lot about what is going on in Florida that always angered me. I never had any

trouble finding the energy or the enthusiasm or the emotion to write, but there is a very

specific discipline that goes with that and some people do not have it. You can have all

the right passion in the world and all the right feelings in the world, but if you cannot

express yourself or you cannot win people over or at least get your idea across in a way

that they understand, then it all goes to waste. But that is true for almost all kinds of

writing. I mean, a novelist who cannot keep readers turning the page, he may be as

gifted as it comes in the use of the English language and descriptive abilities and his

imagination, but if you cannot tell a story, you are out of business. It is the same with

writing a newspaper story.... Gene Miller, the great reporter for the Herald who won two

Pulitzer Prizes and who I had the privilege of working with on a number of projects, ...

always liked to say, there are no bad stories, there are just bad reporters who cannot

write the stories. That is hyperbole, but his point was, if you do the work, you can turn

almost anything into a readable piece, something that reaches out to the readers who

ought to be concerned about it.... Now, you are competing with the Internet and you are

competing with a jillion cable TV channels, you are competing with all kinds of printed









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 4

media, magazines that you did not have to worry about. Newspapers should be more

interesting now than they were. They should be better written and more creatively put

together now than they were twenty-five or thirty years ago, and they are not.... They

are dumbed down. That was their solution to the competition, was to make it dumber,

and they are missing quite a bit, in my opinion.

P: Talk a little bit about your experience on the Alligator. I wanted to read one

quotation from you about that experience: "Writing columns for the Alligatorwas a piece

of cake. We had Nixon in the White House. Each day provided a wonderful new

atrocity. It was a splendid opportunity for a columnist to learn the value of contempt,

ridicule, and satire. It gave me a pile of newspaper clippings that continue to scare the

hell out of editors years later."

H: It did. I was in an unusual position, because I had never worked really as a

reporter. I was just in college, and I was writing these opinion columns that they were

printing. Of course, my idea was that I could go right out of college and be a columnist,

which is absurd and would have been the worst thing in the world for me, but because

the columns were well-received in Gainesville and the university, I thought about it. I

still think some of them are pretty funny, but, again, the material was priceless. It was

like shooting fish in a barrel. You had [Henry] Kissinger [Nixon's national security

advisor and Secretary of State]. You had the charade of the peace negotiations going

on and [the] bombing [of] Cambodia. Then you had, of course, Watergate, which is

what got a lot of us into the business to begin with.... [In 1974] Richard Nixon is

resigning after Watergate, after the third-rate burglary that nobody was supposed to pay

attention to. It was an extraordinary time to be at that age in America, with the war









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 5

grinding down and there were still kids being killed, and coming out of the era of

assassinations of Bobby Kennedy [JFK's brother and U.S. Attorney General;

Democratic candidate for president in 1968 at the time of his death], Martin Luther King,

Jr. [civil rights leader], and John F. Kennedy [U.S. president 1960-1963]. You had all

that happening. Kent State was still fresh in everybody's mind. It was a very dynamic

time, and it was a good time to be writing edgy, irreverent, satirical, and sometimes

sophomoric stuff. There was an audience for it, there was an appetite for it, and

certainly the way a lot of the country plugged into a lot of the cynicism that was

inevitable in that time. I mean, we had a crook in the White House. It does not get any

worse than that. We had a guy who was ordering and approving and paying for

burglaries and breaking into people's psychiatrist's offices [a reference to Daniel

Ellsberg, the Pentagon analyst who leaked the famed Pentagon Papers regarding the

Vietnam War]. You know, it makes you laugh years later when you hear these droolers

get up and talk about what an evil person Bill Clinton was and comparing that whole

thing to Watergate. It is absurd. These people must have been under a rock during

Watergate. We are talking about high crimes in Watergate, the destruction of

incriminating evidence, the eighteen-minute gap on the tape. Every day, there was

something new....

To me, it [satire] seemed a natural voice to write in. It was the way I looked at the

world, the way I saw what was happening. It seemed to me perfectly reasonable. Satire,

and sometimes a kind of lacerating form of satire, was the perfectly natural way to go at

corruption and evil and the misdeeds of politics and all that. But there were people it

made very uncomfortable, very nervous. I like to think it was all the things that Buddy









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 6

Davis taught us and others at [journalism] school, that you have this great privilege and

you have this responsibility, the least you can do is say what you think and take the flak

for it, take the heat for it. There are always going to be people who just disagree with

you, but there is no sin in disagreement and there is no sin in getting people talking

about something controversial. Even when I started the column at the Herald, there was

a high degree of nervousness about it.... I wasn't always a nice guy, especially if you

were caught with your hand in the piggybank and you were a politician, you know, your

day was ruined if you read one of my columns about you, and they were not used to

that. It made them nervous for the first couple years, I think....

But I remember in Gainesville, the first few columns, Randy Bellows was my

editor... and he stood up for me, but there was a degree of, well, isn't this a little tough,

isn't this a little nasty? To me, it was always simple. If they did not like it and they did

not want to run it, I was not going force it....

P: Did you ever have any pressure from the University of Florida administration?

H: No. ... I would hear things, that they did not like certain things, but I never got any

pressure. I would have welcomed it, of course,... because it would not have bothered

me. You always like to think that you are hitting some sort of target. You hate to think

you are firing into a vacuum. Honestly, and this is going to sound really odd, I really

tried to work hard at making the columns funny, so that even if people did not

necessarily agree with me, the humor was there. That is because it is a very hard thing

to be funny about serious subjects, it is one of the toughest things you can do, but I

enjoyed making people laugh. That is certainly the same motivation for the novels, is

that I enjoyed seeing [people] entertained by something I wrote. That was the biggest









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 7

high I had ever experienced, walking around that campus and having people I never

knew, professors, people I did not know, stop me and saying they liked the column I

wrote. It just knocked me on my butt every time somebody said they had even read

it....it was such a big high, to be told that something made them laugh. Still, to this day,

those are the best letters I get...[and] my favorite columns are the ones that are funny

as well as poignant....

P: You apparently developed your writing style very early.

H: Yeah, I guess. Again, I tell people it isn't so much a style as it is my voice, the

honest voice that I go through life with. It is the same, very similar to the narrative voice

of the heroes and heroines of the novels I write. It is the way I look at the world. It is

very hard for me to divorce myself, even in fiction, from my point of view about certain

things. It is so strong. At a very, very young age, I held very strong points of view, right

or wrong. It seemed to me it is such a natural way for me to do it. It is not a stretch. It is

not something I had to work at.

The most difficult time after I got out of school...[was when] I got on the

investigations team, where, of course, you are heavily-edited and heavily-lawyered.

Every shred of subjectivity is beaten out of that work, and it has to be, because you are

dealing with many cases, [with] high libel potential. You are dealing with serious

allegations against people.... You are disciplined and trained to take yourself out of

every sentence in that story. Your point of view should be the last thing that hits the

readers, but you should still be able to make a strong point. So I went from that

experience for a couple of years, where it was almost a clinical detachment. You could

be in even the worst scandal and your adrenaline was going, because you knew you









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 8

were onto something if it was a particular level of corruption or you had a good story or

something, but when you sat down to write, you wrote with the view that they are not

going to know anything about how I feel. Then you go from that to saying, how would

you like to try a column? It is like having handcuffs cut off.... It is a completely different

muscle that you are using when you are writing opinion, as opposed to writing

investigations, or magazine pieces even.

So... the biggest adjustment, was that I had been away from it for so long... I got

out of school in 1974 and I started the column in 1985, so it was like eleven years I had

not done that kind of writing. ...[A] t that point, I was about halfway into Tourist Season,

which is the first novel I tackled on my own.... The hero of that novel was this deranged

newspaper columnist. Everyone thought that I had modeled it on myself, but the truth

was... I modeled myself after Skip Wiley [character from Hiaasen's Tourist Season], not

the other way around. But that was a hard thing, because it was just all of a sudden,

okay, it is a completely different job, ... we want you to do this column, we want you to

say exactly what you think about things, and if you raise a little hell, fine.... that was

what the pitch was. Then when it started happening, everybody got a little, ooh, not that

much hell. But that did not last. [T]hey got used to it....

Any time you sit down and say, I think I am going to write something funny, it is

the hardest thing in the world. I think if you spoke with Dave Barry [syndicated humor

columnist], who is a good friend of mine and one of the funniest guys on the planet, and

funny in person as well, he is also the hardest-working guy I have ever known, and he

agonizes and bleeds over every line. Almost anybody can write narrative, straight

narrative, or, in the case of newspapers, can cover an event competently and make it









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 9

fairly interesting, but if you say, I am going to set out to be funny, and not just funny but

currently funny, topically funny, sharp, it is hard to do. It is very easy to fall flat on your

face.... It is the most challenging, I think, kind of opinion writing to do....

P: There is a very fine line between satire and cynicism. How do you draw that line?

H: ... people... say, well,... you are such a cynic. I say... a true cynic is a person

who does not think there is any hope, and if I were a true cynic, I would not be wasting

my breath, or all those dead trees that we publish the Miami Herald with, to bother

putting a column in the paper. As long as there is a tiny little spark of outrage out there

somewhere in the public waiting to be kindled into something bigger, then you got to

keep writing. A cynic is someone, I think, who gives up, says to hell with it. There isn't a

day that goes by, especially living down here in the Keys and watching it change as

radically as it has, where I don't think to myself, this is a lost cause, it is time to bail out,

or it is time to bail out of Florida; we are not getting better, we are getting worse. All it

takes is watching the legislature in session, and you get that stomach-churning feeling

that it is all a lost cause. But then you also see things happening. In the letters I get

from folks all over the state who are standing up finally and saying, we have had it with

this stuff and we are not going to let them get away with it here.... They may lose most

of the battles, but they will win every now and then. And then what do you do? Do you

walk away from those folks and say, to hell with it, quit trying? No, you cannot do that.

So, I do not see myself as a cynic. Certainly, satire has a cynical note to it. When you

hear a politician give the most cockamamie story to explain something atrocious that

they have done, he would look at the columnist and say, you are just being cynical, and

I say, no, I am being skeptical. After this many years, I would hope that I have some









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kind of instinct for when somebody is lying. That is one thing, people say journalists are

so cynical. They are not cynical necessarily; they are skeptical, because they have

spent most of their careers being lied to. That is a fact. That is what we do, day in and

day out. We go to the mayor and we say, why did your friend get this contract, and he

says, it is just a coincidence. That is a lie. Now the newspapers and the reporters can't

call it a lie, but I can certainly in a column cast grave doubt on the veracity of that

statement. If you get your facts right and you dig in a little bit, a lot of times it is just a

question of connecting the dots, I call it for the reader.... I say, I will show you how it

happened; follow the ball. And then it turns out to be right....

You are nuts if you aren't skeptical, but I don't see it as saying, well, the whole

country is corrupt. I think there is a huge, especially in the state of Florida, I call it this

great engine of greed that has always been a dominating force in Florida. But the

interesting thing that happens with that is the momentum builds to develop and exploit

every square-foot of this place, because it is a gorgeous and a very unique state... Well,

I cannot walk away from it. That is what a cynic would do, just walk away.

P: Many critics say that journalists have abdicated their responsibility. William

Greider argued that reporters were often good on the facts, but weak on the truth.

H: Absolutely. I could not agree more. But I do not think it is anything new. I think

reporters today are more astute than they were fifty or sixty years ago. They are more

intrepid than they were. They are more dogged. They are better educated.... Very good

on the facts, but very weak on the truth.

There is this fraternity that develops.... The best reporting about the White House

generally ends up being done by people who do not have the White House as a beat.









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 11

The White House reporters in the Washington Post did not break the Watergate story.

If memory serves, they were somewhat resentful of these two city-side reporters

[Woodward and Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story]....

[Those]... who get elected to office for the most part are likeable, men and

women both. They are politicians; their job is to be liked, and so it is hard not to like

them. That is why I keep such a distance.... But I do not hang out with them, I do not

fraternize with them, because I never know when I am going to have to write that tough

column about them. Jeb Bush is probably a nice guy; I do not know, and I do not really

want to know. I have to judge him as I judge anybody else. I am proud of the fact that

Lawton Chiles could be just as angry with me one day as he was happy the next by a

certain column and that I managed to piss off everybody at one time or another. It just

means I am doing my job.

... Greider [and] Seymour Hersch [uncovered the My Lai incident in the Vietnam

war] and all these heavy-hitters... came out of a generation where you had a whole

government stitched together on lies, and on a daily basis. They [the government]

would lie to you about how many boys died in Vietnam that day. What more despicable

lie is there than that, that Johnson or Nixon or whoever was making? So, naturally, you

have got that [skeptical] attitude. Now it is a much more comfortable life. Although

newspapers are shrinking and people are being laid-off and quality is certainly not what

it used to be, the fact is... we are much more a self-absorbed society than we were in

the 1960s and even in the 1950s, I think. Now it is much more celebrity-driven.... you

pick up the paper and you can find much more news about Madonna [pop singer] than

you will ever find about the Nobel Prize winner for science or for genetics or... for the









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 12

cancer treatments. That is the public appetite.

I am not sure that the blame goes entirely to journalists for that, but I do think

there are plenty of important things that are not covered well. This is going to sound like

a typical reporter. I do not lay it on the reporters so much as I do on the editors and the

management of newspapers, because good investigative reporting costs money, and

many, many times you get to the bottom and you have a dry hole. You have spent

thousands of dollars, and you have got nothing to put in the paper, and there are not

any newspapers today that are willing to eat that kind of expense. Their solution has

been in many cases to disband the investigative team or poach from it to the extent that

they do not have the same number of full-time reporters. I think these decisions are

trickling down, and then you take the steam and the heart [out] of the reporters

themselves if you do not let them go out and do their jobs.

P: Has the Miami Herald done that?

H: To some extent, although the great thing about being in Miami is that the news

will not let you do that; the news will not let you abdicate that responsibility, because

one scandal is on the heels of another scandal all the time. You cannot ignore it, you

have to dispatch resources morally, you have to do it. There are places that do not

have the bizarre and constant news flow that we have, where it is very easy to just

forget about your investigative team and you have them pulled off to cover this and

cover that daily stuff. Here, we could have an investigative team ten times as large as

we do now, and they would all be busy. My view is that we have way too few people

doing this kind of work. But they will never be able to shut it down, because the nature

of news and the preponderance of corruption down here just will not let them....









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 13

We went through the happy face of newspapering for awhile, what we used to

call Jell-O Journalism, soft journalism, because it is easy. Nobody writes you any letters

- here is the mayor cutting a ribbon, here are the kids on the first day of school. Instead

of putting hard news in the paper, you take it softer. But we went through our phase of

that, we certainly did, at the Herald. Readers did not like it, despite what they said in the

focus groups.... What people say they want to read and what they read are two

different things. We went through a period where we went from having a Pulitzer Prize-

winning crime reporter, Edward Buchanan, and extensive and exhaustive crime

coverage. To be fair, we had an enormously high murder rate back in those days. We

went through a period where it was perceived that we had too much crime. The

Chamber of Commerce was [saying], we are scaring people off, we are overblowing the

crime, we are exaggerating it. As any company can do, they found some focus groups

of alleged readers who told them that.... so we went to this phase where crime was not

covered as thoroughly. And guess what? The next group of focus groups said, what

happened to all your police coverage? Then we scrambled back the other direction....

By ignoring it [crime], we are not doing anybody a favor, we are not defending anybody.

What we are doing is we are depriving them of information that they are going to turn

on Channel 7 and see. It is stupid, and they finally figured that out, but we went through

that phase all newspapers did, I think of, oh gee, we are just bringing people down

in the morning with all this. Well, guess what? Crime is now down. Homicides are way

down in Miami. The attention brought results. Why are we writing about the tourists

getting mugged and killed as they leave Miami International Airport this is not good for

tourism. Well, it is even worse for the tourists getting mugged and killed, okay? And









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 14

guess what, now those crimes are down....

Those decisions are not made by reporters. Those decisions are made by editors

and above. I do not know of any reporters who would not salivate at the chance to go

after the big story...instead of being yanked off to go cover a craft show... Most

reporters just hate that stuff; good reporters do. They would much rather be out digging

through records and following up leads that come in. I mean, there are a lot of readers

who are concerned. Those are the ones we are out there digging for, not for our own

glory, because nobody remembers the bylines; nobody remembers who writes these

stories. It is folly to think that. It all goes into the birdcage, for God sakes.

P: That is an interesting point. What makes a good reporter?

H: To some extent what makes a good cop, too. A good instinct for when something

does not look right, does not fit right, does not sound right. A story just does not hold

up. Secondly, an unfailing instinct for when you are being misled or lied to. Third, and

probably most importantly, a real strong sense in what is right and what is wrong, that

when somebody does something wrong, who is in a position of public trust, it should go

in the newspaper. It is that simple. Let the readers decide whether it is worth throwing

him out of office or not.... I think the good reporters just never get enough information.

The fun of it is just digging, digging, digging, but it is also a sense of knowing when

something is being withheld that belongs in the public forum...- nothing gets a good

journalist going with more energy than the idea that somebody is covering something

up.... You are not out there for yourself. The big high, the kick I always got, was

knowing I had gotten hold of something, knowing they hated the idea that I got a hold of

it and they were going to get to read all about it on the front page on Sunday.... The by-









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 15

line did not matter. It was just the idea that you cannot keep the truth from people, and

as much as you want to try, we are going to put it in the paper, and they can deal with it.

P: But the problem is partly what you mentioned earlier haven't a lot of these

reporters been co-opted? Has the media really protected democracy? I would imagine

Thomas Jefferson would be very disappointed in today's press.



H: Oh yeah, but I think the press has always disappointed people. I do not think that

is anything new. I think they are much less co-opted today than they were in Jefferson's

era, to be honest with you.... I also think that the disease is not being co-opted so much

as it is being dispirited, to the point of laziness sometimes.... You know, you go where

the facts lead you, and if you have to go crawling and begging and groveling, which is

what pretty much it is at most newspapers now, to go to some very simple and not

extravagant thing just to get what you need, that will take it out of you. What happens

then is that you... assume, you... start self-editing I do not want to go after that, they

will never let me go chase that story and the result is that good stories do not get

written.... [For[ the vigorous free press in this country today, the big enemy is Wall

Street, or the big enemy is the corporations that own these newspapers, who are now

putting out newspapers for shareholders [and] not for readers, who are much more

concerned with pleasing the stockholders than they are with meeting the real day-to-

day needs of readers.... So, these papers are being shrunk by attrition. They are getting

thinner.... All this is being done without telling the readers, and they are just not

supposed to notice that there is nobody covering the city council meeting for a few

weeks because... somebody quit, and they are not going to replace them to save









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 16

money.... Meanwhile, something is not covered and somebody gets away with

something and somebody's community is worse off for the fact that we are too cheap to

keep a full payroll. It is absolutely the truth of the Miami Herald, and it is true probably to

every paper in the country, if they are going to be honest about it. So that is a much

greater danger to people's need to know than whether the reporters are too cozy. The

source of the problem is real simple: there are not enough reporters, and there are not

enough good reporters. The pool is shrinking, not growing, because newspapers are

shrinking. That is a far more disturbing thing to me. You know, you have a corporate

culture now existent in many newsrooms that was never there when I started. I mean,

you never heard about the business side. You never heard from the advertisers. It

never got down to you if you pissed off an advertiser, and if it did, that was no big deal.

That was your job. Now it is much different.... Everybody in the newsroom is painfully

aware of what the circulation numbers show... because they get posted... I never knew

what the profit margin of Miami Heraldfor Knight-Ridder was. I knew we made a lot of

money, but I didn't know. Now it is emblazoned in the brain of everybody on every floor

of the paper, that if the Herald does not make its 22, 23 percent, whatever Tony Ridder

[head of Knight-Ridder newspapers] has decreed for this year, we face cutbacks,

layoffs.... You cannot pollute the reporter's mind with these kinds of concerns. You want

him to go out and kick over the rocks and give the people, that community, the most

thorough possible coverage that is available. Yet, you are telling him you can do that,

but do not spend this, do not take this source to lunch, you cannot go to Tallahassee. It

is insane. That is a terrifically scary thing, but it is nothing new. Papers have always

been cheap.









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 17

P: But 22 percent, that is a pretty good return. They should have a little extra money

to...

H: He [Tony Ridder] wants 25 percent this year. It is absurd. I always tell people, I

mean, I know heroin dealers who would be thrilled with that kind of profit-margin. It is

completely obscene. It is unrealistic. It will have a devastating effect on the quality of

the journalism that is being produced, because it means getting rid of older experienced

people to whom they can afford to offer buy-out packages. It is very sad, and it is short-

sighted. And it is not by any means unique to Knight-Ridder. The L. A. Times is going

through it. Gannett has been famous for it for years. Gannett was the pioneer of

journalism on the cheap. You know, I worked for Al Neuharth right out of college.

P: Talk a little bit about your experiences with Cocoa and Al Neuharth.

H: I remember I graduated in March of 1974, and I think my first day was March 21,

if I am not mistaken, 1974, COCOA TODAY, which was the precursor of USA TODAY

It was the tenth anniversary, if I am not mistaken, of the founding of that newspaper, or

some anniversary of it, and I just happened to arrive that day. Al Neuharth had

assembled everybody in the press room for a big pep-talk and congratulatory speech. I

am sitting there, and no sooner has he gotten started than he launches into an attack

on one of the reporters, on, specifically, a series that had been done called,

"Confessions of a Used Car Salesman," which I had seen. The most recent installment

had been sent to me. It was fascinating stuff, these guys telling how they dolled up

these wrecks and were able to get people to buy them. They put sugar in the tank and

did all this horrible stuff to make it sound good for a minute, and then they would sell

them. It was great stuff, and it was also filled with comments of horror and contempt by









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 18

honest car dealers who said, we would never do that. It was a very balanced series....

Well, the Used Car Association of Brevard County, or whatever the hell they called

themselves, had raised some hell and in their outrage had pulled some ads. Al was on

a roll about how one-sided he thought the series was, a little too strong, a little too

tough on everybody. Well, he never had the balls to come out and say it was because

they pulled some ads.... I thought, this is my first day in the real world of journalism, and

I have got the publisher of this newspaper chewing out a reporter for doing his job.... So

much for theory; so much for idealism.... [Y]ou talk about separating the ethical barriers

between the newsroom and the business side. Neuharth lived on the beach in a big

fancy house, and at the time he had just married a state senator named Lori Wilson.

They lived...on Cocoa Beach, and there was some setback in zoning issues that the

neighbors had raised about what Al was doing with the property. We dutifully...were

writing about it. I was working on a Friday, I think,... and a story was due to run that

somebody had dug up....[T]here was a possibility Al was going to be cited for building

below the setback line on the beach, which was a big environmental thing up there at

the time. I will never forget, he called in from wherever he was traveling, and he had the

story read to him word-for-word over the phone, and he said, what is the headline going

to be? And he rewrote the headline himself. A complete violation. That is like having

Nixon write the headline on the Watergate stories that you want to read. But he was the

boss. There was a great deal of dissension and demoralization at the newspaper

because of this. He was meddling in the story; he should have sat back and taken his

lumps.... The whole newsroom was just appalled that he would do this sort of thing. It

was hard on the editors. I felt bad for them. They get the call, and what are they going









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 19

to do? That is their boss; are they going to tell him to go pound salt? They would be out

of a job....Management, it may be, is not the enemy, but they are not necessarily your

friends either, and they are not necessarily committed in the way that reporters and

front-line editors are to putting out a complete and thorough and balanced newspaper.

P: Then there is a lot of hypocrisy.

H: A terrific amount of hypocrisy, and I would go so far as saying, in some cases,

corruption. I do not mean criminal corruption, but there is certainly a corruption of the

unspoken bond between the readers and the newspaper. We will always serve you first

- that is just plain bullshit. If we believed that, we would not be laying people off right

now at the Miami Herald. We would not be trying to buy out people and get them out of

there. We barely have enough photographers to cover the day-to-day news, and they

want to lay off four more now. That is not what a newspaper in a big, dynamic, growing

community does for its readers. It is basically the same as cutting your police force in

the middle of a crime wave. That is basically what we are doing. But believe me, we are

not alone; it is going on everywhere..., so I am not singling out Knight-Ridder.... We

should not even pretend that we are working hard for you, the reader. We are working

hard to make that 25 percent for Tony Ridder, is what it boils down to, and the

shareholders, so that he does not get yelled at, at the next shareholder's meeting.... We

are not really doing journalism here; this is a franchise operation, and our job is to make

money, and you got to understand that. And, by the way, we will put something on your

front lawn every morning; some days it is going to be better than others, some days it is

going to be real good, and some days it is going to be disgraceful, it will be so thin. At

least be honest with them, say, lookit, we are getting hammered from corporate









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 20

headquarters, [and] that is why the paper is getting thinner. It is not because there is

less news happening, folks; it is because we are printing less of it than we ever have.

P: What is your view of USA TODAY? Is that the wave of the future?

H: No. Everyone said that.... I do not think it is. I think it is great for what it is.... I

read it when I can on airplanes.... But I think most readers are sophisticated enough to

know that you are just getting little M&M bites of news, and if you really want to know

what is going on in the Mideast, you do not look it up in USA TODAY. You go to the

New York Times and the Washington Post. Having said that, I also have to note that

probably eight out of every ten readers, that is all they really want to know about the

Mideast....I do not think it is the wave of the future, but I do not think the future is all that

bright either.... USA TODAY.. has gotten better, I think, over the years, the quality of

the writing. They break stories....

P: They do some investigative journalism.

H: They do, and they have gotten a hell of a lot better than when they first started.

But I know everybody, all of us, went to color weather pages. That was our answer. Let

us make the weather map almost real life-size, and that will show readers we really care

about them. It is expensive putting all that color in the paper, and the same number of

people looked at the weather page who looked at it before. So they abandoned that.... I

think there are plenty of times when shorter is good...[but] I think there are a lot of times

that... the only way to distinguish us from the broadcast media and from the thinner

newspapers and magazines, is to be able to do what they call interpretive journalism....

A good paper can deliver something that TV, radio and the Internet cannot give you;

depth and insight and basic investigative stuff cannot be duplicated by TV or radio... to









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 21

the devastating effect that it can have in a newspaper. So... that is really our only trump

card over these other media. One thing we can do that they cannot do is depth. More

and more papers are shrinking away from depth let us just be just like radio, only let

us be it in print. It is insane... [and] they wonder why nobody is picking up circulation,

why advertising is flat. Well, there are a lot of complicated reasons. One of the reasons

is, we are not offering people anything they are not getting anywhere else. We are

failing in that regard.

The best newspapers, the ones that are making tons of money, are spending

tons of money on the product. They are going through down-cycles now because of the

economy, but the fact is the New York Times remains a highly profitable newspaper,

the Washington Post, a highly profitable newspaper, and also at the same time high-

quality, and they spend a fortune covering the world. You know, we close all our

bureaus outside of the United States, we do all this great cost- cutting, and then we

wonder, gee, I wonder why our circulation is flat.... If it were Coke and Pepsi, they would

be finding ways of getting more people to use their product and not just putting less

syrup into the soda. But that is what we do in the newspaper business....

P: Talk a little bit about your experience with COCOA TODAY.

H: ... I was there about two and half years and I had a great time. It was a great

learning-ground. I was very lucky to be surrounded by some talented people....

So... the good thing about a small paper is, if you got a little bit of ambition and a little bit

of talent, they will let you try and do almost everything, which I did. They had a little

Sunday magazine, and I worked for that. All kinds of different stuff. I would get a crazy

feature idea, and it was, why not, try it. There was not the level of bureaucracy that you









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 22

get at a bigger paper where you have to go through all these channels just to try anything

new. That was the good part. I think the part I did not like was it was small town, and it

did a lot of small-town stuff that drove me crazy.... I guess the thing I was left with was, I

did not realize going into it the level of turnover. When you have a smaller paper like that,

you have a lot of people on their way to somewhere else, and I was included. I always

hated for those [small papers], losing these talented people to the St.Pete Times or the

Herald or the Orlando Sentinel. That's where I was educated to the fact that this is a

business of high turnover, and people leave.... The only way to make any money was to

change jobs, honestly. When you are getting $7.50 a week raises and told that is good,

people with families, you know, you are not going to hang in there.... I understand that

people move around, and the same thing, of course, happens here at the Herald on a

bigger scale. In the twenty-five years I have been here, if you just took the people who

walked out the door to the Washington Post, to the New York Times, or Time magazine

or Newsweek or L. A., you would have an extraordinary staff of talent... A certain amount

of it is inevitable, that kind of change, but it is hard, because just when someone would

get to know a community or get to know a beat, someone who was covering Cocoa

Beach, just when you finally nail it down, you get moved to another beat, or they leave....

But the readers... are not really aware that a whole re-education process now has to

begin. Where you start sometimes with a rookie or sometimes with just a new reporter

now, you have to learn who is who, who are the players. Every time you change a beat, it

sets the level of coverage back in the community. The result is a lot of smaller

communities are not covered very well....









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 23

P: Why have you stayed with the Miami Herald for twenty-five years? Did you ever

have a desire to go anywhere else?

H: No, I did not. I had some opportunities, but I did not. First of all, I could not see

myself living anywhere else. This is where I was born and raised. Florida is really, it just is

a character in the novels, it is a character in my life. It is very hard to walk away from this

place for any length of time, even as much as it has changed and as heartbreaking as it

has been to watch some of the change..... The only other paper that I would even have

considered would have been the St. Pete Times, and I was not all that terrifically

enamored of the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. I mean, it is okay, but I much prefer down

here. It is a fine newspaper; it is a hell of a newspaper. On any given day, it is probably

the best newspaper in the state, and we are on any given day, too, but it is certainly neck-

and-neck with us. People at the Herald cringe to hear that, but it happens to be the

truth...

...after about two years at COCOA, the Herald called me up because I had won

second place in some national award. So they called up and said, do you want to come

down for an interview, and I said, yeah. I will never forget, I was such a smartass. They

said, do you want to fill out an application? I said no. I said, I filled out an application two

years ago in college. I said, I have not been anywhere, and it is in your files; I will be

happy to come down, [but] I am not doing another one. To their credit, they still had me

come down, but I was so pissed off because... I had never gotten a letter back for the first

one, and so I said screw them.... Two things changed my mind. One is that I had a young

family, and it was a lot more money than I was making or would ever make at COCOA....

Then second of all, my father had just passed away, and my mom was alone. My sisters









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 24

were at college, my younger brother was getting ready to go to college, and I just thought

it would better if I would be around for my mom.... It was much better for me, I think, for a

lot of reasons to be writing about a place I cared about and at least had some roots....

For me, it was a place I knew from childhood, so the learning curve was not nearly as

steep for me.

P: So one of the critical factors eventually was that you got your own column?

H: ...[W]hen you join a paper, they always say, what do you have [for] long-range

plans, and I had written down, just whimsically almost, some day I would like to write a

column again; I wrote one in college.... I did not actively go look for the column.... I [had]

been on the investigations team.... We just finished up a long investigation in the

Bahamas. It was very grueling, about corruption involving the prime minister, and I had

been away from home a lot. I was just fried; I was burned out for the time being. Not on

all of it, but you always have a postpartum period after you spend a lot of months on

something and you finally get it all in the paper in the space of a week or six days... Then

Heath Merriweather, who was a friend [and] who was the executive editor at the time,

came to me and said, would you be interested in taking a shot at doing the column.... It

was one thing I had not done at the paper. It was one of the few things, writing jobs I had

not had, and I said, yeah, I will give it a shot.... Then, once I got comfortable in the voice

and comfortable doing that length doing the same length every column, which was

another discipline I had to learn what I found happened was, and I had no intention of

making this a long-range thing, but what I found was, you do get a sort of emotional

connection with your readers, and the mail you get, a sense that they start looking for

your column, they expect you to be responding and writing about certain things to get









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 25

them angry....

All of a sudden, you feel like it is your duty. It sounds odd, that is the last thing I

expected. I go through periods all the time when I say, to hell with it; I do not want to do it

anymore. I am tired, I cannot do that and the books at the same time. But then you get

this mail, and people seem to really depend on you in the morning over their breakfast

cereal to at least say what they have been thinking and ranting and raving about. Part of

it gratifies your ego, but part of it is also [and] I told them this, the only way I would ever

leave is if I thought there was someone else with as strong a voice about especially the

environmental stuff that I feel strongly about.... You know, I always feel like if I go, no

one is going to do this. Not that I do it exceptionally well, but there will not be anybody

doing it, because our pattern is, we are not replacing people who leave.

Then before you know it, the years pile up and you are doing it, and the longer

you do it, the harder it is to walk away from it. ... I certainly do not need to do it anymore.

It is not a financial decision on my part. I have been so ridiculously lucky with the books. I

have just been blessed with being able to do the novels and enjoy some success with

that, but I do the column because it is important. I do the books because it is therapy. It is

therapy for me, and it is fun. It is different. It is a very challenging kind of writing, to sit

down and construct a whole novel. You have to use up a lot more tricks in your bag to do

a novel. But the column is important because you write it, and it is in the paper the next

day, and you are responding to something hopefully fairly quickly, shining a little spotlight

on this one thing before it gets too far in the legislature, too far with the county

commissioner, before somebody's life is messed up because they do something stupid or

somebody is sitting in jail who should not be in jail....









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 26

So, the immediacy of it, that this adrenaline rush of jumping on a big story still is

there. I think if it wasn't there, I wouldn't do it. I'm saying all of this, [but] six months from

now, I could bag it. I don't know. For me, the tough part is going to be keeping the loyalty

to the paper going while they are shoving good people out the door... there is almost a

point of a moral line in the sand that you have to draw. This isn't affecting my life at all. I

still get my paycheck and they are still happy to get my column, but these are people I

have worked with for years, good people who do not deserve to be treated this way. At

some point, you say, I cannot sit by and watch this happen. I hope it does not come to

that, but that would be one of the deciding factors, not anything to do with my own

personal life.

P: In your columns, I have been particularly interested in your descriptions of

politicians pernicious little ferret, worthless blowhard, and my personal favorite, a

veritable slag-heap of mediocrity. Do you get a lot of pressure from editors to modify your

comments or phone calls from the maligned?

H: I think I used to get the occasional cringing phone call saying, gee, do we really

have to say that? And I would say, look what he did. Yeah, but he is going to be on the

phone tomorrow. Let him be on the phone tomorrow so what? I do not relish or take

any joy in knowing, I mean, these are folks with wives and husbands and kids, and I take

it very seriously. As frivolous or as whimsical as some of those names sound, those are

applied to individuals who did some really bad stuff and whose actions affected people.

To me, they were perfectly accurate descriptions. But yeah, they get queasy about it.

Readers love it. I do not hear much from the politicians themselves, because they are

always afraid if they write to me I will put that in the column too.....









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 27

But in the case of, like, the pernicious little ferret, I think I was referring to

Humberto Hernandez [former Miami city commissioner], who is now in jail for voter-fraud

and for money-laundering and fixing an election. He first came to the public attention

when the ValuJet crash happened in the Everglades. He has a law firm, and he sent

someone in his law firm to infiltrate the busfull of relatives who were taken to the crash

site so they could hand out their business cards to try to get lawsuits against ValuJet. To

me, I was easy on him. He is lucky that all I called him was a pernicious little ferret. But I

mean, where on the food chain does a guy like that fit? There's no bottom. He is right

where he belongs, jail. Good for him. I don't have any compunction about that at all.

Again, keep in mind that I say these sorts of little rants for people who have a public trust.

I don't pick on the little guy; I don't pick on a gas station owner or a grocery store clerk

who is rude to me or something. I never do that. These are people who have put

themselves out there and said, lookit, I'm the best and the brightest; I will do this for you, I

will do that for you, I will represent you fairly, I will be honest, I will not steal. Then they

turn around and do everything they said they weren't going to do to the detriment of

government, the people they are elected to serve, their families and everything else...

...I wrote about this guy... Dimitrio Perez, who is just slime from way back, back

when he was in the city of Miami politics. This guy is a sitting member of the Miami-Dade

school board, and he is getting money from the federal government to run low-income

housing. He is taking a check to subsidize rents for older people, and at the same time,

this one individual, he was going to her every month and shaking her down for, I think it

was, up to $350 a month, when she was supposed to be paying $28 a month rent and









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 28

the rest was paid by the government.... He is shaking her down for extra cash, so he

getting paid twice, by the feds and by the woman who the program was designed to help.

Now, my question is, what can you say about that individual?.... There is no way he is

going to read that column and not feel sick to his stomach if I have anything to say about

it, because it is a shameful and disgraceful thing that he did.... His lie was that he was

just charging the extra money to rent the furniture in the apartment, except the only

problem was she owned the furniture in the apartment.... These are the people running

the school system of Dade County. I think every parent ought to be aware that this is

what they got there. I do not care if Dimitrio breaks down in sobbing, hacking hysteria

when he reads the column. I do not care, frankly, if he throws himself off a building. At

some point, if you put yourself out as a protector and a defender of the public trust and

this is how you behave, your number is up as far as I am concerned. I have no sympathy

whatsoever for him.

P: Where do you get most of your information? Do you ever have insiders?

H: Yeah, sometimes you get tips.... I really just read the paper and watch TV and

just poach liberally and then check with the reporters and watch a story evolving. I have

files of stories that I see evolving over time...They still like me to be on top of the news.

Part of my job description is responding to things that are happening in the news. That is

also because it is a daily paper and you want to be topical.... But I do try to bounce off

what is happening because... your readership level is highest for those stories that are

making people talk. You know, you do not want to do Elian Gonzales to death, but it was

on the front page for months. I had to write a number of columns about Elian Gonzales.

The election fiasco, the recount fiasco, well, I had to bite the bullet after the first couple.









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 29

Even when you knew which way it was headed, you had to do it. You knew the outcome;

you still had to write the pieces. It is being timely and trying to find something original to

say, if you can.

P: Looking back on Elian Gonzales what is your reaction to the story now?

H: The same. I think the outcome was absolutely the only morally-acceptable

outcome. When you have a living parent of a kid, I do not care if he is a communist or

whatever, he is the kid's father. He belongs with his father. Any other civilized society,

there would not have been a question, but he became a pawn [and] he was used

shamefully in this country. He was held up like a bowling trophy and trotted around, look

what we have got, nah-nah, looking at Fidel. Well, the whole world thought this was

insane...give him back to his father, for God sakes. It was not like he was orphaned. If it

had been an American boy who had washed up on Cuba's shore, what do you think

America's reaction would have been? And the other stupid thing was it played right into

Castro's hands. I mean, you could not have scripted it any better for him. He could not

have done anything... else to get half a million people on the streets of Havana... They

were not marching at gunpoint; they were really pissed.... I understood both sides, I

understood their emotions, but right is right, and as a parent and a father, if I would have

been that little kid's father, I would have been just as upset as he was. But looking back,

it divided the community.... But there were a lot of people in this community who felt that

the obvious thing was not being said, and that is he belonged [with his father in Cuba],

because they were scared. There is this fear that if you speak out, and especially if you

are Cuban-American, that you would be persecuted or even worse things happening to

you for agreeing. I heard from a lot of Cuban-Americans on my voice mail at work and









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 30

letters, scared to give their names. It was very sad. You know, they hated Castro as

much as anybody. This is not about Castro; it is about a boy and his father.... I just got

tons of mail from people saying, thank God somebody finally wrote what should have

happened in this case.

P: Who won the presidential election of 2000?

H: Well, I think from the study the Herald did with USA TODAYand others, clearly

the intention of most Florida voters was to vote for Al Gore. Unfortunately, because of the

ballot confusion, I mean, essentially it was lost, it turned out, in Palm Beach County.

Anywhere from 8,000 to 16,000 people, depending on the analysis you read, got

confused, who intended to vote for Gore ended up either voting for both Gore and

Buchanan or botching the ballot in such a way as to making it an illegal or unreadable

ballot. Using the typical standards of judging these ballots, by that measure, Bush would

have won, or did win, but the intent of the voters, just looking at the numbers, clearly was

to elect Al Gore, meaning, of course, he should be in the White House now. But the rules

are the rules, and if your ballot is not proper, you cannot [be counted]...

It was on one level infuriating to watch the Republicans go to the length they did

to prevent ballots from being counted. This is a democracy, after all, and you would think

that the objective would be to include as many voters as possible. But they knew; they

knew the exit polls at the TV networks were not wrong; all three TV networks did not get it

wrong. They were all saying Gore was going to win, and win by several thousand votes,

because that is what these people believed when they walked out of the polls....

Whatever happened, if you are George W. Bush, there are all kinds of reasons to be

extremely humble, not only losing the national vote by half a million votes but knowing









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 31

that the people of Florida did not pick you.

P: And it would have been interesting if the positions had been reversed; both sides

would have taken exactly the opposite arguments.

H: Oh yes, absolutely. And be assured that the Democrats would be doing

everything in their power to stop those votes from being counted. One thing, people are

all upset at the Republicans. I say, don't you think the Democrats would have moved

heaven and earth to save the election for Al Gore if the situation [had been reversed]? Of

course, they would have....

It was a mess, and kind of a dispiriting one, and I guess the only philosophical

thing you can say was that it was always Gore's race to lose, not just in Florida, but

nationally. The other thing you can say is that Ralph Nader, without any doubt, cost Al

Gore the election, without any question whatsoever. In Florida, he certainly did.... Nader

clearly had enough margin of votes, and the election was that close. So, when they start

plopping those oil derricks in the wilderness, the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, they ought to

name one after Nader, because that is why it is happening.

P: Let me ask you about Operation Court Broom? How did this corruption and

bribery in the court system go on so long, and how was it uncovered? Those taking a

bribe included Judge Davis, who said that he could not be blamed for taking a bribe

because he was on drugs.

H: ... There was a whole crew of them. There was a little system going on, and I do

not know how this story broke.... I do know that it went on because, as these things often

unfold, there was a fraternity of judges and attorneys who were friends, and ex-judges

who later became defense attorneys, and it could be done fairly quietly because they









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 32

were all in on it. You know, wink, wink, they all knew, and it was pretty tight-knit.... One of

the reasons it went on so long, obviously, was because, again, the issue of changing

[reporters]. You have a reporter who covers the courts for eighteen months, and he is off

the courts. It would be very tough to break that story. You have to have someone who

has been there a long time and knows all the players, unless you get a real big break.

But, secondly, the reason it went on is because the state attorney's office has always

been a political office; it is an elected office in this town. So they end up as friends or

colleagues or golfing buddies of some of the judges, and there is an incestuous little

thing. Not just in Miami-Dade; it is even more true in some of the rural counties in Florida.

Everybody knows everybody else. You just do not spend much time investigating your

friends.... And that is the function of a newspaper, is you have to light a fire. The sad

thing is that so many of our corruption {cases] down here are made by the federal

government. The FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] comes in or DEA [Drug

Enforcement Agency] or whatever it is, because they are not part of the local political

network....

That is why the federal government has had to take such an active role down

here, because there has been a general reluctance, going back to when Janet Reno was

state attorney, to spend a whole lot of time on public corruption cases. The prosecutor's

position will be, well, the feds have much better laws for that. And they do; they have

RICO (federal anti-racketeering laws), they have conspiracy laws. But you can also make

good conspiracy cases with the state of Florida law... but there is also a general

reluctance and queasiness to go after somebody who contributed to your campaign....

You asked me before about Miami; is it more corrupt than other places? Yes, certainly, I









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 33

think it is. I think there is corruption everywhere, and I think in a state as booming like

Florida, I think greed is going to rule the day in small towns just as it does in cities, but I

think Miami just has a history. It has a particularly bumbling form of corruption. It is

egregious corruption. It is clumsy; it is not sophisticated.... You know, the FBI videotape is

showing, and there is the guy taking the money, and he is giggling like a six-year-old and

then counting the money on videotape. ...[T]here's just no cool to it at all. Instead of just

slipping in their pocket and slipping out the door, they are just idiots. It is great for me, for

my job; it makes it a lot more fun.... I am firmly convinced that it exists everywhere. I think

just the level of it and the sometimes bizarre nature of it is what makes Miami a little bit

special.

P: Yet they continue to re-elect Joe Carollo and Xavier Suarez and all these guys.

H: Yeah, it is really amazing. The other thing is these are folks with absolutely no

charisma.... Alcee Hastings one of our congressmen, was impeached from the federal

judiciary, for God sakes, on corruption charges. He was acquitted in a criminal trial, but a

panel of justices decided he was guilty, they booted him off the federal bench, which

almost never happens, and we put him right back in Congress. Humberto Hernandez,

whom I mentioned earlier, the city commissioner in Miami, they were well-aware of what

he did in the ValuJet crash, the voters were well-aware that he was under investigation

for money- laundering and bank-fraud, and they elected him resoundingly. Now, granted,

the election was fixed, but he still had enough votes....

P: The Miami Port Authority.

H: Oh yes, the port of Miami. Everywhere you go. The airport is an ongoing

scandal.... [T]hey hired this lady from Atlanta who had run Hartsfield Airport to come









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 34

down and clean everything up... a minority applicant, just what they wanted, and the

mayor pitched a fit because he wanted his next-door neighbor to be the airport director.

Mr. I-Hate-Corruption, Mayor Alex Pinellas. Luckily, they overlooked his little objection.

But they just give you so much material. People ask, how long do you want to do the

column? I will do the column as long as they continue to misbehave this way....

P: In the Herald today, they were listing the 100 most lucrative corporations in the

state, and Linar Homes was at the top. I know you wrote about them in Tourist Season

and in several columns. Does this kind of shoddy building still go on?

H: Well, I think they have to be more careful. I am sure it does. We will find out

when the next big hurricane hits, won't we? Linar certainly got their share of press, well-

deserved, after Hurricane Andrew. Other companies did as well, but that is the largest

home-builder. They got mad at me for doing some columns about some stuff they had

done, and then they got caught in another development building houses on, basically,

dump sites, tire dumps.... There is a long history of that kind of behavior in the building

industry in Florida. Presumably, the new building codes will help. Presumably, the

insurance industry is actually going to start paying attention to what kind of homes it

insures now....

P: Well, the adverse publicity has not seemed to hurt the company's bottom line

very much, has it?

H: Not at all, no.... I was told they were unhappy and they were yanking some ads.

Of course, I lost about thirty seconds of sleep over that,... you cannot worry about that

stuff. They were wrong. People's lives were completely disrupted and ruined because

these folks could not build a house that stood up to ninety-mile-an-hour winds.... I'm not









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 35

thinking about them. I'm thinking about the people and their kids who had to tape

garbage bags over the holes in their house and huddle in the rain for three days... after

Hurricane Andrew because they were living in a cracker box and did not know it. Those

are the people that I am writing for....

P: This is off the subject a little bit, but in several of your novels there is a character

Skink where did that character come from? Is it modeled on anybody?

H: No, certainly not modeled on any former governor. In the novels, he is an ex-

governor who goes crazy and goes running into the woods and only comes out to wreak

havoc and seek vengeance. He is just sort of a wild man.... Confronted with the kind of

corruption that really exists, he could not deal with it, fictitiously. I have been asked,

certainly, by ex-governors if they were modeled for Skink, and they wish they were, but,

no, absolutely not. He is the sort of character I wish existed in real life, and it is one of the

great joys of the novel, being able to turn him loose and have him kick some butt.

P: Is he, in a way, your alter ego or conscience?

H: I think in those novels that he appears, if not my conscience, he really is the

moral compass of those novels, and he was never created that way, he just sort of

popped [up]. I needed a kind of a renegade character, and in an early novel called

Double Whammy, I just invented him and modeled him rather loosely on a kid that I had

gone to high school with.... But it [Skink] was just supposed to be around, originally, for a

couple chapters in that book, but he sort of took over. That is what happens sometimes in

fiction. I liked him so much that I brought him back for a couple other books. But I wish

there had been someone like that who had been in the governor's mansion at some

point.









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 36

P: Well, there is a little resemblance to Claude Kirk.

H: Well, maybe physically. But politically... I think Claude is one of the ones who

insists that he is modeled after him one of his many delusions.

P: Let me talk to you a little bit about one of the major topics in your column, the

environment. I wanted to quote to you what Nathaniel Reed [a noted Florida

enviormentalist] said about your writing on the environment: "He takes no prisoners,

whether they are black, white or human. If you are ludicrous, if you are a droll, if you are

an idiot or a bandit, he will either have a great deal of fun with you or he will absolutely

skewer you."

H: That is high flattery from Nat. Nat knows more about the Everglades than any

living human I think I know, so I respect his opinion on it. You know, I'm not a hydrologist

and I'm not a biologist, and I don't know all the intricacies of this program. All I know is

that there is a whole lot of money to be spent on this [Everglades Restoration], and that

means a lot of it is going to get stolen and wasted. That's my concern, that it be spent

doing what the intent of the law is and what the will of the people of Florida wants. It will

never be the same Everglades. The Everglades are now broken up by two different

highways and eaten up by subdivisions on both flanks, so it can't ever be the old

Everglades, but the least they can do is put the fresh water back. If they got any brains at

all, they will. Now, it is complicated. See, I don't pretend to understand it all, and even the

environmental community is periodically at each other's throats....

I have to look at the big picture and sometimes remind people that twelve and

fifteen years ago, nobody gave a rat's ass about the Everglades. You never heard a

politician talk about it, except for Bob Graham. It was not popular. In his first run for









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 37

governor, Jeb Bush had almost nothing to say about the environment or the Everglades.

It's no accident that he got on this bandwagon in a big way, and I give him credit for it. I

don't know whether he cares or doesn't care, but he did get involved. He threw his weight

around in Washington, and he did what he had to do to get it rolling....

The point is we can spend the next fifty years arguing about how much acreage

Big Sugar needs to give up or what the phosphorus levels should be coming into Taylor

Creek, but it has to get rolling, because we do not have a whole lot of time. As the

drought that we are now going through attests, it does not take much to throw the whole

system out of whack and cause incredible upheaval in the wildlife community and in the

demand and supply equation for both coasts... of Florida. I think it is a victory that the bill

got passed. I think it will be a tragedy if people are allowed to loot it and scam it and milk

it the way is inevitably going to happen at some level. I think that somebody has got to

ride herd on it, and it would be a perfectly wonderful legacy for Jeb Bush.... But some

politician needs to get on it, whether it is at the congressional level, to make sure that it

happens and lean on all these people.......it would be very nice to say, yeah, let us get

Big Sugar to pay for fixing up the whole Everglades. Well, there are a couple things

wrong with that. First of all, I will be the first one to say that they treated the place as a

toilet for four years, and it is atrocious what they did to the pine. But they are not

singularly at fault for what the Everglades has become. The problem, for instance, of

what has happened in Florida Bay is a result of the freshwater flowing out of the

Everglades. It can as much be traced to the south Dade avocado farmers and tomato

farmers as it can [to the sugar farmers].... You want to look to blame; look at the people

who developed from West Palm all the way down to Florida City. You are talking about









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 38

massive sucking-up of water from Naples, everywhere. The municipalities and the

government and the politicians who were running them were as much as looting the

Everglades and doing damage as Big Sugar was and everyone else. There is no

shortage of people to blame.... [T]he environmentalists need to understand, you cannot

expect the private sector to pay for all this; they are not going to. Politically, they do not

have a chance against the Fanjuls [Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul, Jr. and Jose "Pepe" Fanjul,

owners of Florida Crystals]. They do not, not a chance....

P: How powerful are the Fanjuls?

H: I think they are powerful to the extent that, you know, as Vanity Fair suggested,

can they affect the presidential recount? Probably not. I think they can suggest lawyers,

but I do not think the Fanjuls are calling the election.... I think they give a lot of money to

Republicans and Democrats, and I think they probably had as much access or more with

Bill Clinton than they do with Bush, and I do not think they are alone. I think all the press

and all the anger about the Everglades has been good. It has certainly straightened them

up a little bit.... I have very little sympathy for the sugar industry, and that goes back to

the virtual slavery in which they held migrant workers for so many years. Their solution to

that instead of upgrading their living conditions was just to bring in machines....

[Sugar] is one of the biggest welfare programs that the American people support,

and they don't even know it. It is huge corporate welfare. Of course, the Fanjuls go nuts

when you use that phrase, but that is exactly what it is. It's a handout; it's a big, fat, juicy

hand-out. The sort of thing that politicians love to scream and yell about if it's some

unwed mother with three kids, they would be raising hell, but if it's two multimillionaires in

Palm Beach, it's okay....









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 39

P: Let me quote Nathaniel Reed again. "Hiaasen, with laughter and a rapier, has

skewered most of the Everglades opponents more than once. He knows how to hurt, and

he knows how to make you cry with laughter." I notice you have applied that rapier wit

quite a few times over the years, specifically to the sugar industry. Although they aren't

the only one, it's very clear that you have had a very strong sense of the violation of the

environment by sugar.

H: I did, and part of it was based on their reaction to the initial... stages of the

Everglades movement... [a] complete disavowal of any responsibility for what had been

done.... Now, they got their thinking adjusted a little bit, they want to be good citizens, but

at first it was complete arrogance. Complete arrogance. It was basically we can do

whatever we want, [so] go screw yourself. At that point, you have to go at them with both

knuckles. A good bit of ridicule is something that they, of course, despise. They would

rather be screeched at than made fun of, so whenever possible... I try to do that.... Every

time I think a brief glint of some sort of conscience..., gee, have I been too tough on

them, all I have to do is pick up the Palm Beach Shiny Sheet, the society pages, and look

at the party rosters for the Fanjul social schedule. Again, this is money that the taxpayers

have stuffed into their pockets to live this kind of a life, so that their crop will get sold at a

guaranteed price and so that crops out of Jamaica and other poor countries that could

use some capital do not get it. I mean, then all the sympathy evaporates in the world.

They are just fine, and I have not hurt them any. But the one thing that they do fear is that

shift in public opinion. They could care less about whether I am making fun of them, but

they do care if the politicians start reacting to calls from constituents who are reacting to

either a column I wrote or a speech Nat gives or whoever gets up and rants and raves....









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 40

P: Big Sugar demonstrated their clout by defeating Amendment Four. Although Nat

Reed and the environmentalists spent a lot of money, a lot of the writers supported

that, in the end they were able to defeat it. How did they do that?

H: TV. It was just a classic counterattacking and misleading TV ads. That will do it

every time. They told people the tax will mean it will cost them more to buy sugar.

They said it was a tax on the consumer, and it was not. It was never going to be

passed along to the consumer. That was a complete lie from the beginning. But if

you say it enough times and you spend enough money... They outspent the

environmental expenditures two or three to one, at least. I do not remember, but

they spent a ton of money on it.

P: They even admit to spending at least $20 [million].

H: At least $20 [million], I am sure. It was an astonishing thing that they did, but that

was to be expected. You knew they were going to come back. You know, that is

part of the system. You could see it coming, and I was not that bitter or

disappointed. I mean, it was disappointing, but what was encouraging was, A, it

had gotten on the referendum, and B, that many people had turned out. And it put

the fear of God into them; it scared the piss out of those people.

P: And Amendment Five passed.

H: Yes, and Amendment Five passed, so it just went to show you that the sentiment

and the will of the people was that someone has to pay for this damage, but we do

not want to pay at the grocery store, which is exactly the kind of misdirection that

these guys specialize in. They won the referendum, but in the end, they did not

win. Public opinion of them is still low, and they know it is low. That is why they are









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 41

doing everything they can to look like they are out there as friends of the alligators,

doing whatever they can.

P: Are environmentalists much stronger today in political and economic terms than

they were ten or fifteen years ago?



H: Yes, absolutely. I do not think you would see Bush backpedaling on all his energy

stuff already and mealy-mouthing about conservation. You know, he has already

shut up about the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, because he does not think he has got

the votes. Yes, I think they are much stronger. Do I think they are organized? Not

as organized as they should be. Are they effective? Sometimes. I mean, I think

some groups are very good and effective. I think that there is so much work to be

done in so many different places in this country, around the world, that it is very

hard to expect them all to be marching to the same drummer or all on the same

page. These are people who care and they are vocal, and it is to be expected that

they are not going to agree on how to fix the Everglades. But at some point,

political expediency has to sink in. I think some of them, to be honest, have

forgotten what it was like fifteen years ago when you got laughed at when you

talked about endangered alligators. Alligators were an endangered species; they

forget about that. When you talk about the fact that politicians would not devote a

paragraph of a speech when they were running for governor to any kind of

conservation measures, and now you have battles going on, almost in every part

of the coastline of the state where development is taking place, over these issues.

It has made environmentalists out of the meek and mild electorate that normally









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 42

would not even show up at a city council meeting or a zoning board meeting.

Republican, Democrat, it does not matter; it is a quality-of-life issue, and I always

tell people that. Here in the Keys, it is a big issue. If you make this as ugly as

Hialeah, Florida, then your tourism is going to reflect that; it is going to go down,

and everyone suffers. Then if you start talking in terms of, oh yeah, you are right;

gosh, if the reefs die, then the charter boat business dies. It has to come down to

money, ultimately, people's pocketbooks, and then they say, you are right; it is

good economic sense not to destroy the beauty of a place, not to wreck the

ecology of a place like Florida. It is stupid to destroy it, even for a real-estate sale.

There is definitely a bigger price to pay now for some of the most egregious kind of

developments. The battles, they still end up winning most of them, because they

have got the money and they have got the politicians, the development interests,

but the fights are longer and costlier. What has happened is that a lot of the folks

are, like Nat Reed, successful in life; they can afford lawyers, they can afford to

sue, they can afford to tie you up. At some point, some companies say, you know

what, this is not going to be worth it, it is going to be ugly, and we are going to be

in the headlines, and it is going to take a lot of time; let us see if we can change

this and do not do this; reduce the density. These things are happening more and

more. I cannot say I am optimistic because I think the general thrust of most

development is to see a piece of property and envision how many people we can

stick on it, how many people we can cram in there, how many will they let us stick

on it, shoehorn in? I think that is probably never going to change.

P: Well, there is a problem now. I noticed that last year the legislature of Florida









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 43

almost did away with growth-management laws. This year, they took money out of

Preservation 2000. In Washington, the oil barons are now in charge of the energy

policy. That looks like a movement that is going to undermine the

environmentalists, does it not?



H: Absolutely. It is all very scary. But also, the public is not going to put up with the oil

barons running this country for more than four years. Bush thinks he can scare

people into thinking, just let me have my way and gas prices are going to go down.

That is not going to happen in four years, first of all. Second of all, he is being

ripped up left and right by a lot of people for it, and I do not think he can take four

years of that kind of heat. It will be bad in the short-term. You know, he wants to

start oil-drilling up in the panhandle, and his own brother does not want him to do

that. But by the time that gets up and running, he would have to be well into his

second term, and I think what happens is towards the end of about the third year

in office, these people like Bush start saying, I do not want to rile anybody, and all

of a sudden these ideas kind of shrink away again. So, I am not sure it is going to

go that far, and I think that people are pretty hip to the fact that Dick Cheney is

running the country, and Dick Cheney's people are running the country. I would be

very surprised if, at the present rate he is going, George W. Bush has any shot of

winning Florida again, especially now that we got the new voting machines

coming. But I think you are going to see, and you are seeing, that this kind of stuff

galvanized and unified the environmental movement. There is big money in the

environmental movement right now. There are a lot of people with money, and









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 44

they will tie him up in knots. They will spend money on counter-advertising, and

they will do things that little Georgie cannot imagine. The public appetite for this,

his constituency for these kind of policies, [is] basically the western states only.

There is no constituency in the east for it. California heat [referring to the energy

crisis in California] is a lost cause. He has got the western block of states, and,

frankly, most people do not live out there. He cannot afford to alienate the rest of

the country to please Texas and the western bloc states. And, these things take

time, these great changes that he wants. Again, it is going to start getting closer to

his second term, and he is going to be catching flak left and right. I do not know. I

am hopeful that the opposition will have made a [what?]. Already, he is showing

signs of queasiness about some of this stuff. Somebody has gotten to him and

said, look, you are getting creamed. In terms of what our legislature is doing, you

know, we just have a bunch of...they are pathetic. Every year, they try to get away

with more and more stuff. This is where it is so important to have strong editorial

positions, strong columns, just good strong vigilant journalists who are watching,

because so much of what happens in Tallahassee is done secretly and you find

out after the fact. Looting Preservation 2000 is just the beginning, I imagine. You

have a couple of real jokers who are positions of strong power in the [Florida]

House and the [Florida] Senate, and this stuff is kind of dull day-to-day stuff that it

is hard to voters and readers interested in until it is something that appears in front

of them that the change affects their life so directly, either visually or some other

way, that then they are mad, then they want to raise a ruckus; by then, it is

sometimes too late, so it is a challenge to keep people worked up about it.









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 45

P: If you look at the last day of the session and all the stuff they added, the debate

over the [State University System's Board of] Regents, the Democrats were given

fifteen minutes not even that, five minutes or something to discuss that bill. I

mean, they pushed through a tremendous amount, and I do not know if we know

yet some of the details in that.

H: No, we do not.

P: Let me just ask a couple of questions, and then I will let you go. I was very

intrigued by your book Team Rodent. What persuaded you to write that book, and

I am sure Michael Eisner [CEO of Disney] loved it.

H: No, he did not. Random House had this little series of books they were going to do

for a Library of Contemporary Thought, [and] they called me and said, we are

trying to get a bunch of writers on board for this; anything you want to just rant and

rave about, a short little book, think about it, just anything that ticks you off that you

have not written that much about. So, I said yeah, I could write about Disney,

because I think they have had a tremendous impact on Florida, but I think they

have also had a huge sort of financial and cultural and every way impact on

American society. It is their philosophy that their way is the only way and the best

way. I see Disney World as a metaphor for all of it, because of what happened in

Central Florida, the phoniness of all of it, the fatuousness of it. The idea of putting

this theme park, which I will be the first to admit is just an incredible technical

achievement, in a place that could be anywhere. I mean, the fact is you could be

anywhere. Disney World could be in Omaha, Nebraska, because it is so insulated

and so alien to the true Florida experience, and that is, for someone who cares









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 46

about Florida, a source of some resentment. They transformed the tourist

economy of Florida, and they certainly turned Central Florida into a parking lot,

and a tacky one at that. It has a lot of impact. You know, I am one of these people

who the few times I had to cover stories there and I have had to go up there

enough times that I devoutly hope I never have to go back again. It was just a

good subject to ruminate on because, you know, they took the same philosophy

that they applied in Florida, and now it is Times Square. They went to what had

been the slimiest place in urban America to clean it up. It was just interesting, and

I had written enough about them in news stories and the columns about stuff that

happened. You mentioned about hypocrisy. That was one of the underlying

themes in that novel, is that how they act and how they present themselves and

how they really behave as a corporate citizen are two different things. Since then,

the horror stories I have gotten from employees. I mean, there are many, many

books that have been done, and there are many more to be done about what

Disney is really like. But that was really an old, old-fashioned essay form, small

paper, a pamphleteer sort of thing, and it was fun to do; it was a good riff and free-

wheeling...

P: I was interested in the building of this utopian community. I know you are aware

that most of the building was shoddy and had to be repaired, and they of course

took no responsibility whatsoever for that.

H: No.

P: They are not really good citizens, are they?

H: Not in my view, no. They are just like any other big company. What is interesting,









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 47

the subdivision what is the name of their dream community to show you how

they have captured, and successfully captured, the American myth, people go

there and see it as a tourist [attraction]. It is a subdivision, and the tourists stop

there and wonder around expecting to see, what, Mickey and Goofy playing in the

yards. I do not know, but it is such a problem that the people who really live there

have these signs in the yards that tell people, this is not a tourist exhibit, we live

here, please do not come into our house. Because you had people walking in.

That is what I mean. It is truly more about illusion than about the reality. For the

employees, certainly, it is a different world. When they get involved in lawsuits,

they are a big, bare-knuckled hard-ass company. The one I mentioned in there

was the security guards, rent-a-cops, that they use...chased him off the property

and had a car accident, this kid, and the family just trying to find out what

happened had to go through hell and back. And, of course, for the longest time,

the judges up in Central Florida did whatever Disney wanted them to do. They

really do have their own government, their own fiefdom. Extraordinary autonomy.

P: Reedy Creek.

H: Reedy Creek, yes. It is really an amazing thing to see basically the entire state

system of law-and-order and government, judiciary, everything, roll over for one

company, and that is what happened when Disney came to Florida. They have not

had such luck other places, thank God. The Virginia theme park thing...

P: They lost badly there.

H: Yes, they did.

P: They have more lawyers than anybody else.









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 48

H: Yes, they do. Yeah, it was just a fun thing to do, and it was made more fun by the

fact that it was the same company that was doing Eisner's autobiography. That

made it even more humorous for me and not so humorous for him.

P: I understand he denied he read it but had told them he did not like it.

H: Yeah. He sent a note to my editor [being] critical of it, so if he had not read it, I do

not know how he could make the criticism. He had uncommon knowledge of what

was in it for someone who had not read it. He was on NPR [National Public Radio]

I wish I had heard that interview. He is not known for his sense of humor. Let us

put it like that. He is not famous for his sense of humor.

P: You will be interested to know I gave that book to Glenda Hood, who is the mayor

of Orlando. She had not read it and was quite intrigued by it, about what was in it.

H: Yeah, that will make her day.

P: She ought to know, right?

H: I would say, absolutely.

P: Let me sort of conclude with a couple of broad-based questions. I realize you are

still in the middle of your career, but when you look back on your time as a

journalist and as a writer, what would you think would be your greatest contribution

to your community and the state?

H: I do not know. I mean, I honestly do not know. I would like to think I was really just

another voice that raised the awareness of the public to certain issues. Really, if

nothing else, I think the columns have served as a signal to, I hope, lots of readers

and people living in the community, that it is all right to get up and say what you

think. We live in South Florida, a place where lots of people are scared to get up









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 49

and say what they think; they are scared to stand up and make a statement. They

are really worried, and that is intolerable. So when you write a strong column,

suddenly people realize that it is okay to have strong opinions. This is what

America is all about, and it is good to remind them of that. I think that is some

value, that I take comfort in knowing that people might be less afraid to take a

stand because they see it can be done without any dire consequences. In terms

of, I do not know, legacy, newspaper work is all transitory. I hope the novels are

read. It would be lovely if they are read fifty years from now and people laugh and

say, hey, I know what he was talking about, the way John MacDonald's are read

now, and maybe they will still laugh and they will still see some relevance to some

of the issues.

P: The condominiums.

H: Yeah. In terms of the newspaper work, I probably am most proud of a project we

did that stopped a couple huge big condo projects up on Card Sound Road in

north Key Largo, where they were going to turn that into basically a huge city of

condos and apartments. Card Sound Road, or County Road 905, is a beautiful

stretch of north Key Largo that they were perfectly prepared to rape and pillage

until we wrote about them. Brian Duffy and I did a series about it, and it was all

being done quite improperly and illegally and eventually all collapsed. The state

has bought a lot of that property now and it is still under protection, but every time I

make that little drive, instead of taking the Jewfish Creek exit out at the key, I go

up Card Sound Road, just because it is still green and it is still living, for the most









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 50

part, hardwood hammock up there. A lot of that is destined for destruction, so I

feel good that [I was able to help save it]. I mean, we did not single-handedly stop

it, but it was the classic example, you put on the front page and people have to

pay attention, as reluctant as they are to go against the banks and developers.

There was so much wrong with it, and it had been approved so casually and

hastily that everybody had to get involved, and it eventually fell apart, which was

good. It wasn't glamorous, we did not put anybody in jail, but it was really the last

stand of...

P: Plus, you did stop a McDonald's here.

H: I do not know if I did. The people got together and did it.

P: Well, but it demonstrates that it can be done.

H: Oh, absolutely. They are still trying to get it in, by the way. They are still trying to

get that through. But, no, that was a case of people just showing up, and that is

what I mean; that is what gives you some hope, is when you have people who

care about their neighborhood, and you have a bus stop and the little kids playing.

They say they are going to put in a McDonald's the last thing you need in

Islamorada, Florida, is another fast food joint. It is an anathema. A lot of folks felt

that way and they made a difference, and that is the lesson you try to teach

people. I am just one person writing a column that may or may not be on-the-

money, but if it is your life and involves your kids and your family and equality of

life, if you turn out in enough numbers, you are going to intimidate the politician

into listening to you; otherwise, you are not going to be heard, and that is the sad

truth, is you are not going to be heard unless you show up. And to the extent that









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 51

the columns get people riled up enough to make them show up, then I feel good

about it. I do not take a credit for it, but I feel good about it.

P: How many papers do you appear in?

H: I do not know. It just depends. I mean, the columns are syndicated, but the column

is strictly about Florida or South Florida. It probably is very limited. Then the

national columns, I guess there are a few, but nothing like Dave Barry or anything.

But I never know, because they have a choice of running them or not running

them. It is around the country. I get letters from all around the country.

P: One reason for your success might be that your ripostes are not caustic, and they

are tinged with a sense of humor so that, although you make a strong statement,

you do not appear to be too judgmental. Is that a fair assessment?

H: That is a charitable assessment. I think that some of the targets of the columns

would argue with that. I mean, there are times when I am very judgmental, I think,

when what has happened is so obvious that it is an insult to the intelligence of the

readers to presume that they do not know something [about] how things work. But

I think what I do try to do is limit the scope of the column to some individual thing,

an action, a vote, something that was done that was wrong that needs to be fixed.

You know, I do not think you want to do a broadside; I think you want to be

specific. And I certainly do not have any trouble saying something laudatory about

Jeb Bush or whomever when they have taken a courageous stand on something,

what I perceive to be courageous or out of political character for them. By the

same token, I do not have any qualms about kicking them in the knees when I

think they have really sold the citizens down the river on something. But you have









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 52

to have that ability, I mean, if you are going to be tough on them for doing

something you think is wrong, you also have to be fair; when they do something

that took some courage, you have to be able to say that, too, and I have done that

many times. Not as often as I would like, because I have not seen evidence of it as

often as I would like. Generally speaking, these things unfold predictably, and the

pattern of behavior has been going on for a long time. So, you are so delighted

when somebody suddenly goes against the grain Democrat or Republican, it

does not matter and does something that you do not expect and say, lookit, here

is where we draw the line and we are not going to do this anymore. That you are

so elated that you have to mention it. That is the extent of the fairness.

P: But people do not see you as an ideologue like Rush Limbaugh [conservative

media pundit] or Pat Buchanan [former Nixon aide and co-host of CNN's Crossfire]

or anybody like that, do they?

H: I would hope not. No, because I think it is vital to have the ability to, as I said

before, I would be uncomfortable knowing, for instance, if a Democrat or

Republican liked everything I wrote. I mean, you have to be, and I have said it

before, an equal-opportunity son of a bitch that is my job. I have to be able to

write about...it would not matter: party, liberal or conservative. It does not matter.

Wrong is wrong, right is right, and, presumably, you are writing the column

because you have a strong sense about that, strong feelings and positions about

what is right and what is wrong, and, presumably, that is why they gave you a

newspaper column. It does not mean you cannot be an ideologue because, you

know, it is all well and good to say that we have this disastrous Republican









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 53

legislature right now, and they are pretty bad, but you could go back and look at a

lot of Democratic legislatures and see the money that was looted and pillaged and

handed out to friends and sold. A lot of what happened to the most precious parts

of Florida, a lot of the raping and destruction, went on [during] a Democratic watch,

too. So, one can hardly sit here and say, oh yeah, the Democrats are great

environmentalists in Florida. That is a crock. Here in the Keys, for example, most

of the most outspoken environmentalists are Republicans. So, these

generalizations, you always have to be mindful of that. God, you would hate to be

anything as predictable as Rush Limbaugh or any of these guys. I mean, they are

so boring. The whole idea is to be able to react as independently. You can be just

as ornery, but you cannot put labels on. I mean, right is right and wrong is wrong.

You see good being done by people who are not always behaving that way, and

you still have to say, this was a good thing he did, he put his neck on the line, but it

was okay. Even if it kills you and you know that, deep down, the guy is morally a

wretch, you still have to say, that took a little bit of courage, and give him credit for

it. That is the only way. You got to reward them for something. You cannot be on

them all the time.

P: But you always have to be sort of a curmudgeon, do you not?

H: I think you do. I do not think you want to be friends with them. Part of it is the role

that you see yourself different. People have different visions of a newspaper

column. Some are very comfortable writing about walking their dog or a funny

thing that happened at the supermarket. That has never been my style. There are

places for those kinds of columns in newspapers, but my mission has always been









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 54

to get out there, mix it up and be right in the middle of it and be on top of the news.

You are going to get enemies, you are going to get flak, but to be relevant and

germane and topical and all that means getting off the fence. And some days are

better than others; some days you wrestle. Not everything is black and white, and

some days you struggle and you do not really know what is going on behind the

scenes, why is he acting this way? Every column is a risk to that extent. But my

experience has been, it is much riskier to say something nice about a politician

than it is to say something tough, because, by and large, sadly, they will disappoint

you if you invest the hope that they are the guys in the white hats, or the women in

the white hats. Something you learn as a reporter long before you start the column

is that when you go into writing about any situation, nobody is all good, nobody is

all evil, and you have to take everything with a grain of salt. I mean, I remember

vividly sitting down in Marathon, Florida, with the captain of the marine patrol who

had, I thought, courageously gone in and pointed out to the prosecutor a drug

case that he thought had been fixed, a big boatload of marijuana, I mean, five tons

of grass had been plea-bargained down to misdemeanor possession of five grams

or less, in like a week. He gave me all the names, and, sure enough, it panned out

into a very good story. Very suspicious how did this case get knocked down to

nothing? Obviously, somebody got to pay. I thought, well, this guy was ballsy for

doing this to me. It was part of a series we were working about drug corruption in

Key West. So we did the [story]. It was not a year later he was arrested for taking

money from a smuggler for misdirecting marine patrol surveillance on another side

of an island so that a drug boat could come in on one way. He had the ability to









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 55

make that phone call and get them out of the way, and it was all on tape, him

doing this. All been set up. Here, it was just a classic example of, gee, I thought he

was a good guy, I thought he was one of the guys in the white hats, and he was

not. The case against him was eventually dropped, because the warrant was faulty

where they had put the bug in. It was thrown out later by a judge, so he is off the

marine patrol, but he never went to jail for it. But the fact is his voice was clear as

a bell on tape. There he is, a guy that I thought... So you learn early on that

everybody has an agenda and that everybody is human and that there are not any

superheroes. You got to be ready to write whatever you have to write about

whomever you have to write about, good or bad.

P: One final question, then. What do you want to accomplish in the future?



H: I cannot answer that question. The only thing I want to do is to keep writing

columns that mean something, about things that are important. When that

becomes impossible to do, for whatever reason, then I stop. I think as a writer you

are really just trying to stay afloat. If you are realistic, you do not have any grand

ambitions beyond that next sentence you are trying to write. You want every

sentence to be better than the last one that you wrote, and as a novelist, that is

what you do. Even as a columnist, you want every column to be better than your

last column. You are at the mercy of the headlines and the events of the day, of

editors. I mean, it is all you can do to bang the damn thing out and get 700 cogent

words into the newspaper. Most days, you are grateful, you are delighted, when

that happens. If you are a realist, you do not think in terms of making a difference;









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 56

you think in terms of doing a good job, writing the best thing you can write, and

then it is up to the readers and voters and citizens to decide how they want to

react. That is all you can do. You are not proselytizing, you are not preaching, you

are not running a pep-rally. All you are doing, this is me, it is my opinion only, take

it or leave it, but here is what is happening and here is why it is important to you. If

that lights a fire under people, then you are blessed. If it does not, then you suck it

in and you try it next time. But that is all. It really is just keeping afloat and trying

not to lose your love of the language and your skills and your sharpness. You

know, I do not have any grand ambition except to keep the same sort of level of

honesty up. I always joke around with my editor at the Herald. I say, look, when

the day comes when I turn in a column about something funny that started growing

in my garden the other day, I just want you to come up behind me and put a bullet

in my head and drag me away from my desk, because it is over. I think the thing

you cannot and do not want to do ever in my job is get mellow. I think that would

be the end. I have seen writers who mellow out and chill out and say, oh, it is okay.

I think staying angry is the most important thing to do if you write the kind of things

I write. Even the humor, it all comes from anger. I mean, satire has always come

from a sense of anger and injustice. Mark Twain, [Jonathan] Swift, whoever was

writing it, they were all writing about something very serious and something that

really upset them, and they were making people laugh at the same time a tough

thing to do. But [when] you lose that anger and you get a little too passive and

mellowed out, then you are of no use at all to the readers, in my opinion, at least in

my job.









FNP 55 Hiaasen page 57

P: That is great. On that note, I will end the interview, and I thank you for your time.

H: Thank you.

[End of Interview.]









CARL HIAASEN


Carl Hiaasen, a native Floridian, started writing his trademark verbally-cutting
columns for the University of Florida student newspaper. After a stint at Cocoa Today
newspaper (now Florida Today), he joined the Miami Herald in 1976. He served as a
member of the investigative team at the Herald and also wrote for the Sunday
magazine before switching to the Metro section as a regular columnist. He has won
numerous awards for his take on corrupt politicians, overeager land developers, and
illegal business practices. The columns were compiled by Diane Stevenson in the book
Kick Ass (University Press of Florida, 1999). Hiaasen has also had wildly successful
novels, including Tourist Season, Skin Tight, Double Whammy, and Sick Puppy. Author
Tony Hillerman calls Hiaasen "the Mark Twain of the crime novel" and Donald Westlake
says "Hiassen is so good he ought to be illegal." His fame extends to the musical world,
where he has been immortalized in song by Warren Zevon, who put two Hiaasen-
authored tracks on the album Mutineer, and by Jimmy Buffett, who based his song "The
Ballad of Skip Wiley" on Hiaasen's Tourist Season.


Carl Hiaasen was interviewed by Julian Pleasants on May 21, 2001, in

Islamorada, Florida.The interview begins with Mr. Hiaasen's memories of journalism

school at the University of Florida and his experiences writing for the student

newspaper. He also discusses the differences between being an investigative reporter

and a columnist, drawing from his experiences at the Miami Herald. He reserves

particular contempt for the problem of the corporate mentality that he feels plagues

newspapers today. He also addresses some of his favorite topics from his writings,

including the environment, Walt Disney World, Elian Gonzales and the 2000

presidential election. He also talks about what makes a good reporter and shares his

thoughts on what his greatest contribution to journalism is, now and in the future.



P: Talk about your time at the University of Florida and your journalism studies.

H: Well, I had transferred there in the fall of 1973 from Emory University, where I

was an English literature major. I had wanted badly to get into the journalism program. I









knew I wanted to go into newspapers at the time, and Emory did not have a journalism

program. Florida had one with a good reputation, and so I transferred there. I started

doing some columns for the Alligator, political, kind of satirical columns.... I don't know if

the columns at that time would have qualified as journalism, but they appeared on the

Op Ed page a couple times a week in the Independent Alligator. That was coinciding

with my immersion in the journalism curriculum for the first time. It was, I think, the best

move I have ever made, in terms of being right-off-the-bat inspired. I think I started out

having some bizarre notion that I wanted to write for television, and I was taking some

broadcasting classes the first semester. I also had a writing class with Jean Chance....

At the end of it, I remember she took me aside and said, you really do not want to go

into broadcasting; you will be frustrated, you will not really get to write what you want to

write, and you are really better suited for newspaper work. Of course, she was right....

So I took her advice, and it was the best thing I ever did, I think.

P: What impact did Buddy Davis have on your career?



H: He was tremendous. I don't know anybody in the business who [had] Buddy

Davis [and] wasn't profoundly affected by working with him. Opinion writing was the

course I think that's what it was called at the time.... With Buddy, what he taught you

was, if you are going to have the audacity to write an opinion piece, editorial column,

whatever it happened to be, you better get off the fence, you better write what you say,

you better have a target and say what you need to have, what needs to be done to fix

the problem you are writing about, and hit home, have your research and your facts

right. I mean, he was a stickler. Of course, all of us remember the brutal experience.









You would submit your piece of writing to Buddy, and he graded it. You would get back

a cassette.... It was Buddy giving you an oral grade.... You had to sit there... and listen

to this cassette where Buddy would just sort of [give] a running monologue, a running

critique, of your editorial piece that you had written. At the very end of it, he would lay

your grade on, you would hear the grade, and... you would be trembling in your chair,

and you would be thrilled as punch if it was anything above a C, you just did cartwheels

on your way out the door. But he drilled it into you. Some kids hated it, and they didn't

make it through there, but that was his whole point, was that if you are serious about

being in the business, you got to be serious about expressing yourself in a way that

people can understand it and backing it up with facts. I think all of us left with an

appreciation for how to be tough....There's nothing to this day more aggravating than to

pick up, all over the country, when I travel, an editorial page and read a newspaper's

editorial on a subject and not have the faintest idea where they stand at the end of the

editorial, and you can tell it was a committee decision and you can tell it was a

committee writing job. You aren't doing anybody any service by that, and that was

Buddy's point, is that this is an important privilege that you have, this opportunity to

address the readers of your publication. You should use it to say what you think and

deal with important issues, and if you can't make up your mind about something, you

[have] no business writing about it. To this day, a lot of editorial writers have trouble

with that idea, that they don't want the phone to ring in the morning, they don't want the

letters to come in. I think Buddy would tell them what he told all of us: you are getting

into the wrong business. Go do something else.

P: You have never had that problem.









H: Well, you know, it's not easy. I mean, I have always been opinionated, and

there's a lot about what is going on in Florida that always angered me. I never had any

trouble finding the energy or the enthusiasm or the emotion to write, but there's a very

specific discipline that goes with that and some people don't have it. You can have all

the right passion in the world and all the right feelings in the world, but if you can't

express yourself or you can't win people over or at least get your idea across in a way

that they understand, then it all goes to waste. But that is true for almost all kinds of

writing. I mean, a novelist who cannot keep readers turning the page, he may be as

gifted as it comes in the use of the English language and descriptive abilities and his

imagination, but if you can't tell a story, you're out of business. It's the same with writing

a newspaper story.... Gene Miller, the great reporter for the Herald who won two

Pulitzer Prizes and who I had the privilege of working with on a number of projects,..

always liked to say, there are no bad stories, there are just bad reporters who cannot

write the stories. That's hyperbole, but his point was, if you do the work, you can turn

almost anything into a readable piece, something that reaches out to the readers who

ought to be concerned about it.... Now, you are competing with the Internet and you are

competing with a jillion cable TV channels, you are competing with all kinds of printed

media, magazines that you did not have to worry about. Newspapers should be more

interesting now than they were. They should be better written and more creatively put

together now than they were twenty-five or thirty years ago, and they are not.... They

are dumbed down. That was their solution to the competition, was to make it dumber,

and they are missing quite a bit, in my opinion.

P: Talk a little bit about your experience on the Alligator. I wanted to read one









quotation from you about that experience: "Writing columns for the Alligatorwas a piece

of cake. We had Nixon in the White House. Each day provided a wonderful new

atrocity. It was a splendid opportunity for a columnist to learn the value of contempt,

ridicule, and satire. It gave me a pile of newspaper clippings that continue to scare the

hell out of editors years later."

H: It did. I was in an unusual position, because I had never worked really as a

reporter. I was just in college, and I was writing these opinion columns that they were

printing. Of course, my idea was that I could go right out of college and be a columnist,

which is absurd and would have been the worst thing in the world for me, but because

the columns were well-received in Gainesville and the university, I thought about it. I

still think some of them are pretty funny, but, again, the material was priceless. It was

like shooting fish in a barrel. You had [Henry] Kissinger [Nixon's national security

advisor and Secretary of State]. You had the charade of the peace negotiations going

on and [the] bombing [of] Cambodia. Then you had, of course, Watergate, which is

what got a lot of us into the business to begin with.... [In 1974] Richard Nixon is

resigning after Watergate, after the third-rate burglary that nobody was supposed to pay

attention to. It was an extraordinary time to be at that age in America, with the war

grinding down and there were still kids being killed, and coming out of the era of

assassinations of Bobby Kennedy [JFK's brother and U.S. Attorney General;

Democratic candidate for president in 1968 at the time of his death], Martin Luther King,

Jr. [civil rights leader], and John F. Kennedy [U.S. president 1960-1963]. You had all

that happening. Kent State was still fresh in everybody's mind. It was a very dynamic

time, and it was a good time to be writing edgy, irreverent, satirical, and sometimes









sophomoric stuff. There was an audience for it, there was an appetite for it, and

certainly the way a lot of the country plugged into a lot of the cynicism that was

inevitable in that time. I mean, we had a crook in the White House. It does not get any

worse than that. We had a guy who was ordering and approving and paying for

burglaries and breaking into people's psychiatrist's offices [a reference to Daniel

Ellsberg, the Pentagon analyst who leaked the famed Pentagon Papers regarding the

Vietnam War]. You know, it makes you laugh years later when you hear these droolers

get up and talk about what an evil person Bill Clinton was and comparing that whole

thing to Watergate. It is absurd. These people must have been under a rock during

Watergate. We are talking about high crimes in Watergate, the destruction of

incriminating evidence, the eighteen-minute gap on the tape. Every day, there was

something new....

To me, it [satire] seemed a natural voice to write in. It was the way I looked at the

world, the way I saw what was happening. It seemed to me perfectly reasonable. Satire,

and sometimes a kind of lacerating form of satire, was the perfectly natural way to go at

corruption and evil and the misdeeds of politics and all that. But there were people it

made very uncomfortable, very nervous. I like to think it was all the things that Buddy

Davis taught us and others at [journalism] school, that you have this great privilege and

you have this responsibility, the least you can do is say what you think and take the flak

for it, take the heat for it. There are always going to be people who just disagree with

you, but there is no sin in disagreement and there is no sin in getting people talking

about something controversial. Even when I started the column at the Herald, there was

a high degree of nervousness about it.... I wasn't always a nice guy, especially if you









were caught with your hand in the piggybank and you were a politician, you know, your

day was ruined if you read one of my columns about you, and they were not used to

that. It made them nervous for the first couple years, I think....

But I remember in Gainesville, the first few columns, Randy Bellows was my

editor... and he stood up for me, but there was a degree of, well, isn't this a little tough,

isn't this a little nasty? To me, it was always simple. If they did not like it and they did

not want to run it, I was not going force it....

P: Did you ever have any pressure from the University of Florida administration?

H: No. ... I would hear things, that they did not like certain things, but I never got any

pressure. I would have welcomed it, of course,... because it would not have bothered

me. You always like to think that you are hitting some sort of target. You hate to think

you are firing into a vacuum. Honestly, and this is going to sound really odd, I really

tried to work hard at making the columns funny, so that even if people did not

necessarily agree with me, the humor was there. That is because it is a very hard thing

to be funny about serious subjects, it is one of the toughest things you can do, but I

enjoyed making people laugh. That is certainly the same motivation for the novels, is

that I enjoyed seeing [people] entertained by something I wrote. That was the biggest

high I had ever experienced, walking around that campus and having people I never

knew, professors, people I did not know, stop me and saying they liked the column I

wrote. It just knocked me on my butt every time somebody said they had even read

it....it was such a big high, to be told that something made them laugh. Still, to this day,

those are the best letters I get...[and] my favorite columns are the ones that are funny

as well as poignant....









P: You apparently developed your writing style very early.

H: Yeah, I guess. Again, I tell people it isn't so much a style as it is my voice, the

honest voice that I go through life with. It is the same, very similar to the narrative voice

of the heroes and heroines of the novels I write. It is the way I look at the world. It is

very hard for me to divorce myself, even in fiction, from my point of view about certain

things. It is so strong. At a very, very young age, I held very strong points of view, right

or wrong. It seemed to me it is such a natural way for me to do it. It is not a stretch. It is

not something I had to work at.

The most difficult time after I got out of school...[was when] I got on the

investigations team, where, of course, you are heavily-edited and heavily-lawyered.

Every shred of subjectivity is beaten out of that work, and it has to be, because you are

dealing with many cases, [with] high libel potential. You are dealing with serious

allegations against people.... You are disciplined and trained to take yourself out of

every sentence in that story. Your point of view should be the last thing that hits the

readers, but you should still be able to make a strong point. So I went from that

experience for a couple of years, where it was almost a clinical detachment. You could

be in even the worst scandal and your adrenaline was going, because you knew you

were onto something if it was a particular level of corruption or you had a good story or

something, but when you sat down to write, you wrote with the view that they are not

going to know anything about how I feel. Then you go from that to saying, how would

you like to try a column? It is like having handcuffs cut off.... It is a completely different

muscle that you are using when you are writing opinion, as opposed to writing

investigations, or magazine pieces even.









So... the biggest adjustment, was that I had been away from it for so long... I got

out of school in 1974 and I started the column in 1985, so it was like eleven years I had

not done that kind of writing. ...[A] t that point, I was about halfway into Tourist Season,

which is the first novel I tackled on my own.... The hero of that novel was this deranged

newspaper columnist. Everyone thought that I had modeled it on myself, but the truth

was... I modeled myself after Skip Wiley [character from Hiaasen's Tourist Season], not

the other way around. But that was a hard thing, because it was just all of a sudden,

okay, it is a completely different job, ... we want you to do this column, we want you to

say exactly what you think about things, and if you raise a little hell, fine.... that was

what the pitch was. Then when it started happening, everybody got a little, ooh, not that

much hell. But that did not last. [T]hey got used to it....

Any time you sit down and say, I think I am going to write something funny, it is

the hardest thing in the world. I think if you spoke with Dave Barry [syndicated humor

columnist], who is a good friend of mine and one of the funniest guys on the planet, and

funny in person as well, he is also the hardest-working guy I have ever known, and he

agonizes and bleeds over every line. Almost anybody can write narrative, straight

narrative, or, in the case of newspapers, can cover an event competently and make it

fairly interesting, but if you say, I am going to set out to be funny, and not just funny but

currently funny, topically funny, sharp, it is hard to do. It is very easy to fall flat on your

face.... It is the most challenging, I think, kind of opinion writing to do....

P: There is a very fine line between satire and cynicism. How do you draw that line?

H: ... people... say, well,... you are such a cynic. I say... a true cynic is a person

who does not think there is any hope, and if I were a true cynic, I would not be wasting









my breath, or all those dead trees that we publish the Miami Herald with, to bother

putting a column in the paper. As long as there is a tiny little spark of outrage out there

somewhere in the public waiting to be kindled into something bigger, then you got to

keep writing. A cynic is someone, I think, who gives up, says to hell with it. There isn't a

day that goes by, especially living down here in the Keys and watching it change as

radically as it has, where I don't think to myself, this is a lost cause, it is time to bail out,

or it is time to bail out of Florida; we are not getting better, we are getting worse. All it

takes is watching the legislature in session, and you get that stomach-churning feeling

that it is all a lost cause. But then you also see things happening. In the letters I get

from folks all over the state who are standing up finally and saying, we have had it with

this stuff and we are not going to let them get away with it here.... They may lose most

of the battles, but they will win every now and then. And then what do you do? Do you

walk away from those folks and say, to hell with it, quit trying? No, you cannot do that.

So, I do not see myself as a cynic. Certainly, satire has a cynical note to it. When you

hear a politician give the most cockamamie story to explain something atrocious that

they have done, he would look at the columnist and say, you are just being cynical, and

I say, no, I am being skeptical. After this many years, I would hope that I have some

kind of instinct for when somebody is lying. That is one thing, people say journalists are

so cynical. They are not cynical necessarily; they are skeptical, because they have

spent most of their careers being lied to. That is a fact. That is what we do, day in and

day out. We go to the mayor and we say, why did your friend get this contract, and he

says, it is just a coincidence. That is a lie. Now the newspapers and the reporters can't

call it a lie, but I can certainly in a column cast grave doubt on the veracity of that









statement. If you get your facts right and you dig in a little bit, a lot of times it is just a

question of connecting the dots, I call it for the reader.... I say, I will show you how it

happened; follow the ball. And then it turns out to be right....

You are nuts if you aren't skeptical, but I don't see it as saying, well, the whole

country is corrupt. I think there is a huge, especially in the state of Florida, I call it this

great engine of greed that has always been a dominating force in Florida. But the

interesting thing that happens with that is the momentum builds to develop and exploit

every square-foot of this place, because it is a gorgeous and a very unique state... Well,

I cannot walk away from it. That is what a cynic would do, just walk away.

P: Many critics say that journalists have abdicated their responsibility. William

Greider argued that reporters were often good on the facts, but weak on the truth.

H: Absolutely. I could not agree more. But I do not think it is anything new. I think

reporters today are more astute than they were fifty or sixty years ago. They are more

intrepid than they were. They are more dogged. They are better educated.... Very good

on the facts, but very weak on the truth.

There is this fraternity that develops.... The best reporting about the White House

generally ends up being done by people who do not have the White House as a beat.

The White House reporters in the Washington Post did not break the Watergate story.

If memory serves, they were somewhat resentful of these two city-side reporters

[Woodward and Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story]....

[Those]... who get elected to office for the most part are likeable, men and

women both. They are politicians; their job is to be liked, and so it is hard not to like

them. That is why I keep such a distance.... But I do not hang out with them, I do not









fraternize with them, because I never know when I am going to have to write that tough

column about them. Jeb Bush is probably a nice guy; I do not know, and I do not really

want to know. I have to judge him as I judge anybody else. I am proud of the fact that

Lawton Chiles could be just as angry with me one day as he was happy the next by a

certain column and that I managed to piss off everybody at one time or another. It just

means I am doing my job.

... Greider [and] Seymour Hersch [uncovered the My Lai incident in the Vietnam

war] and all these heavy-hitters... came out of a generation where you had a whole

government stitched together on lies, and on a daily basis. They [the government]

would lie to you about how many boys died in Vietnam that day. What more despicable

lie is there than that, that Johnson or Nixon or whoever was making? So, naturally, you

have got that [skeptical] attitude. Now it is a much more comfortable life. Although

newspapers are shrinking and people are being laid-off and quality is certainly not what

it used to be, the fact is... we are much more a self-absorbed society than we were in

the 1960s and even in the 1950s, I think. Now it is much more celebrity-driven.... you

pick up the paper and you can find much more news about Madonna [pop singer] than

you will ever find about the Nobel Prize winner for science or for genetics or... for the

cancer treatments. That is the public appetite.

I am not sure that the blame goes entirely to journalists for that, but I do think

there are plenty of important things that are not covered well. This is going to sound like

a typical reporter. I do not lay it on the reporters so much as I do on the editors and the

management of newspapers, because good investigative reporting costs money, and

many, many times you get to the bottom and you have a dry hole. You have spent









thousands of dollars, and you have got nothing to put in the paper, and there are not

any newspapers today that are willing to eat that kind of expense. Their solution has

been in many cases to disband the investigative team or poach from it to the extent that

they do not have the same number of full-time reporters. I think these decisions are

trickling down, and then you take the steam and the heart [out] of the reporters

themselves if you do not let them go out and do their jobs.

P: Has the Miami Herald done that?

H: To some extent, although the great thing about being in Miami is that the news

will not let you do that; the news will not let you abdicate that responsibility, because

one scandal is on the heels of another scandal all the time. You cannot ignore it, you

have to dispatch resources morally, you have to do it. There are places that do not

have the bizarre and constant news flow that we have, where it is very easy to just

forget about your investigative team and you have them pulled off to cover this and

cover that daily stuff. Here, we could have an investigative team ten times as large as

we do now, and they would all be busy. My view is that we have way too few people

doing this kind of work. But they will never be able to shut it down, because the nature

of news and the preponderance of corruption down here just will not let them....



We went through the happy face of newspapering for awhile, what we used to

call Jell-O Journalism, soft journalism, because it is easy. Nobody writes you any letters

- here is the mayor cutting a ribbon, here are the kids on the first day of school. Instead

of putting hard news in the paper, you take it softer. But we went through our phase of

that, we certainly did, at the Herald. Readers did not like it, despite what they said in the









focus groups.... What people say they want to read and what they read are two

different things. We went through a period where we went from having a Pulitzer Prize-

winning crime reporter, Edward Buchanan, and extensive and exhaustive crime

coverage. To be fair, we had an enormously high murder rate back in those days. We

went through a period where it was perceived that we had too much crime. The

Chamber of Commerce was [saying], we are scaring people off, we are overblowing the

crime, we are exaggerating it. As any company can do, they found some focus groups

of alleged readers who told them that.... so we went to this phase where crime was not

covered as thoroughly. And guess what? The next group of focus groups said, what

happened to all your police coverage? Then we scrambled back the other direction....

By ignoring it [crime], we are not doing anybody a favor, we are not defending anybody.

What we are doing is we are depriving them of information that they are going to turn

on Channel 7 and see. It is stupid, and they finally figured that out, but we went through

that phase all newspapers did, I think of, oh gee, we are just bringing people down

in the morning with all this. Well, guess what? Crime is now down. Homicides are way

down in Miami. The attention brought results. Why are we writing about the tourists

getting mugged and killed as they leave Miami International Airport this is not good for

tourism. Well, it is even worse for the tourists getting mugged and killed, okay? And

guess what, now those crimes are down....

Those decisions are not made by reporters. Those decisions are made by editors

and above. I do not know of any reporters who would not salivate at the chance to go

after the big story...instead of being yanked off to go cover a craft show... Most

reporters just hate that stuff; good reporters do. They would much rather be out digging









through records and following up leads that come in. I mean, there are a lot of readers

who are concerned. Those are the ones we are out there digging for, not for our own

glory, because nobody remembers the bylines; nobody remembers who writes these

stories. It is folly to think that. It all goes into the birdcage, for God sakes.

P: That is an interesting point. What makes a good reporter?

H: To some extent what makes a good cop, too. A good instinct for when something

does not look right, does not fit right, does not sound right. A story just does not hold

up. Secondly, an unfailing instinct for when you are being misled or lied to. Third, and

probably most importantly, a real strong sense in what is right and what is wrong, that

when somebody does something wrong, who is in a position of public trust, it should go

in the newspaper. It is that simple. Let the readers decide whether it is worth throwing

him out of office or not.... I think the good reporters just never get enough information.

The fun of it is just digging, digging, digging, but it is also a sense of knowing when

something is being withheld that belongs in the public forum...- nothing gets a good

journalist going with more energy than the idea that somebody is covering something

up.... You are not out there for yourself. The big high, the kick I always got, was

knowing I had gotten hold of something, knowing they hated the idea that I got a hold of

it and they were going to get to read all about it on the front page on Sunday.... The by-

line did not matter. It was just the idea that you cannot keep the truth from people, and

as much as you want to try, we are going to put it in the paper, and they can deal with it.

P: But the problem is partly what you mentioned earlier haven't a lot of these

reporters been co-opted? Has the media really protected democracy? I would imagine

Thomas Jefferson would be very disappointed in today's press.









H: Oh yeah, but I think the press has always disappointed people. I do not think that

is anything new. I think they are much less co-opted today than they were in Jefferson's

era, to be honest with you.... I also think that the disease is not being co-opted so much

as it is being dispirited, to the point of laziness sometimes.... You know, you go where

the facts lead you, and if you have to go crawling and begging and groveling, which is

what pretty much it is at most newspapers now, to go to some very simple and not

extravagant thing just to get what you need, that will take it out of you. What happens

then is that you... assume, you... start self-editing I do not want to go after that, they

will never let me go chase that story and the result is that good stories do not get

written.... [For[ the vigorous free press in this country today, the big enemy is Wall

Street, or the big enemy is the corporations that own these newspapers, who are now

putting out newspapers for shareholders [and] not for readers, who are much more

concerned with pleasing the stockholders than they are with meeting the real day-to-

day needs of readers.... So, these papers are being shrunk by attrition. They are getting

thinner.... All this is being done without telling the readers, and they are just not

supposed to notice that there is nobody covering the city council meeting for a few

weeks because... somebody quit, and they are not going to replace them to save

money.... Meanwhile, something is not covered and somebody gets away with

something and somebody's community is worse off for the fact that we are too cheap to

keep a full payroll. It is absolutely the truth of the Miami Herald, and it is true probably to

every paper in the country, if they are going to be honest about it. So that is a much

greater danger to people's need to know than whether the reporters are too cozy. The

source of the problem is real simple: there are not enough reporters, and there are not









enough good reporters. The pool is shrinking, not growing, because newspapers are

shrinking. That is a far more disturbing thing to me. You know, you have a corporate

culture now existent in many newsrooms that was never there when I started. I mean,

you never heard about the business side. You never heard from the advertisers. It

never got down to you if you pissed off an advertiser, and if it did, that was no big deal.

That was your job. Now it is much different.... Everybody in the newsroom is painfully

aware of what the circulation numbers show... because they get posted... I never knew

what the profit margin of Miami Heraldfor Knight-Ridder was. I knew we made a lot of

money, but I didn't know. Now it is emblazoned in the brain of everybody on every floor

of the paper, that if the Herald does not make its 22, 23 percent, whatever Tony Ridder

[head of Knight-Ridder newspapers] has decreed for this year, we face cutbacks,

layoffs.... You cannot pollute the reporter's mind with these kinds of concerns. You want

him to go out and kick over the rocks and give the people, that community, the most

thorough possible coverage that is available. Yet, you are telling him you can do that,

but do not spend this, do not take this source to lunch, you cannot go to Tallahassee. It

is insane. That is a terrifically scary thing, but it is nothing new. Papers have always

been cheap.

P: But 22 percent, that is a pretty good return. They should have a little extra money

to...

H: He [Tony Ridder] wants 25 percent this year. It is absurd. I always tell people, I

mean, I know heroin dealers who would be thrilled with that kind of profit-margin. It is

completely obscene. It is unrealistic. It will have a devastating effect on the quality of

the journalism that is being produced, because it means getting rid of older experienced









people to whom they can afford to offer buy-out packages. It is very sad, and it is short-

sighted. And it is not by any means unique to Knight-Ridder. The L. A. Times is going

through it. Gannett has been famous for it for years. Gannett was the pioneer of

journalism on the cheap. You know, I worked for Al Neuharth right out of college.

P: Talk a little bit about your experiences with Cocoa and Al Neuharth.



H: I remember I graduated in March of 1974, and I think my first day was March 21,

if I am not mistaken, 1974, COCOA TODAY, which was the precursor of USA TODAY

It was the tenth anniversary, if I am not mistaken, of the founding of that newspaper, or

some anniversary of it, and I just happened to arrive that day. Al Neuharth had

assembled everybody in the press room for a big pep-talk and congratulatory speech. I

am sitting there, and no sooner has he gotten started than he launches into an attack

on one of the reporters, on, specifically, a series that had been done called,

"Confessions of a Used Car Salesman," which I had seen. The most recent installment

had been sent to me. It was fascinating stuff, these guys telling how they dolled up

these wrecks and were able to get people to buy them. They put sugar in the tank and

did all this horrible stuff to make it sound good for a minute, and then they would sell

them. It was great stuff, and it was also filled with comments of horror and contempt by

honest car dealers who said, we would never do that. It was a very balanced series....

Well, the Used Car Association of Brevard County, or whatever the hell they called

themselves, had raised some hell and in their outrage had pulled some ads. Al was on

a roll about how one-sided he thought the series was, a little too strong, a little too

tough on everybody. Well, he never had the balls to come out and say it was because









they pulled some ads.... I thought, this is my first day in the real world of journalism, and

I have got the publisher of this newspaper chewing out a reporter for doing his job.... So

much for theory; so much for idealism.... [Y]ou talk about separating the ethical barriers

between the newsroom and the business side. Neuharth lived on the beach in a big

fancy house, and at the time he had just married a state senator named Lori Wilson.

They lived...on Cocoa Beach, and there was some setback in zoning issues that the

neighbors had raised about what Al was doing with the property. We dutifully...were

writing about it. I was working on a Friday, I think,... and a story was due to run that

somebody had dug up....[T]here was a possibility Al was going to be cited for building

below the setback line on the beach, which was a big environmental thing up there at

the time. I will never forget, he called in from wherever he was traveling, and he had the

story read to him word-for-word over the phone, and he said, what is the headline going

to be? And he rewrote the headline himself. A complete violation. That is like having

Nixon write the headline on the Watergate stories that you want to read. But he was the

boss. There was a great deal of dissension and demoralization at the newspaper

because of this. He was meddling in the story; he should have sat back and taken his

lumps.... The whole newsroom was just appalled that he would do this sort of thing. It

was hard on the editors. I felt bad for them. They get the call, and what are they going

to do? That is their boss; are they going to tell him to go pound salt? They would be out

of a job....Management, it may be, is not the enemy, but they are not necessarily your

friends either, and they are not necessarily committed in the way that reporters and

front-line editors are to putting out a complete and thorough and balanced newspaper.

P: Then there is a lot of hypocrisy.









H: A terrific amount of hypocrisy, and I would go so far as saying, in some cases,

corruption. I do not mean criminal corruption, but there is certainly a corruption of the

unspoken bond between the readers and the newspaper. We will always serve you first

- that is just plain bullshit. If we believed that, we would not be laying people off right

now at the Miami Herald. We would not be trying to buy out people and get them out of

there. We barely have enough photographers to cover the day-to-day news, and they

want to lay off four more now. That is not what a newspaper in a big, dynamic, growing

community does for its readers. It is basically the same as cutting your police force in

the middle of a crime wave. That is basically what we are doing. But believe me, we are

not alone; it is going on everywhere..., so I am not singling out Knight-Ridder.... We

should not even pretend that we are working hard for you, the reader. We are working

hard to make that 25 percent for Tony Ridder, is what it boils down to, and the

shareholders, so that he does not get yelled at, at the next shareholder's meeting.... We

are not really doing journalism here; this is a franchise operation, and our job is to make

money, and you got to understand that. And, by the way, we will put something on your

front lawn every morning; some days it is going to be better than others, some days it is

going to be real good, and some days it is going to be disgraceful, it will be so thin. At

least be honest with them, say, lookit, we are getting hammered from corporate

headquarters, [and] that is why the paper is getting thinner. It is not because there is

less news happening, folks; it is because we are printing less of it than we ever have.

P: What is your view of USA TODAY? Is that the wave of the future?

H: No. Everyone said that.... I do not think it is. I think it is great for what it is.... I

read it when I can on airplanes.... But I think most readers are sophisticated enough to









know that you are just getting little M&M bites of news, and if you really want to know

what is going on in the Mideast, you do not look it up in USA TODAY. You go to the

New York Times and the Washington Post. Having said that, I also have to note that

probably eight out of every ten readers, that is all they really want to know about the

Mideast....I do not think it is the wave of the future, but I do not think the future is all that

bright either.... USA TODAY.. has gotten better, I think, over the years, the quality of

the writing. They break stories....

P: They do some investigative journalism.

H: They do, and they have gotten a hell of a lot better than when they first started.

But I know everybody, all of us, went to color weather pages. That was our answer. Let

us make the weather map almost real life-size, and that will show readers we really care

about them. It is expensive putting all that color in the paper, and the same number of

people looked at the weather page who looked at it before. So they abandoned that.... I

think there are plenty of times when shorter is good...[but] I think there are a lot of times

that... the only way to distinguish us from the broadcast media and from the thinner

newspapers and magazines, is to be able to do what they call interpretive journalism....

A good paper can deliver something that TV, radio and the Internet cannot give you;

depth and insight and basic investigative stuff cannot be duplicated by TV or radio... to

the devastating effect that it can have in a newspaper. So... that is really our only trump

card over these other media. One thing we can do that they cannot do is depth. More

and more papers are shrinking away from depth let us just be just like radio, only let

us be it in print. It is insane... [and] they wonder why nobody is picking up circulation,

why advertising is flat. Well, there are a lot of complicated reasons. One of the reasons









is, we are not offering people anything they are not getting anywhere else. We are

failing in that regard.

The best newspapers, the ones that are making tons of money, are spending

tons of money on the product. They are going through down-cycles now because of the

economy, but the fact is the New York Times remains a highly profitable newspaper,

the Washington Post, a highly profitable newspaper, and also at the same time high-

quality, and they spend a fortune covering the world. You know, we close all our

bureaus outside of the United States, we do all this great cost- cutting, and then we

wonder, gee, I wonder why our circulation is flat.... If it were Coke and Pepsi, they would

be finding ways of getting more people to use their product and not just putting less

syrup into the soda. But that is what we do in the newspaper business....

P: Talk a little bit about your experience with COCOA TODAY.

H: ... I was there about two and half years and I had a great time. It was a great

learning-ground. I was very lucky to be surrounded by some talented people....

So... the good thing about a small paper is, if you got a little bit of ambition and a little bit

of talent, they will let you try and do almost everything, which I did. They had a little

Sunday magazine, and I worked for that. All kinds of different stuff. I would get a crazy

feature idea, and it was, why not, try it. There was not the level of bureaucracy that you

get at a bigger paper where you have to go through all these channels just to try anything

new. That was the good part. I think the part I did not like was it was small town, and it

did a lot of small-town stuff that drove me crazy.... I guess the thing I was left with was, I

did not realize going into it the level of turnover. When you have a smaller paper like that,

you have a lot of people on their way to somewhere else, and I was included. I always









hated for those [small papers], losing these talented people to the St.Pete Times or the

Herald or the Orlando Sentinel. That's where I was educated to the fact that this is a

business of high turnover, and people leave.... The only way to make any money was to

change jobs, honestly. When you are getting $7.50 a week raises and told that is good,

people with families, you know, you are not going to hang in there.... I understand that

people move around, and the same thing, of course, happens here at the Herald on a

bigger scale. In the twenty-five years I have been here, if you just took the people who

walked out the door to the Washington Post, to the New York Times, or Time magazine

or Newsweek or L. A., you would have an extraordinary staff of talent... A certain amount

of it is inevitable, that kind of change, but it is hard, because just when someone would

get to know a community or get to know a beat, someone who was covering Cocoa

Beach, just when you finally nail it down, you get moved to another beat, or they leave....

But the readers... are not really aware that a whole re-education process now has to

begin. Where you start sometimes with a rookie or sometimes with just a new reporter

now, you have to learn who is who, who are the players. Every time you change a beat, it

sets the level of coverage back in the community. The result is a lot of smaller

communities are not covered very well....

P: Why have you stayed with the Miami Herald for twenty-five years? Did you ever

have a desire to go anywhere else?

H: No, I did not. I had some opportunities, but I did not. First of all, I could not see

myself living anywhere else. This is where I was born and raised. Florida is really, it just is

a character in the novels, it is a character in my life. It is very hard to walk away from this

place for any length of time, even as much as it has changed and as heartbreaking as it









has been to watch some of the change..... The only other paper that I would even have

considered would have been the St. Pete Times, and I was not all that terrifically

enamored of the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. I mean, it is okay, but I much prefer down

here. It is a fine newspaper; it is a hell of a newspaper. On any given day, it is probably

the best newspaper in the state, and we are on any given day, too, but it is certainly neck-

and-neck with us. People at the Herald cringe to hear that, but it happens to be the

truth...

...after about two years at COCOA, the Herald called me up because I had won

second place in some national award. So they called up and said, do you want to come

down for an interview, and I said, yeah. I will never forget, I was such a smartass. They

said, do you want to fill out an application? I said no. I said, I filled out an application two

years ago in college. I said, I have not been anywhere, and it is in your files; I will be

happy to come down, [but] I am not doing another one. To their credit, they still had me

come down, but I was so pissed off because... I had never gotten a letter back for the first

one, and so I said screw them.... Two things changed my mind. One is that I had a young

family, and it was a lot more money than I was making or would ever make at COCOA....

Then second of all, my father had just passed away, and my mom was alone. My sisters

were at college, my younger brother was getting ready to go to college, and I just thought

it would better if I would be around for my mom.... It was much better for me, I think, for a

lot of reasons to be writing about a place I cared about and at least had some roots....

For me, it was a place I knew from childhood, so the learning curve was not nearly as

steep for me.

P: So one of the critical factors eventually was that you got your own column?









H: ...[W]hen you join a paper, they always say, what do you have [for] long-range

plans, and I had written down, just whimsically almost, some day I would like to write a

column again; I wrote one in college.... I did not actively go look for the column.... I [had]

been on the investigations team.... We just finished up a long investigation in the

Bahamas. It was very grueling, about corruption involving the prime minister, and I had

been away from home a lot. I was just fried; I was burned out for the time being. Not on

all of it, but you always have a postpartum period after you spend a lot of months on

something and you finally get it all in the paper in the space of a week or six days... Then

Heath Merriweather, who was a friend [and] who was the executive editor at the time,

came to me and said, would you be interested in taking a shot at doing the column.... It

was one thing I had not done at the paper. It was one of the few things, writing jobs I had

not had, and I said, yeah, I will give it a shot.... Then, once I got comfortable in the voice

and comfortable doing that length doing the same length every column, which was

another discipline I had to learn what I found happened was, and I had no intention of

making this a long-range thing, but what I found was, you do get a sort of emotional

connection with your readers, and the mail you get, a sense that they start looking for

your column, they expect you to be responding and writing about certain things to get

them angry....

All of a sudden, you feel like it is your duty. It sounds odd, that is the last thing I

expected. I go through periods all the time when I say, to hell with it; I do not want to do it

anymore. I am tired, I cannot do that and the books at the same time. But then you get

this mail, and people seem to really depend on you in the morning over their breakfast

cereal to at least say what they have been thinking and ranting and raving about. Part of









it gratifies your ego, but part of it is also [and] I told them this, the only way I would ever

leave is if I thought there was someone else with as strong a voice about especially the

environmental stuff that I feel strongly about.... You know, I always feel like if I go, no

one is going to do this. Not that I do it exceptionally well, but there will not be anybody

doing it, because our pattern is, we are not replacing people who leave.

Then before you know it, the years pile up and you are doing it, and the longer

you do it, the harder it is to walk away from it. ... I certainly do not need to do it anymore.

It is not a financial decision on my part. I have been so ridiculously lucky with the books. I

have just been blessed with being able to do the novels and enjoy some success with

that, but I do the column because it is important. I do the books because it is therapy. It is

therapy for me, and it is fun. It is different. It is a very challenging kind of writing, to sit

down and construct a whole novel. You have to use up a lot more tricks in your bag to do

a novel. But the column is important because you write it, and it is in the paper the next

day, and you are responding to something hopefully fairly quickly, shining a little spotlight

on this one thing before it gets too far in the legislature, too far with the county

commissioner, before somebody's life is messed up because they do something stupid or

somebody is sitting in jail who should not be in jail....

So, the immediacy of it, that this adrenaline rush of jumping on a big story still is

there. I think if it wasn't there, I wouldn't do it. I'm saying all of this, [but] six months from

now, I could bag it. I don't know. For me, the tough part is going to be keeping the loyalty

to the paper going while they are shoving good people out the door... there is almost a

point of a moral line in the sand that you have to draw. This isn't affecting my life at all. I

still get my paycheck and they are still happy to get my column, but these are people I









have worked with for years, good people who do not deserve to be treated this way. At

some point, you say, I cannot sit by and watch this happen. I hope it does not come to

that, but that would be one of the deciding factors, not anything to do with my own

personal life.

P: In your columns, I have been particularly interested in your descriptions of

politicians pernicious little ferret, worthless blowhard, and my personal favorite, a

veritable slag-heap of mediocrity. Do you get a lot of pressure from editors to modify your

comments or phone calls from the maligned?

H: I think I used to get the occasional cringing phone call saying, gee, do we really

have to say that? And I would say, look what he did. Yeah, but he is going to be on the

phone tomorrow. Let him be on the phone tomorrow so what? I do not relish or take

any joy in knowing, I mean, these are folks with wives and husbands and kids, and I take

it very seriously. As frivolous or as whimsical as some of those names sound, those are

applied to individuals who did some really bad stuff and whose actions affected people.

To me, they were perfectly accurate descriptions. But yeah, they get queasy about it.

Readers love it. I do not hear much from the politicians themselves, because they are

always afraid if they write to me I will put that in the column too.....



But in the case of, like, the pernicious little ferret, I think I was referring to

Humberto Hernandez [former Miami city commissioner], who is now in jail for voter-fraud

and for money-laundering and fixing an election. He first came to the public attention

when the ValuJet crash happened in the Everglades. He has a law firm, and he sent

someone in his law firm to infiltrate the busfull of relatives who were taken to the crash









site so they could hand out their business cards to try to get lawsuits against ValuJet. To

me, I was easy on him. He is lucky that all I called him was a pernicious little ferret. But I

mean, where on the food chain does a guy like that fit? There's no bottom. He is right

where he belongs, jail. Good for him. I don't have any compunction about that at all.

Again, keep in mind that I say these sorts of little rants for people who have a public trust.

I don't pick on the little guy; I don't pick on a gas station owner or a grocery store clerk

who is rude to me or something. I never do that. These are people who have put

themselves out there and said, lookit, I'm the best and the brightest; I will do this for you, I

will do that for you, I will represent you fairly, I will be honest, I will not steal. Then they

turn around and do everything they said they weren't going to do to the detriment of

government, the people they are elected to serve, their families and everything else...

...I wrote about this guy... Dimitrio Perez, who is just slime from way back, back

when he was in the city of Miami politics. This guy is a sitting member of the Miami-Dade

school board, and he is getting money from the federal government to run low-income

housing. He is taking a check to subsidize rents for older people, and at the same time,

this one individual, he was going to her every month and shaking her down for, I think it

was, up to $350 a month, when she was supposed to be paying $28 a month rent and

the rest was paid by the government.... He is shaking her down for extra cash, so he

getting paid twice, by the feds and by the woman who the program was designed to help.

Now, my question is, what can you say about that individual?.... There is no way he is

going to read that column and not feel sick to his stomach if I have anything to say about

it, because it is a shameful and disgraceful thing that he did.... His lie was that he was

just charging the extra money to rent the furniture in the apartment, except the only









problem was she owned the furniture in the apartment.... These are the people running

the school system of Dade County. I think every parent ought to be aware that this is

what they got there. I do not care if Dimitrio breaks down in sobbing, hacking hysteria

when he reads the column. I do not care, frankly, if he throws himself off a building. At

some point, if you put yourself out as a protector and a defender of the public trust and

this is how you behave, your number is up as far as I am concerned. I have no sympathy

whatsoever for him.

P: Where do you get most of your information? Do you ever have insiders?

H: Yeah, sometimes you get tips.... I really just read the paper and watch TV and

just poach liberally and then check with the reporters and watch a story evolving. I have

files of stories that I see evolving over time...They still like me to be on top of the news.

Part of my job description is responding to things that are happening in the news. That is

also because it is a daily paper and you want to be topical.... But I do try to bounce off

what is happening because... your readership level is highest for those stories that are

making people talk. You know, you do not want to do Elian Gonzales to death, but it was

on the front page for months. I had to write a number of columns about Elian Gonzales.

The election fiasco, the recount fiasco, well, I had to bite the bullet after the first couple.

Even when you knew which way it was headed, you had to do it. You knew the outcome;

you still had to write the pieces. It is being timely and trying to find something original to

say, if you can.

P: Looking back on Elian Gonzales what is your reaction to the story now?

H: The same. I think the outcome was absolutely the only morally-acceptable

outcome. When you have a living parent of a kid, I do not care if he is a communist or









whatever, he is the kid's father. He belongs with his father. Any other civilized society,

there would not have been a question, but he became a pawn [and] he was used

shamefully in this country. He was held up like a bowling trophy and trotted around, look

what we have got, nah-nah, looking at Fidel. Well, the whole world thought this was

insane...give him back to his father, for God sakes. It was not like he was orphaned. If it

had been an American boy who had washed up on Cuba's shore, what do you think

America's reaction would have been? And the other stupid thing was it played right into

Castro's hands. I mean, you could not have scripted it any better for him. He could not

have done anything... else to get half a million people on the streets of Havana... They

were not marching at gunpoint; they were really pissed.... I understood both sides, I

understood their emotions, but right is right, and as a parent and a father, if I would have

been that little kid's father, I would have been just as upset as he was. But looking back,

it divided the community.... But there were a lot of people in this community who felt that

the obvious thing was not being said, and that is he belonged [with his father in Cuba],

because they were scared. There is this fear that if you speak out, and especially if you

are Cuban-American, that you would be persecuted or even worse things happening to

you for agreeing. I heard from a lot of Cuban-Americans on my voice mail at work and

letters, scared to give their names. It was very sad. You know, they hated Castro as

much as anybody. This is not about Castro; it is about a boy and his father.... I just got

tons of mail from people saying, thank God somebody finally wrote what should have

happened in this case.

P: Who won the presidential election of 2000?

H: Well, I think from the study the Herald did with USA TODAYand others, clearly









the intention of most Florida voters was to vote for Al Gore. Unfortunately, because of the

ballot confusion, I mean, essentially it was lost, it turned out, in Palm Beach County.

Anywhere from 8,000 to 16,000 people, depending on the analysis you read, got

confused, who intended to vote for Gore ended up either voting for both Gore and

Buchanan or botching the ballot in such a way as to making it an illegal or unreadable

ballot. Using the typical standards of judging these ballots, by that measure, Bush would

have won, or did win, but the intent of the voters, just looking at the numbers, clearly was

to elect Al Gore, meaning, of course, he should be in the White House now. But the rules

are the rules, and if your ballot is not proper, you cannot [be counted]...

It was on one level infuriating to watch the Republicans go to the length they did

to prevent ballots from being counted. This is a democracy, after all, and you would think

that the objective would be to include as many voters as possible. But they knew; they

knew the exit polls at the TV networks were not wrong; all three TV networks did not get it

wrong. They were all saying Gore was going to win, and win by several thousand votes,

because that is what these people believed when they walked out of the polls....

Whatever happened, if you are George W. Bush, there are all kinds of reasons to be

extremely humble, not only losing the national vote by half a million votes but knowing

that the people of Florida did not pick you.

P: And it would have been interesting if the positions had been reversed; both sides

would have taken exactly the opposite arguments.

H: Oh yes, absolutely. And be assured that the Democrats would be doing

everything in their power to stop those votes from being counted. One thing, people are

all upset at the Republicans. I say, don't you think the Democrats would have moved









heaven and earth to save the election for Al Gore if the situation [had been reversed]? Of

course, they would have....

It was a mess, and kind of a dispiriting one, and I guess the only philosophical

thing you can say was that it was always Gore's race to lose, not just in Florida, but

nationally. The other thing you can say is that Ralph Nader, without any doubt, cost Al

Gore the election, without any question whatsoever. In Florida, he certainly did.... Nader

clearly had enough margin of votes, and the election was that close. So, when they start

plopping those oil derricks in the wilderness, the Arctic Refuge in Alaska, they ought to

name one after Nader, because that is why it is happening.

P: Let me ask you about Operation Court Broom? How did this corruption and

bribery in the court system go on so long, and how was it uncovered? Those taking a

bribe included Judge Davis, who said that he could not be blamed for taking a bribe

because he was on drugs.

H: ... There was a whole crew of them. There was a little system going on, and I do

not know how this story broke.... I do know that it went on because, as these things often

unfold, there was a fraternity of judges and attorneys who were friends, and ex-judges

who later became defense attorneys, and it could be done fairly quietly because they

were all in on it. You know, wink, wink, they all knew, and it was pretty tight-knit.... One of

the reasons it went on so long, obviously, was because, again, the issue of changing

[reporters]. You have a reporter who covers the courts for eighteen months, and he is off

the courts. It would be very tough to break that story. You have to have someone who

has been there a long time and knows all the players, unless you get a real big break.

But, secondly, the reason it went on is because the state attorney's office has always









been a political office; it is an elected office in this town. So they end up as friends or

colleagues or golfing buddies of some of the judges, and there is an incestuous little

thing. Not just in Miami-Dade; it is even more true in some of the rural counties in Florida.

Everybody knows everybody else. You just do not spend much time investigating your

friends.... And that is the function of a newspaper, is you have to light a fire. The sad

thing is that so many of our corruption {cases] down here are made by the federal

government. The FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] comes in or DEA [Drug

Enforcement Agency] or whatever it is, because they are not part of the local political

network....

That is why the federal government has had to take such an active role down

here, because there has been a general reluctance, going back to when Janet Reno was

state attorney, to spend a whole lot of time on public corruption cases. The prosecutor's

position will be, well, the feds have much better laws for that. And they do; they have

RICO (federal anti-racketeering laws), they have conspiracy laws. But you can also make

good conspiracy cases with the state of Florida law... but there is also a general

reluctance and queasiness to go after somebody who contributed to your campaign....

You asked me before about Miami; is it more corrupt than other places? Yes, certainly, I

think it is. I think there is corruption everywhere, and I think in a state as booming like

Florida, I think greed is going to rule the day in small towns just as it does in cities, but I

think Miami just has a history. It has a particularly bumbling form of corruption. It is

egregious corruption. It is clumsy; it is not sophisticated.... You know, the FBI videotape is

showing, and there is the guy taking the money, and he is giggling like a six-year-old and

then counting the money on videotape. ...[T]here's just no cool to it at all. Instead of just









slipping in their pocket and slipping out the door, they are just idiots. It is great for me, for

my job; it makes it a lot more fun.... I am firmly convinced that it exists everywhere. I think

just the level of it and the sometimes bizarre nature of it is what makes Miami a little bit

special.

P: Yet they continue to re-elect Joe Carollo and Xavier Suarez and all these guys.

H: Yeah, it is really amazing. The other thing is these are folks with absolutely no

charisma.... Alcee Hastings one of our congressmen, was impeached from the federal

judiciary, for God sakes, on corruption charges. He was acquitted in a criminal trial, but a

panel of justices decided he was guilty, they booted him off the federal bench, which

almost never happens, and we put him right back in Congress. Humberto Hernandez,

whom I mentioned earlier, the city commissioner in Miami, they were well-aware of what

he did in the ValuJet crash, the voters were well-aware that he was under investigation

for money- laundering and bank-fraud, and they elected him resoundingly. Now, granted,

the election was fixed, but he still had enough votes....

P: The Miami Port Authority.

H: Oh yes, the port of Miami. Everywhere you go. The airport is an ongoing

scandal.... [T]hey hired this lady from Atlanta who had run Hartsfield Airport to come

down and clean everything up... a minority applicant, just what they wanted, and the

mayor pitched a fit because he wanted his next-door neighbor to be the airport director.

Mr. I-Hate-Corruption, Mayor Alex Pinellas. Luckily, they overlooked his little objection.

But they just give you so much material. People ask, how long do you want to do the

column? I will do the column as long as they continue to misbehave this way....

P: In the Herald today, they were listing the 100 most lucrative corporations in the









state, and Linar Homes was at the top. I know you wrote about them in Tourist Season

and in several columns. Does this kind of shoddy building still go on?

H: Well, I think they have to be more careful. I am sure it does. We will find out

when the next big hurricane hits, won't we? Linar certainly got their share of press, well-

deserved, after Hurricane Andrew. Other companies did as well, but that is the largest

home-builder. They got mad at me for doing some columns about some stuff they had

done, and then they got caught in another development building houses on, basically,

dump sites, tire dumps.... There is a long history of that kind of behavior in the building

industry in Florida. Presumably, the new building codes will help. Presumably, the

insurance industry is actually going to start paying attention to what kind of homes it

insures now....

P: Well, the adverse publicity has not seemed to hurt the company's bottom line

very much, has it?

H: Not at all, no.... I was told they were unhappy and they were yanking some ads.

Of course, I lost about thirty seconds of sleep over that,... you cannot worry about that

stuff. They were wrong. People's lives were completely disrupted and ruined because

these folks could not build a house that stood up to ninety-mile-an-hour winds.... I'm not

thinking about them. I'm thinking about the people and their kids who had to tape

garbage bags over the holes in their house and huddle in the rain for three days... after

Hurricane Andrew because they were living in a cracker box and did not know it. Those

are the people that I am writing for....

P: This is off the subject a little bit, but in several of your novels there is a character

Skink where did that character come from? Is it modeled on anybody?









H: No, certainly not modeled on any former governor. In the novels, he is an ex-

governor who goes crazy and goes running into the woods and only comes out to wreak

havoc and seek vengeance. He is just sort of a wild man.... Confronted with the kind of

corruption that really exists, he could not deal with it, fictitiously. I have been asked,

certainly, by ex-governors if they were modeled for Skink, and they wish they were, but,

no, absolutely not. He is the sort of character I wish existed in real life, and it is one of the

great joys of the novel, being able to turn him loose and have him kick some butt.

P: Is he, in a way, your alter ego or conscience?

H: I think in those novels that he appears, if not my conscience, he really is the

moral compass of those novels, and he was never created that way, he just sort of

popped [up]. I needed a kind of a renegade character, and in an early novel called

Double Whammy, I just invented him and modeled him rather loosely on a kid that I had

gone to high school with.... But it [Skink] was just supposed to be around, originally, for a

couple chapters in that book, but he sort of took over. That is what happens sometimes in

fiction. I liked him so much that I brought him back for a couple other books. But I wish

there had been someone like that who had been in the governor's mansion at some

point.

P: Well, there is a little resemblance to Claude Kirk.

H: Well, maybe physically. But politically... I think Claude is one of the ones who

insists that he is modeled after him one of his many delusions.

P: Let me talk to you a little bit about one of the major topics in your column, the

environment. I wanted to quote to you what Nathaniel Reed [a noted Florida

enviormentalist] said about your writing on the environment: "He takes no prisoners,









whether they are black, white or human. If you are ludicrous, if you are a droll, if you are

an idiot or a bandit, he will either have a great deal of fun with you or he will absolutely

skewer you."

H: That is high flattery from Nat. Nat knows more about the Everglades than any

living human I think I know, so I respect his opinion on it. You know, I'm not a hydrologist

and I'm not a biologist, and I don't know all the intricacies of this program. All I know is

that there is a whole lot of money to be spent on this [Everglades Restoration], and that

means a lot of it is going to get stolen and wasted. That's my concern, that it be spent

doing what the intent of the law is and what the will of the people of Florida wants. It will

never be the same Everglades. The Everglades are now broken up by two different

highways and eaten up by subdivisions on both flanks, so it can't ever be the old

Everglades, but the least they can do is put the fresh water back. If they got any brains at

all, they will. Now, it is complicated. See, I don't pretend to understand it all, and even the

environmental community is periodically at each other's throats....

I have to look at the big picture and sometimes remind people that twelve and

fifteen years ago, nobody gave a rat's ass about the Everglades. You never heard a

politician talk about it, except for Bob Graham. It was not popular. In his first run for

governor, Jeb Bush had almost nothing to say about the environment or the Everglades.

It's no accident that he got on this bandwagon in a big way, and I give him credit for it. I

don't know whether he cares or doesn't care, but he did get involved. He threw his weight

around in Washington, and he did what he had to do to get it rolling....

The point is we can spend the next fifty years arguing about how much acreage

Big Sugar needs to give up or what the phosphorus levels should be coming into Taylor









Creek, but it has to get rolling, because we do not have a whole lot of time. As the

drought that we are now going through attests, it does not take much to throw the whole

system out of whack and cause incredible upheaval in the wildlife community and in the

demand and supply equation for both coasts... of Florida. I think it is a victory that the bill

got passed. I think it will be a tragedy if people are allowed to loot it and scam it and milk

it the way is inevitably going to happen at some level. I think that somebody has got to

ride herd on it, and it would be a perfectly wonderful legacy for Jeb Bush.... But some

politician needs to get on it, whether it is at the congressional level, to make sure that it

happens and lean on all these people.......it would be very nice to say, yeah, let us get

Big Sugar to pay for fixing up the whole Everglades. Well, there are a couple things

wrong with that. First of all, I will be the first one to say that they treated the place as a

toilet for four years, and it is atrocious what they did to the pine. But they are not

singularly at fault for what the Everglades has become. The problem, for instance, of

what has happened in Florida Bay is a result of the freshwater flowing out of the

Everglades. It can as much be traced to the south Dade avocado farmers and tomato

farmers as it can [to the sugar farmers].... You want to look to blame; look at the people

who developed from West Palm all the way down to Florida City. You are talking about

massive sucking-up of water from Naples, everywhere. The municipalities and the

government and the politicians who were running them were as much as looting the

Everglades and doing damage as Big Sugar was and everyone else. There is no

shortage of people to blame.... [T]he environmentalists need to understand, you cannot

expect the private sector to pay for all this; they are not going to. Politically, they do not

have a chance against the Fanjuls [Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul, Jr. and Jose "Pepe" Fanjul,









owners of Florida Crystals]. They do not, not a chance....

P: How powerful are the Fanjuls?

H: I think they are powerful to the extent that, you know, as Vanity Fair suggested,

can they affect the presidential recount? Probably not. I think they can suggest lawyers,

but I do not think the Fanjuls are calling the election.... I think they give a lot of money to

Republicans and Democrats, and I think they probably had as much access or more with

Bill Clinton than they do with Bush, and I do not think they are alone. I think all the press

and all the anger about the Everglades has been good. It has certainly straightened them

up a little bit.... I have very little sympathy for the sugar industry, and that goes back to

the virtual slavery in which they held migrant workers for so many years. Their solution to

that instead of upgrading their living conditions was just to bring in machines....

[Sugar] is one of the biggest welfare programs that the American people support,

and they don't even know it. It is huge corporate welfare. Of course, the Fanjuls go nuts

when you use that phrase, but that is exactly what it is. It's a handout; it's a big, fat, juicy

hand-out. The sort of thing that politicians love to scream and yell about if it's some

unwed mother with three kids, they would be raising hell, but if it's two multimillionaires in

Palm Beach, it's okay....

P: Let me quote Nathaniel Reed again. "Hiaasen, with laughter and a rapier, has

skewered most of the Everglades opponents more than once. He knows how to hurt, and

he knows how to make you cry with laughter." I notice you have applied that rapier wit

quite a few times over the years, specifically to the sugar industry. Although they aren't

the only one, it's very clear that you have had a very strong sense of the violation of the

environment by sugar.









H: I did, and part of it was based on their reaction to the initial... stages of the

Everglades movement... [a] complete disavowal of any responsibility for what had been

done.... Now, they got their thinking adjusted a little bit, they want to be good citizens, but

at first it was complete arrogance. Complete arrogance. It was basically we can do

whatever we want, [so] go screw yourself. At that point, you have to go at them with both

knuckles. A good bit of ridicule is something that they, of course, despise. They would

rather be screeched at than made fun of, so whenever possible... I try to do that.... Every

time I think a brief glint of some sort of conscience..., gee, have I been too tough on

them, all I have to do is pick up the Palm Beach Shiny Sheet, the society pages, and look

at the party rosters for the Fanjul social schedule. Again, this is money that the taxpayers

have stuffed into their pockets to live this kind of a life, so that their crop will get sold at a

guaranteed price and so that crops out of Jamaica and other poor countries that could

use some capital do not get it. I mean, then all the sympathy evaporates in the world.

They are just fine, and I have not hurt them any. But the one thing that they do fear is that

shift in public opinion. They could care less about whether I am making fun of them, but

they do care if the politicians start reacting to calls from constituents who are reacting to

either a column I wrote or a speech Nat gives or whoever gets up and rants and raves....

P: Big Sugar demonstrated their clout by defeating Amendment Four. Although

Nathaniel Reed and the environmentalists spent a lot of money, in the end Big Sugar was

able to defeat it. How did they do that?

H: TV. It was just a classic counterattacking and misleading TV ads. That will do it

every time. They told people the tax will mean it will cost them more to buy sugar. They

said it was a tax on the consumer, and it was not. It was never going to be passed along









to the consumer. That was a complete lie from the beginning. But if you say it enough

times and you spend enough money... They outspent the environmental expenditures

two or three to one, at least.... They won the referendum, but in the end, they did not win.

Public opinion of them is still low, and they know it is low. That is why they are doing

everything they can to look like they are out there as friends of the alligators, doing

whatever they can.

P: Are environmentalists much stronger today in political and economic terms than

they were ten or fifteen years ago?

H: Yes, absolutely. I do not think you would see [George W.] Bush [President of the

U.S., 2001-} backpedaling on all his energy stuff already and mealy-mouthing about

conservation.... Do I think they are organized? Not as organized as they should be. Are

they effective? Sometimes. I mean, I think some groups are very good and effective. I

think that there is so much work to be done in so many different places in this country,

around the world, that it is very hard to expect them all to be marching to the same

drummer or all on the same page. These are people who care and they are vocal, and it

is to be expected that they are not going to agree on how to fix the Everglades. But at

some point, political expediency has to sink in.... It [development] has made

environmentalists out of the meek and mild electorate that normally would not even show

up at a city council meeting or a zoning board meeting. Republican, Democrat, it does not

matter; it is a quality-of-life issue, and I always tell people that. Here in the Keys, it is a big

issue. If you make this as ugly as Hialeah, Florida, then your tourism is going to reflect

that; it is going to go down, and everyone suffers.... It has to come down to money,

ultimately, people's pocketbooks, and then they say, you are right; it is good economic









sense not to destroy the beauty of a place, not to wreck the ecology of a place like

Florida. It is stupid to destroy it, even for a real-estate sale. There is definitely a bigger

price to pay now for some of the most egregious kind of developments.... At some point,

some companies say, you know what, this is not going to be worth it, it is going to be

ugly, and we are going to be in the headlines, and it is going to take a lot of time; let us

see if we can change this and do not do this; reduce the density. These things are

happening more and more. I cannot say I am optimistic because I think the general thrust

of most development is to see a piece of property and envision how many people... we

can cram in there....

[A]lso, the public is not going to put up with the oil barons running this country for

more than four years. [George W.]Bush thinks he can scare people into thinking, just let

me have my way and gas prices are going to go down. That is not going to happen in four

years.... You know, he wants to start oil-drilling up in the panhandle, and his own brother

[Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida, 1999-}does not want him to do that.... But I think you are

going to see, and you are seeing, that this kind of stuff galvanized and unified the

environmental movement. There is big money in the environmental movement right now.

There are a lot of people with money, and they will tie him up in knots....

Every year, they [the Florida legislature] try to get away with more and more stuff.

This is where it is so important to have strong editorial positions, strong columns, just

good strong vigilant journalists who are watching, because so much of what happens in

Tallahassee is done secretly and you find out after the fact. Looting Preservation 2000 is

just the beginning, I imagine. You have a couple of real jokers who are positions of strong

power in the [Florida] House and the [Florida] Senate, and this stuff is kind of dull day-to-









day stuff that it is hard to get voters and readers interested in until it is something that...

affects their life so directly, either visually or some other way, that then they are mad,

then they want to raise a ruckus; by then, it is sometimes too late, so it is a challenge to

keep people worked up about it....

P: I was very intrigued by your book Team Rodent. What persuaded you to write

that book, and I am sure Michael Eisner [CEO of Disney] loved it.

H: No, he did not. Random House had this little series of books they were going to

do for a Library of Contemporary Thought, [and] they called me and said, we are trying to

get a bunch of writers on board for this; anything you want to just rant and rave about, a

short little book, think about it, just anything that ticks you off that you have not written

that much about. So, I said yeah, I could write about Disney, because I think they have

had a tremendous impact on Florida, but I think they have also had a huge sort of

financial and cultural and every way impact on American society. It is their philosophy

that their way is the only way and the best way. I see Disney World as a metaphor for all

of it, because of what happened in Central Florida, the phoniness of all of it, the

fatuousness of it. The idea of putting this theme park, which I will be the first to admit is

just an incredible technical achievement, in a place that could be anywhere.... [B]ecause

it is so insulated and so alien to the true Florida experience...[it] is, for someone who

cares about Florida, a source of some resentment. They transformed the tourist economy

of Florida, and they certainly turned Central Florida into a parking lot, and a tacky one at

that.... You mentioned about hypocrisy. That was one of the underlying themes in that

novel, is that how they act and how they present themselves and how they really behave

as a corporate citizen are two different things. Since then, the horror stories I have gotten




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