The Saga of Elian Gonzalez: A News Media Riot? - (5/00)
By Ted Marks

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The saga of Elian Gonzalez has been, at the least, a news media free-for-all, and now that the boy has been reunited with his father, it's a good time to consider the damage caused by the coverage of the story. And, frankly, any serious consideration of the mechanics of the story will not result in a ringing endorsement of the performance by the American news media -- because what was essentially a family custody story, was whipped into a political brawl by outside parties with a wide array of axes to grind. The question is: did Elian's story turn into a news media riot as well?

We're not going to spend a lot of time here analyzing all the details of the coverage. It is enough to note that much of the coverage was endless, repetitive, sometimes tasteless and frequently pointless -- and, in any case, far beyond the importance of the young boy's odyssey as the sole survivor of a tragic attempt by his mother and her friends to illegally immigrate to the United States.

Is that too harsh? Perhaps. Perhaps not, too. One tip-off to the performance of the news media has been the stories out of Miami quoting reporters on the scene as saying that they have been disgusted with the job they've had to do. There's not a lot of pride in performance in those reports, and we can understand why.

In any event, we're confident that other serious observers of the American press will eventually come forth with the appropriate critique of the American press' performance in the story of young Elian. It will take time, and it is probably unwise to try to write the definitive critique before the story ends.

Instead, as the story unfolded, and we watched the coverage escalate into media frenzy, we duly noted the most blatant examples of the dreadful coverage. We list below what we view as some of the most egregious offenders of good editorial judgement. In doing so, we herewith establish a dubious citation called the "Stogie" Award -- emblematic of successful endeavors to blow smoke in the field of journalism. It is, perhaps, a cynical way to look at the coverage of the Elian Gonzalez story, but it may be the best way to sum up what has to be, in the end, the cynical exploitation of a very young child.

So we would give "Stogies" to:

The Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez: for their wildly successful efforts to manipulate the American press. The most blatant attempt at manipulation was the video taped statement by young Elian advising his Dad that he didn't want to return to Cuba and that he, his father, should consider staying in the United States. The statement was clearly staged, but the American media played it endlessly as if it was a definitive position statement of a world leader instead of the staged rambling of a six-year-old kid. That videotape was only the tip of the iceberg, however, as the Gonzalez family had the American media literally at its beck and call for nearly six months. The climax to their effort (at least so far as of this writing) came the day after the U.S. government raid when 21-year-old Marisleysis Gonzalez, in Washington, staged a 45 minute tirade, haranguing Bill Clinton, Janet Reno and anyone else who didn't do the bidding a young adolescent.

To the editors at Time and Newsweek who chose to place young Elian on the covers of their magazines time and again. For some reason, one of the key barometers of a national news story in America are the covers of the weekly newsmagazines. When the editors choose a subject for their cover, they are anointing that story as "cover worthy," a judgement which the rest of the news media apparently considers as validation that all the stops should be pulled off their coverage of the story. Unfortunately, the editors at Time and Newsweek are all too often driven by the hype of the cable networks and, more recently, the Internet.

To the News Desk director at CNN on duty the evening of Saturday night, April 22: Whoever was in charge at CNN broke into regular programming (ironically, the program was "Reliable Sources" which happened to be critiquing the news coverage of young Elian) with the "Breaking News" that Lazaro Gonzales and his daughter were driving up to the front gate of Andrews Air Force Base, escorted by New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith. When the CNN anchor threw the live coverage to the CNN correspondent at Andrews Air Force Base, all she could do was to describe what she was watching on the CNN monitor as she was located a half mile inside the gate. It was truly a surreal moment that sharply lowered the standard of a "breaking" news story.

To talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Geraldo Rivera, Chris Matthews and others who beat this story to death in their zeal to use Elian as a tool to achieve their own political objectives.

To Diane Sawyer of ABC News: Diane wangled an "exclusive interview" with young Elian and then proceeded to play paddy cake with the boy, ignoring all the key questions that she should have been asking, but didn't, because of the promises ABC News made to the Gonzalez family to get the interview in the first place.

To Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal who published a commentary after Elian was returned to the custody of his father in which she used his plight to renew her (self-described) "screed" against the presidency of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

To Dan Rather of CBS News: Dan gets a "Stogie" for posing the following question to Juan Miquel Gonzalez (Elian's father) on a special assignment for "Sixty Minutes" (paraphrasing here): "I would like to ask you a serious question, Man to Man: did you weep when you first saw that video tape of your son?" Whenever Dan resorts to his macho theatrics -- which only disparage his genuine journalistic skills -- he ought to don his Afghan disguise so at least his viewers know that Dan is moving into his "La-la" mode.

To Cokie Roberts of ABC news: poor Cokie gets a Stogie for allowing herself to be sent to Miami the day after young Elian was seized so that she could anchor her Sunday morning show in a rickety wooden chair on the side of a dusty Miami street when all the action was taking place up north in her hometown of Washington.

Some will think we're being too hard on the press, and they are probably right. After all, the news media is driven by the interests of its audience and/or readership -- and the coverage of any story reflects that interest. Accordingly we are awarding "public dis-service" Stogies to the politicians and other public institutions that played key roles in blowing smoke to keep this story disproportionately alive:

To Al Gore for his inept political maneuvering in seeming support of the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzales. A close reading of Gore's statement, however, indicated that, as usual, Gore couched his comments on young Elian in sufficiently vague terms so as to cover all his bases later on in the Presidential campaign.

To Bill Clinton: The president gets a Stogie for his almost total lack of leadership in this situation, seemingly allowing Janet Reno to fend for herself in a most unfortunate, if not unlawful, manner.

To Janet Reno: for dithering for months on this case, thereby allowing it to be built up into a hysterical media event. Moreover, there have been legitimate legal questions raised on whether the Attorney General acted within the letter of the law in ordering an armed raid to seize young Elian.

To Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for allowing this incident to explode into a major media event in the first place by turning custody of young Elian over to the Miami relatives who grabbed the political football and turned the boy's fate into an anti-Castro jihad.

To Fidel Castro for his own successful manipulation of the Elian saga into a high profile international controversy, thereby alleviating (temporarily, at least) his own internal political problems.

To the Cuban-American community in Miami, led by Mayor Joe Carollo: the Cuban Americans whipped themselves into an anti-Castro frenzy over young Elian, comparing him to the second coming of Jesus Christ. He's no such thing: he's a six-year-old boy who tragically lost his mother and whom the Cuban American community has traumatized by turning his plight into a media circus in support of their political objectives.

To the Democratic and Republican members of Congress who furiously played this story like a political harp: Prominent mention should go to the aforementioned Bob Smith, as well as Charles Rangel, Sheila Jackson Lee, Barney Frank, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Connie Mack, and other Congressmen and women who were unable to resist the temptation to turn Elian's story into a political football.

Similarly, to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for his use of the Elian story to hammer the Clinton Administration -- and, by extension, Hillary.

And, finally, to Jesse Jackson, who as usual found a way to insert himself into the news coverage of yet another "national" news event. Unfortunately, the news media continues to allow "the Reverend" Jackson to get away with his publicity seeking exploits.

 

Overall, it was not a very pleasing chapter in the history of American journalism. The bottom line to this story is that it centered on the fragile psyche of a six-year-old boy who was thrust into the national spotlight by circumstances beyond his control. That the news media should have subjected the boy to such uncontrolled, intense scrutiny was inexcusable.

If there was any silver lining to this dark, dark cloud enveloping Elian Gonzalez it was that, for the most part, the American public never lost sight of Elian's fragile condition, and most supported his return to his father's custody (whether Elian and his father ultimately return to Cuba is another question).

But if the American people were able to wade through all the smoke surrounding the Elian story, what does that do to the credibility of the news media itself, which fed the frenzy surrounding the young Cuban? It doesn't take too many news media free-for-alls, if not riots, before the news industry loses all its credibility with an increasingly skeptical public.

 

Ted Marks is president of Marks & Frederick Associates, LLC. Want to comment on this article?  Submit your comments to our Elian Gonzalez discussion forum.

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