Back to the "Peaceable" Paradise: Media Soldiers for the Seizure of Elian

1.The news media have deliberately undermined the moral legitimacy of Elian’s Miami relatives specifically and anti-communist Cuban-Americans in general.

imgElian was rescued at sea on November 25, 1999. As the Elian story intensified during the five months of Elian’s residence in Miami, the media crafted unfavorable images of "hard-line" Miami Cuban "zealots" who were excessively ideological, unlike the (unlabeled) liberals and Cuban communists insisting on an allegedly apolitical father-son reunion:

  • Newsweek’s Joseph Contreras and Russell Watson were quick to recycle the communist spin on Miami’s "extremist mafia," writing in the December 20, 1999 issue: "Castro claimed that the boy’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, had been offered $2 million by the ‘extremist Cuban-American mafia’ if he would move to Miami and live there with Elian."

  • CBS reporter Byron Pitts concluded his January 6 Evening News story by putting the burden for harming Elian Gonzalez on those who wish for him to stay in Florida: "Six weeks ago this community embraced a boy who had watched his mother die at sea. Tonight there is fear that embrace has become a choke hold." 

  • NBC’s Katie Couric championed the spin control of "some" people who wanted to suggest Miami was as tyrannical as Cuba, opening the April 3 Today: "Some suggested over the weekend that it’s wrong to expect Elian Gonzalez to live in a place that tolerates no dissent or freedom of political expression. They were talking about Miami. All eyes on south Florida and its image this morning. Another writer this weekend called it ‘an out of control banana republic within America.’ What effect is the Elian Gonzalez story having on perception of Miami? We will talk with a well-known columnist for the Miami Herald about that."

  • ABC’s John Quinones also suggested on the April 4 World News Tonight that anti-communist Cuban-Americans had no tolerance for divergent opinions: "It seems like such a contradiction that Cubans, who profess a love of family and respect for the bond between father and son, would be so willing to separate Elian from his father. But in Miami it’s impossible to overestimate how everything here is colored by a hatred of communism and Fidel Castro. It’s a community with very little tolerance for those who might disagree."

  • Time’s Tim Padgett threw out the old liberal "M" word in the April 10 issue: "ABC at first avoided showing the six-year-old saying he didn’t want to go back to his father in Cuba—a statement that could have been coached. But Armando Gutierrez, the family spokesman and a veteran political operator with a heavy touch of Joe McCarthy in him, angrily accused ABC of reneging on a promise to broadcast that very statement. The next morning, the network aired it."

  • The New York Times headline on April 10 read: "Communism Still Looms as Evil to Miami Cubans. "Apparently, it’s not evil any more at The New York Times.

  • CBS’s Bryant Gumbel took to the soapbox on The Early Show April 14. He asked CBS News consultant Pam Falk: "Cuban-Americans, Ms. Falk, have been quick to point fingers at Castro for exploiting the little boy. Are their actions any less reprehensible?" 

img1That same morning, Gumbel, the man who refused a reporter’s request in May of 1992 to condemn the murderous Los Angeles riots, since "black people are being killed by the handfuls in that area on an ongoing basis, and basically America doesn’t care," pressed Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to condemn Miami protests: "The Cuban-American community has been supporting clear disobedience of the law. How do you justify that?"

(Gumbel’s distaste for Ros-Lehtinen came through much earlier, in a November 30 discussion during "co-op time," when most CBS affiliates are in local news. Gumbel cracked: "I’m amused, as I told you, I mean, if little Elian Gonzalez stops short, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s going to break her nose." His co-host, Jane Clayson, replied: "Yeah, I know. She’s in every shot." Gumbel added: "The congresswoman from Florida. I mean, she is just..." Clayson finished the sentence: "All over him." Gumbel concluded: "Oh, God. I mean, it’’s pretty disgusting.")

  • Newsweek’s Evan Thomas and Joseph Contreras ended their April 17 dispatch by identifying Elian as a martyr for having to endure the grotesque Cuban Americans: "With the right nurturing, Elian Gonzalez may overcome his nightmares, but he has been scarred and prematurely aged, first by losing his mother in a terrifying accident at sea, then by the grotesque spectacle of his martyrdom in Miami."

  • Time’s Nancy Gibbs claimed in the April 17 issue to like the idea of Elian’s father Juan Miguel staying in America: "Republicans would welcome two new voters, the Clinton Administration would celebrate the rule of law, and the Cuban expatriate community in Miami would put to rest the impression that they fled one totalitarian state only to set up a satellite version across the Florida Straits. No one would be asked to choose between freedom and love." 

After noting Elian’s father thought the Miami relatives "had paraded his son in the streets and fed him to Diane Sawyer," Gibbs returned to moral equivalence: "The great challenge for Juan Miguel was that he was caught between a government with its own authoritarian rules and a family that was making them up as it went along...The law may not be on their side, but loads of local and national politicians—even a mutinous Vice President Al Gore—are." She also quipped that "Robinson Crusoe did not have the misfortune of washing ashore in a swing state."

img2Time’s Tim Padgett began his April 17 article with insults: "The ‘banana republic’ label sticking to Miami in the final throes of the Elian Gonzalez crisis is a source of snide humor for most Americans. But many younger Cuban Americans are getting tired of the hard-line anti-Castro operatives who have helped manufacture that stereotype—especially the privileged, imperious elite who set themselves up as a pueblo sufrido, a suffering people, as martyred as black slaves and Holocaust Jews, but ever ready to jump on expensive speedboats to reclaim huge family estates the moment the old communist dictator stops breathing." 

Like Gibbs, Padgett claimed "the older hard-liners despite their protestations of U.S. patriotism, are still steeped in the authoritarian political culture that existed in Cuba long before Castro took power in 1959." He concluded by rooting for anti-communism’s decline: "As for liberating Cuba, the hard-liners have, in a perverse way, always been Castro’s friends. ‘The belligerent actions of the hard-line exiles in Miami simply keep giving Castro an excuse to crack down on us,’ says dissident leader Elizardo Sanchez. Post-Castro Cuba, he insists will be government by moderates, not right-wing exiles. The same, perhaps, may someday be said of Miami."

     After the raid, the Little Havana-bashing critiques didn’t slow down:

  • Newsweek’s Evan Thomas attacked the paranoia of the Miami relatives on Inside Washington the evening after the raid: "The Miami family is just obsessed with the idea that it had to be in Miami. They were afraid that if they went to Washington—this is literally what they were afraid of—that Elian would be put in the trunk of the car and shipped out to Cuba by diplomatic immunity....Their argument was the Justice Department couldn’t stop it because the Cuban Interest Section would claim diplomatic immunity. This was a bogus, paranoid fear. But it is one of the reasons why these negotiations derailed." Twenty-fours earlier, he might have proclaimed it "paranoid" for the relatives to fear government agents would bust the door down armed with assault weapons and seize the boy.

  • Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief James Warren told the April 24 Washington Post that "Given the potency of television, that [AP photo of the gun in Elian’s face] could be the lingering image, and it’s a powerful one....It will ignite all the crazies....The focus on the Miami relatives and the Reno-bashers really grotesquely distorts the public response to this whole matter." He complained the Miami family didn’t have a newsworthy case: "I’m not going to pitch [for a Page 1 story] the crazy family running around here all day and bitching on television, but it’s going to be all over CNN and MSNBC and Fox."

  • New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman deplored the Cuban American community’s political clout and exaggerated on PBS’s Washington Week in Review April 28: "I think the American public really got a taste of the degree to which not only Elian had been, in my view, you know kidnaped by these people, but American policy on Cuba has been kidnaped by a very active, vociferous minority."

  • ABC’s Peter Jennings wrote in his promotional afternoon electronic-mail message on April 24: "The sorting of fact from fiction is, when we do it well, one of the most satisfying exercises in journalism. Sometimes, as you’ll see tonight, the truth remains elusive. Other times you can nail it down." Terry Moran’s subsequent "satisfying exercise" rebutted four assertions made by the Miami relatives.

  • Newsweek’s Evan Thomas and Martha Brant found in the May 1 issue that a brood of hot-blooded Latinos required the government’s use of force: "The fiery Marisleysis, who had been hospitalized at least eight times for stress, had told some community-relations workers that if the Feds came into the house, they could be ‘hurt’….The hotheads around Lazaro had long warned that if Elian went to Washington, he risked getting hijacked by Cuban diplomats. ‘They would put Elian in the trunk of a car with diplomatic plates, and the next thing we know he’d be back in Cuba. Taking him to see his father is like taking him to Fidel Castro,’ said Ramon Saul Sanchez, a militant who led chants and organized human chains outside the bungalow."

  • Newsweek’s "Conventional Wisdom Watch" awarded the Miami relatives a down arrow in the May 8 issue: "Little Havana histrionics have worn so thin, even the cable news nets are sick of them." Elian rescuer Donato Dalrymple, who held the boy as the INS pointed guns at them, also drew an insult: "Old: Dalrymple was hero of the sea. New: Housecleaner turned publicity hound."