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

Executive Summary

We would like to think that the Cold War is over. But for the people of communist Cuba and the people who’ve fled it, the Cold War remains. In all of the coverage and controversy over the arrival and seizure of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the media have taken the stark contrast between American liberty and Cuban tyranny and muddled it to the point that much of the American public thinks Cuba is no different than America, or worse, that Cuba is better than America. The Media Research Center has compiled a record showing how the national media built the public-relations rationale for Elian’s eventual return to Cuba, and then justified the government raid on a private residence to insure a political victory for the Clinton administration and the communist regime of Cuba. Is it any wonder that the public told network pollsters that they approved of the seizure of Elian after being barraged with liberal arguments? Analysts identified four patterns of distinct liberal media bias: 

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

2. The news media have consistently praised the actions and "achievements" of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, claimed it was better for children than America, and played up the paradise Elian could dwell in among the Communist Party elite. 

3. The news media have justified Attorney General Janet Reno’s actions and arguments, and lamented any resistance or delay in returning Elian to Cuba. 

4. The news media have dismissed congressional criticism of the INS raid and calls for investigation as unpopular and unnecessary.

If the media were interested in a balanced presentation of the Elian controversy, they would have scrutinized the administration more than justified it; they would have explained the regimented reality of family life in Cuba; they would have balanced their questioning of the motivations of Elian’s Miami relatives by questioning the motives of the reunification camp; and they would have encouraged more discussion and oversight instead of trying to cut it off.

Related videos:

The MRC's Tim Graham appeared on FNC's The Edge with Paula Zahn on June 5 to discuss Elian coverage

U.S. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen invited colleagues to learn about the MRC's Special Report on biased coverage of Elian.

Introduction:The Cold War Is Over, Thank Goodness

To the national media, the Cold War has long been over, and is best forgotten. But for those still living under communism in Cuba, the Cold War remains. When Elian Gonzalez was rescued last fall from a deadly boat ride that claimed his mother’s life, the media grasped the dramatic possibilities of his rescue, but had no grasp of the political possibilities his mother had sought for her son.

Instead, reporters replayed an old soundtrack, as if the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe had never collapsed; as if the suddenly liberated voices from behind the Iron Curtain hadn’t declared their relief; as if the communist archives hadn’t told telling tales of repression and subversion. Following the lead of thousands of predecessors, Elian and his mother boarded a rickety boat to leave Cuba behind in the hope for a life of liberty in the United States. As much as media coverage would insist the Elian dispute should not be politicized, this was a political act. But to the media, it was hysterical.

"In the end, the drama may reveal how fed up both societies are with the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ hysteria of U.S.-Cuba relations," declared Time Miami correspondent Tim Padgett. NBC reporter Jim Avila was perplexed by the escape: "Why did she [Elian’s mother] do it? What was she escaping? By all accounts this quiet, serious young woman, who loved to dance the salsa, was living the good life, as good as it gets for a citizen in Cuba." Avila concluded that she’d made a terrible mistake in leaving: "An extended family destroyed by a mother’s decision to start a new life in a new country, a decision that now leaves a little boy estranged from his father and forever separated from her."

In the interests of documenting national media trends from Elian’s rescue at sea through the aftermath of the federal raid on the Miami home of Elian’s Cuban American relatives, MRC media analysts compiled a record demonstrating how the national media built the public-relations rationale for Elian’s eventual return to Cuba and then justified the government raid on a private residence to insure a political victory for the Clinton administration and the communist regime of Cuba. Analysts identified four patterns of distinct liberal media bias:

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."

2.The news media have consistently praised the actions and "achievements" of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, claimed it was better for children than America, and played up the paradise Elian could dwell in among the Communist Party elite.

foxnews0413In an April 12 discussion on Fox News Channel’s Special Report with Brit Hume, National Public Radio reporter Mara Liasson exclaimed about press reports lauding Cuba: "To make those kinds of assertions, that somehow his life would be better in Cuba. It’s one thing to say that a child belongs with his father, it’s another to say that growing up in a communist country is somehow better than being in Miami. I can’t think of anyone in the United States who would agree with that." But that’s what some reporters felt the public should believe: (With Real Video)

  • NBC’s Andrea Mitchell boasted of an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro on the December 15, 1999 Nightly News. Clearly impressed by her hours with Fidel, Mitchell gushed: "What’s astounding is how much Castro is personally micro-managing the Elian case. He’s not just the country’s head of state, he’s the CEO, tracking every political development back in the U.S., even to the point of personally transcribing U.S. officials on the Sunday talk shows. Our meeting with Castro began in the middle of the night. He sizes us up by calling us to his palace. A dinner that lasts seven hours. The next night a second dinner even later, a call to be ready at midnight, a five-course dinner that doesn’t begin until two in the morning. He ate little and talked a lot. He seemed old-fashioned, courtly—even paternal. But while appearing to be less confrontational, make no mistake: When it comes to ideology, he is still a communist."

  • img3ABC’s Cynthia McFadden reported from Havana during ABC’s live 24-hour coverage of the New Year 2000: "Part of what the children talked about was their fear of the United States and how they felt they didn’t want to come to the United States because it was a place where they kidnap children, a direct reference, of course, to Elian Gonzalez. The children also said that the United States was just a place where there was money and money wasn’t what was most important. I should mention Peter that, you know, as you talk about the global community, Cuba is a place because of the small number of computers here—in the classrooms we visited yesterday there was certainly no computers and almost no paper that we could see—this is a place where the children’s role models and their idols are not the baseball players or Madonna or pop stars. Their role models are engineers and teachers and librarians—which is who all the children we spoke to yesterday said they wanted to be." 

It’s the educational wonder of Latin America, but it doesn’t have any paper? Peter Jennings followed up McFadden by helpfully passing along more pro-Castro propaganda: "From the Cuban point of view, as everybody knows, I guess, education and participation in the Third World are very much what Cuba has stood for, at least in the developing world."

  • Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary visited Havana with a group of black columnists and came back to report on March 5 that there was nothing unsatisfactory about growing up in a dictatorship: "What I see are sweet-faced children—and intangibles that transcend all foolish materialistic arguments about who’s better off where. I could see no reason why Patricia [a Cuban child she met] would be happier anywhere else than with her mother, even though her mommy doesn’t have many ‘worldly’ possessions." 

img4Singletary assured readers: "Now, I’m not naive about Cuba. Riding and walking around Havana, with its dilapidated apartment buildings and treacherously pothole-ridden streets, it would be easy to pity the people. But I’m not naive about poverty either. I’ve been there. And I can tell you that it is just as wrong to equate deprivation with misery as it is to equate prosperity with contentment." She’s handled poverty, but what about tyranny?

  • NBC’s Jim Avila was the most cooperative TV reporter in Havana. On the April 4 Nightly News, he touted the "Cuban good life" Elian could have: "If and when Elian returns, he will become a four-foot tall deity in a country that officially does not believe in God....Elian’s future here likely to be the Cuban good life, lived by Communist Party elite with perks like five free gallons of gasoline a month for the family, a Cuban tradition called ‘La Jaba,’ the bag, which includes extra rice, beans, cooking oil and sundries like deodorant, shampoo, razors and shaving cream, about $15 a month worth of basics. Plus, invitations reserved for the party elite to cultural events, sports, discos and restaurants, access to the best medicine, expensive drugs like heart cures not available to everyone in Cuba."

avila0410Four nights later, Avila wondered why anyone would leave a "prestigious" job changing other people’s sheets in a communist country: "Why did she [Elian’s mother, a maid] do it? What was she escaping? By all accounts this quiet, serious young woman, who loved to dance the salsa, was living the good life, as good as it gets for a citizen in Cuba....In today’s Cuba a maid, where dollar tips are to be had, is a prestigious job. Elian’s life relatively easy by Cuban standards, living with Mom and maternal grandparents half of the week, in Dad’s well-furnished home the rest of the time. Both Mom and Dad friendly to each other and caring towards their only child." Avila concluded by mourning: "An extended family destroyed by a mother’s decision to start a new life in a new country, a decision that now leaves a little boy estranged from his father and forever separated from her." (With Real Video)

  • Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift caused jaws to drop when she claimed on the April 8 edition of The McLaughlin Group: "To be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than being a poor child in Miami and I’m not going to condemn their lifestyle so gratuitously." 

On May 1, Clift was asked on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor to defend her "lifestyle" remarks. She retracted nothing: "I can understand why a rational, loving father can believe that his child will be protected in a state where he doesn’t have to worry about going to school and being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has access to free medical care and where the literacy rate I believe is higher than this country’s."

  • img5ABC’s Peter Jennings looked in vain for American advantages on the April 12 World News Tonight: "Beyond the questions of custody, the Cuban-American community in Miami has always argued, almost every day in fact, that Elian Gonzalez would have a better life here in the United States than in Cuba. It’s been argued before, and there’s not a simple answer."

  • Time’s Nancy Gibbs boasted in the April 17 issue: "Altogether, in wages, tips and bonuses, he [Elian’s father] earns more than 10 times Cuba’s $15 average monthly salary—enough to afford to buy Elian imported Power Ranger toys and birthday pinatas fat with Italian hard candy and German chocolates....Elian enjoyed that rarest of Cuban luxuries: his own air-conditioned bedroom. And before Juan Miguel sold it to pay, he says, for calls to Elian in Miami, the boy’s father even had a car, a 1956 Nash Rambler, in which Elian rode through town like a prince, while many people relied on horse-drawn carts."

  • Newsweek’s Brook Larmer and John Leland used their April 17 article to compare Cuba favorably with these dangerous, uncaring United States: "Elian might expect a nurturing life in Cuba, sheltered from the crime and social breakdown that would be part of his upbringing in Miami. Because Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, works as a cashier in a tourist resort, the family already belonged to the nation’s well-off stratum, who has access to American dollars. The boy’s relatives in Miami can offer further support: Cuba now even has ATMs that dispense dollars from foreign banks. The education and health-care systems, both built since the revolution, are among the best in the Americas, despite chronic shortages of supplies." 

Larmer and Leland concluded that if Elian returned to Cuba, "The boy will nestle again in a more peaceable society that treasures its children."

  • luxury0419CNN’s Martin Savidge promoted Elian’s awaiting mansion and compared it favorably to his lesser Miami digs on the April 18 edition of The World Today: "This is the home Cuba says is almost ready for the return of the six-year-old in Havana’s fashionable Miramar district, home to many international embassies. Even by American standards it’s luxurious. By Cuban standards, almost unimaginable. The report on Cuban TV showed freshly painted rooms it says will house not just Elian, but his close family and 12 schoolmates, a stark contrast to the boy’s Little Havana house, and that may be the point." (With Real Video)

NBC’s Jim Avila couldn’t let Savidge be the only shill on the tube that night, declaring on the Nightly News: "This is the state-owned guesthouse where Elian will stay when and if he returns to Cuba. It’s a mansion by Cuban standards, but psychiatrists consulting the Castro government tell NBC News the boy’s home town, Cardenas, is not the best place for his immediate transition into island life." He added without the slightest hint of skepticism: "Two stories, eight bedrooms, four-car garage in the upscale Miramar neighborhood—a section of Havana busy with new foreign companies and renovations. A far cry from most Cuban homes, it has a swimming pool in the backyard, satellite TV, air conditioning, a playroom. Specially built: a classroom and dormitory to accommodate twelve of Elian’s Cardenas classmates, who will live with the Gonzalez family, and a medical team including psychiatrists. Cristobal Martinez heads the Cuban mental health team in charge of Elian’s transition. He says Cardenas was ruled out because Elian is too big a hero to simply return to his family home."

  • CNN’s Larry King asked Tipper Gore on the April 20 Larry King Live: "Tipper, one of the things that Elian Gonzalez’s father said that I guess would be hard to argue with, that his boy’s safer in a school in Havana than in a school in Miami. He would not be shot in a school in Havana. Good point?" 

     The sympathy for Cuba didn’t stop after the raid:

  • CBS’s Dan Rather lauded Fidel just hours after the raid: "While Fidel Castro, and certainly justified on his record, is widely criticized for a lot of things, there is no question that Castro feels a very deep and abiding connection to those Cubans who are still in Cuba. And, I recognize this might be controversial, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Fidel Castro was sincere when he said, ‘listen, we really want this child back here.’"

  • img7Washington Post reporter John Ward Anderson reported from Elian’s hometown of Cardenas, Cuba on April 24, and wrote mysteriously that "Cuban exiles claim" children are imparted communist ideology, followed by noting children begin each day praising communism: "Starting in the first grade, all Cuban children are members of the Young Pioneers—a group that Cuban exiles claim imparts Communist ideology, but which parents say also teaches social skills and responsibility. Although they begin each day reciting, ‘Pioneers for communism will be like Che!’ [Guevara] few children give it much thought, parents said."

  • NBC’s Jim Avila pontificated from Cuba on the April 26 MSNBC simulcast of Imus in the Morning: "The one thing that most, that I’ve learned about Cubans in the many times that I have visited here in the last few years, is that it is mostly a nationalistic country, not primarily a communist country."

3.The media justified Attorney General Janet Reno’s actions and arguments, and lamented any resistance or delay in sending Elian back to Cuba.

The INS raid may have struck civil libertarians as illegal, unconstitutional, and terrifying to young Elian, but national reporters felt the raid was more than justifiable. It was overdue. The media’s sympathy for a Castro-pleasing resolution to the Elian story was apparent before the INS raid:

  • ABC’s Peter Jennings began the March 28 World News Tonight by implying that returning Elian to Cuba was the best, most civilized ending: "Good evening. In Miami today, immigration officials met with the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez again and once again the government has failed to get the kind of cooperation from the relatives that might allow the case of this young boy to end in a civilized manner that is best for him."

  • Dan Rather lamented on the April 6 CBS Evening News that a free society had ruined the reunion of father and son: "[G]rown-ups near and far cooked his simple, tragic story into a thick stew of politics, legalities, ideology and raw emotion. Today’s irony is that to get close to his son, this boy’s father had to travel more than a thousand miles to a foreign capital and even then, even now, he must wait for the long-sought reunion. Such are the ways of politics and the law in a free society."

  • ABC weekend anchor Carole Simpson defended Attorney General Janet Reno in an April 16 commentary for "While I feel compassion for all parties involved, my deepest sympathies are with Janet Reno....It’s hard to come up with the name of any cabinet secretary in history who has been more vilified than Reno. To some on the right, her actions against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, have made her forever a murderer, a child-killer even." 

img8Simpson continued that comedians should stop joking about Reno since "the Attorney General is now battling an incurable illness...In Reno’s recent television appearances the tremors in her hands and arms seem to have worsened. Doctors say stress is a factor. But she has stood strongly before the lights and cameras, talking about Elian with tears in her eyes, her body all a tremor, and promising to operate under the rule of law and in the child’s best interest. It is difficult to watch her visibly suffer emotional and physical distress."

These attitudes blossomed into full-throated support for the Clinton administration after the raid commenced.

  • Dan Rather declared just hours after the raid that Janet Reno shouldn’t be criticized: "It’s hard to see how she gets criticized for the way the operation was carried out. Yes, you can say, well, the marshals should not have been...armed that heavily. Put all that in quotation marks. But in the end it worked. The child was gotten out safely." 

That same morning, Rather made it sound like the Associated Press photographer was more frightening to the boy than the INS gunmen, or at least the boy should be frightened in private: "If the photographer was in the house legally, which knowing the Associated Press would be very surprising if he wasn’t, there is the question of the privacy, beginning with the privacy of the child. No one can look at these photographs and not think what this child is going through."

  • CBS reporter Jim Stewart also worked to soften criticism of the administration, adding during that morning that focusing just on this raid and the Waco raid would be unfair to Reno, who truly loves children: "[R]est assured that [AP photo with a gun pointed at Elian] will be the bookend on Janet Reno’s tenure as Attorney General, that and Waco on the other end. It is appalling from her perspective because of the true compassion she has for children. If you’ve ever seen her around children, you know how much she truly cares for them, and this has got to be tearing at her."

  • Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas announced that night on the talk show Inside Washington that he found Reno’s raid to be principled and apolitical: "I think that Reno really comes through this as somebody who may have made mistakes, but was principled about it, and unlike most people in Washington, who are trying to figure out the political aspect of it, seemed quite apolitical about it." 

img9Almost exactly 12 years before, in the April 11, 1988 issue of Newsweek, reporter Evan Thomas presented Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General in a much different light. While independent counsel James McKay had found no offenses to indict Edwin Meese, Thomas concluded: "But many in Washington believe that Meese’s career is in serious jeopardy. The appearance of impropriety and the reality of his department’s embarrassment are both powerful arguments against him—and though Ronald Reagan is still standing by the A.G., Meese may yet be forced to resign."

Thomas added with hopefulness: "New and damaging disclosures or further resignations at Justice could be the last straw; or Meese could be seen as an ever-larger political liability during the fall campaign....The outlook for No Problems Ed, in short, is very problematic, indeed." The cover read: "The Meese Mess: Struggling to Hang On—Again." The article’s title reflected Thomas’s hope: "Is This Finally It for Meese?"

  • New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who began the Clinton years as a White House correspondent, provocatively proclaimed on April 25: "Yup, I gotta confess, that now-famous picture of a U.S. marshal in Miami pointing an automatic weapon toward Donato Dalrymple and ordering him in the name of the U.S. government to turn over Elian Gonzalez warmed my heart. They should put that picture up in every visa line in every U.S. consulate around the world, with a caption that reads: ‘America is a country where the rule of law rules. This picture illustrates what happens to those who defy the rule of law and how far our government and people will go to preserve it. Come all ye who understand that.’" 

Three days later, on PBS’s Washington Week in Review, Friedman boasted: "You know, I just came from a trip from Venezuela to Bogota, Colombia to Moscow. I got to tell you, what people in Bogota, Colombia would give for five minutes of Janet Reno. What people in Russia today in these lawless, no rule of law societies, would give for five minutes of Janet Reno."

  • Newsweek’s "Conventional Wisdom Watch" box in the May 1 issue gave Reno a sideways arrow with the quip: "Better late than never. Waco. Ruby Ridge. The third time’s the charm."

  • Time’s "Winners and Losers" box called Reno a winner in the May 15 issue: "A.G. clears Puerto Rican protesters without a shot. Now just get the kid back to Cuba."

4.The news media have dismissed congressional criticism of the INS raid and calls for investigation as unpopular and unnecessary.

Within 48 hours of the raid, ABC and CNN/USA Today were conducting quickie polls. ABC found that 65 percent of Americans didn’t want congressional hearings, and CNN/USA Today reported it was 68 percent. So the media’s approach to oversight became that not only would they not press the administration for answers, they would also intimidate Congress out of pressing for answers.

  • CBS’s Bryant Gumbel asked Cuban American Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) on The Early Show April 24: "Congressman, some of your colleagues have called for congressional hearings on this matter. I know you support such hearings. What would they accomplish besides just so much Reno bashing?"

  • NBC’s Katie Couric shared Gumbel’s disdain for hearings that morning, setting up Janet Reno with the inquiry: "The House Republicans say they want to hold hearings into the raid. Do you think they’re exploiting this issue politically?" Talking with Tim Russert about NBC’s poll on the raid, co-host Matt Lauer wrapped up: "And real quickly. One other point in the poll. 2 to 1, Americans are opposed to congressional hearings on this subject. Is that just because most people are tired of hearing about it?" Russert replied: "Absolutely. The issue has run its course. And they don’t like to spend money. As we saw during the whole impeachment process."

  • Time’s Margaret Carlson declared on the April 27 Good Morning America: "Elian Gonzalez, the less you say the better. Nobody wins, you know, saying too much on Elian Gonzalez, and I think she handled that just perfectly and Rudy being Rudy—and I take most of my, you know, I read Gail Collins [of The New York Times] all the time because she’s following that race so closely—you know, when Rudy is pure Rudy, he’s not good, and after, you know, being known for, you know, defending the police who’ve gunned down innocent people, for him to call this, you know, storm troopers and wade into the middle of it seems, you know, a political tin ear at best." 

img10Carlson’s "Public Eye" column in the May 8 issue chastised what she saw as perpetually failing Republican opportunists: "House Majority Whip Tom DeLay went ballistic over the government’s ‘jackbooted thugs.’ He was far more publicly incensed by U.S. marshals using guns to forestall the violence of the Miami crowd than he ever was over guns used by children to slaughter their classmates." She concluded: "Waco hearings didn’t work even though 80 people died. Impeachment hearings didn’t work, although the President actually had sex with that woman. Trying to show that reuniting a devoted father with his devoted son is a miscarriage of justice because the son had the misfortune to wash up on the shores of a swing state? No wonder Democrats are happy."

  • Newsweek’s Evan Thomas filed a May 8 article titled "Cashing In on Little Elian," in which he found the "vituperative postraid response of GOP lawmakers" was at odds with the public: "Most approved of the raid to return Elian to his father, and many people made clear that they were tired of the whole melodrama. On Capitol Hill, Republicans scheduled, then postponed, congressional hearings. That did not necessarily mean, however, that the exploitation of Elian was winding down."

  • Newsweek’s May 8 "Conventional Wisdom Watch" began with the comment: "Just as the CW was trying to enjoy an Elian-lite week, the tone-deaf GOP kept trying to flog the soggy issue for political gain."

Conclusion: What a Balanced Approach Required

The media could have covered the rescue and seizure of Elian Gonzalez in a more balanced fashion.

1. The media could have scrutinized the administration more than justified it. Did federal agents bust down the door without knocking? Did the Gonzalez family offer any resistance? Were there any weapons in the house found in the raid? Was there any consideration of what the raid might to physically or mentally to Elian? Why was the NBC camera crew brutalized and threatened? Network anchors asked some of these questions in the first few days, but they often accepted without much resistance whatever answers they were given by the Justice Department.

2. The media could have explained the regimented reality of family life in Cuba. In the May 5 Wall Street Journal, Cuban refugee and human rights expert Armando Valladares explained: "If Elian returns to Cuba his father will have no authority whatsoever to make decisions related to his education. Cuban ‘law’ gives that authority to the communist government. Children are indoctrinated in Cuba from the moment they start to read. They are taught that the Communist party is owed loyalty above everything else. And they are taught they must denounce their parents if they criticize or do anything against the Revolution or its leaders....The Code for Children, Youth and Family provides for a three-year prison sentence for any parent who teaches a child ideas contrary to communism." In addition, "It is mandatory for all Cuban children over the age of 12 to do time in a Communist work camp in the countryside. Away from all parental supervision for nine months at a time."

3. The media could have balanced their questioning of the motivations of Elian’s Miami relatives by questioning the motivations of the reunification camp. Was Elian’s father really free to speak for himself? If so, why did he take so long to come to America for his son? Why wouldn’t he go to Miami? Why would the National Council of Churches raise funds to send a boy back to a country that persecutes religious believers? Did Elian’s father’s lawyer Greg Craig have special bargaining power after he saved President Clinton from impeachment? How much was he getting paid and by whom? These questions were rarely asked.

4. The media could have encouraged more discussion and oversight instead of trying to cut it off. In their 1988 Iran-Contra book Men of Zeal, then-Senators George Mitchell and William Cohen advised: "Open debate is one of democracy’s greatest strengths, its absence one of the great weaknesses of totalitarian societies. When covert action is necessary, there obviously cannot be an open debate." In the Reagan years, the media presented congressional hearings as American as apple pie. Now, they are presented as partisan thumb-screwing sessions which achieve nothing, even when this administration covertly plans a raid on a private residence. Has the nature of congressional oversight changed so dramatically since House and Senate majorities changed hands? Or is this double standard proof that the so-called disease of partisanship is just as infectious in the news judgment of the national media as it is at party headquarters?