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Reliable Sources

Was Coverage of the INS Raid Fair or Inflammatory?

Aired April 22, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The taking of Elian, a photographer gets the dramatic picture. A tearful tirade from the boy's relatives. The cameras zoom in on the Miami demonstrators. Was the coverage fair or inflammatory?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

Since Elian Gonzalez was rescued on Thanksgiving Day, the media have followed him every step of the way. The saga came to a head today before most of us woke up.


KURTZ (voice-over): When federal agents stormed the home of Elian's Miami relatives early this morning, journalists were on the air almost immediately.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: There have been some developments in Miami on the Elian Gonzalez case.

KURTZ: Within a few hours, an image snapped by an Associated Press photographer who had been allowed inside the home became the new heart wrenching symbol of this story.

MARISLEYSIS GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S COUSIN: There's pictures and there's pictures how he left screaming and crying that he didn't want to leave. So they cannot tell me he's not crying.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You can assume that this photo is going to be on the cover of every newspaper in America tomorrow morning.

KURTZ: And the picture of a gun toting federal agent and a frightened six-year-old boy became a major issue at Janet Reno's press conference.

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: If you look at it carefully, it shows that the gun was pointed to the side.

KURTZ: But the rush to report the breaking news led to some words of admonition from the anchors themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you believe that Janet Reno really had no choice but to do this? DAN RATHER: Well, what I think is not important. As Ed Murrow once said, you know, what I think about a story doesn't matter any more than the guy at the end of the bar.

KURTZ: The coverage also focused heavily, perhaps excessively, on emotion. For part of the morning, Elian's distraught cousin had the stage to herself. Almost lost amid the sound and fury was Elian's father, reunited with his son after five long months.


KURTZ: Joining us now Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Tribune" and MSNBC analyst. And in Miami, Joseph Contreras, "Newsweek's" Miami bureau chief.

Jim Warren, even in this age of satellite technology, the story was told by two still photographs, one, the frightened Elian being seized at gunpoint taken by the A.P.'s Allen Diaz (ph), the other released by the government hours later, a smiling Elian with his father.

In some way, didn't both sides exploit the boy by releasing these pictures?

JIM WARREN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, they'll certainly exploit those images. On one hand, the first photo which we saw for hours will be a very potent image for all the government bashers, the Castro haters out there. Already this afternoon you were seeing lots of Republicans on the Hill saying this is an outrage, people who will immediately associate that image, regardless of whether or not that finger was on the trigger, with Waco, which, of course, is an absurdity.

On the other hand, it was incumbent, obviously, for Janet Reno and the father's side to get out a much more upbeat image and you could just figure that was going to happen in a couple of hours and it did.

KURTZ: Joe Contreras, the coverage this morning, watching between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M. on CNN and other networks, I saw extended repeated interviews with Elian's cousin, who was obviously very agitated, denouncing the government, talking about what a horrible thing this was, and, of course, lost in that emotional moment -- it was great TV -- was the notion that the family, the Miami relatives basically forced this to happen because they refused to turn over the boy in negotiations.

Was this an editorial surrender on the part of television to give so much air time to these relatives?

JOSEPH CONTRERAS, MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF, "NEWSWEEK": No, I don't think so necessarily. Marisleysis Gonzalez had not spoken to the media in several days. She'd been hospitalized for a fair stretch of last week and I think at that point in the morning in the proceedings that unfolded it seemed like a fair decision to at least give her her say and have her take the cruise on an escorted tour of the house and relate her version of events.

Also, bear in mind, Howard, that at that point the plane bearing Elian to his father in Washington had not actually landed at Andrews Air Force Base. I think it only touched down at 9:20. So between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M., I thought that was fair game to air and run on the airwaves.

KURTZ: OK, we're also joined now by CNN's Susan Candiotti. Can you give us your thoughts on the chaos of the coverage this morning?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly it was a very difficult situation. You know, we were all trying to get, as anyone would who had been covering the story for so long, try to estimate when the government might do something, when it would happen. So in the middle of the night, frankly not many of us thought that that would occur, perhaps early in the morning. So when it did happen, it did take a number of people by surprise.

But as you saw, those cameras were there to record the moment and now we will see that played time and time again.

A more difficult question when it comes to Marisleysis Gonzalez, and it's true, she hadn't spoken to the media in a couple of weeks and frankly, she has been very emotional on every occasion when she has talked to the press, and so it's important to get her version of what happened on the air.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: I just wanted to pick up a point with Joe, if I might. I want to draw a contrast between a still photograph and a regular motion picture video type of photographs and the power of a still over video. For example, I'm thinking of Vietnam, where you had the famous picture of General Luang (ph) holding a gun to one of the Cong's heads, the little girl running down the street napalmed, those pictures had context.

This picture of the arrest of Elian has no context. It's a powerful picture, but what it leaves out, even though it may win all the Pulitzer Prizes, what it leaves out are the efforts by the government to try to solve this in a peaceful way. And so the picture is essentially going to offer a distortion of the history of this engagement. Do you agree with that, Joe?

CONTRERAS: Well, I think I would agree with that but that's the very nature of a snapshot. By its very nature it only captures a specific moment in time and hopefully when those Pulitzer Prizes are awarded and when this entire saga is recounted, that will be put into the extended caption, if you will, under that very, very powerful photo, that, indeed, to a large extent, this was brought about by the intransigence of the boy's Miami relatives and their refusal to comply with a federal government order.

KALB: Therefore, that picture doesn't have the context that both you and I are now talking about, powerful as it is.

CONTRERAS: Well, that's true. But as I say, that then becomes the responsibility of media to maybe put an extended caption below the photo. There's no way that you can get around particular moments.

KALB: Can I interrupt you, Joe? Just one last question on this here. Do you expect the media to add that sort of context, to itemize or to explain the consistent months of efforts to solve this peacefully rather than serve up, which they all will first thing in the morning as we're seeing it now, the picture itself?

CONTRERAS: Well, I would certainly hope so. I can't speak for other media, but I imagine that our cover story in next week's issue of "Newsweek" will have quite a bit of retrospective, taking readers through the past 150 days and putting it all in perspective.

WARREN: And I think, Bernie, one problem is, I think you're slightly underestimating the intelligence of the American public, which has now had to endure this coverage for a long time. They are putting that photo into a certain context and I think a lot of them, as opposed to the very passionate folks who have been surrounding poor Susan Candiotti all these weeks outside as she sort of, I think, must have squatter's rights by now outside that house, unlike those folks, I think most Americans realize that this came seemingly at the end of a very long and frustrating period for the U.S. government.

So I don't think that image necessarily will have the long-term potency as, for instance, the one that you mentioned from the Vietnam War.

KURTZ: Jim, I'm wondering what you think about the effect of the sheer mass of media, as you just observed have been in Miami day after day, what effect that might have on the situation here? I want to take a quick look at a piece of tape from early this morning on CNN when some of the demonstrators got a little out of hand.


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's move away from that videotape. We're losing -- thank you. We don't need to be hearing cuss words and the middle finger, you know?


KURTZ: Jim, they're playing to the cameras.

WARREN: Well, obviously to a certain extent we are part of the problem. I'd be curious to know how big those crowds would have been the last two weeks if everybody would have pulled their cameras out. No doubt that some of those people whose motives are to be questioned probably would not have been there were it not for those cameras. But it's difficult. It was a sexy story, TV and its sort of thrust to find the latest soap opera with this very appealing, attractive kid, decided to fix on that story, park themselves in front of the house and the crowds came.

KALB: Howie, if they were denouncing television at that point, they were attacking the single medium that had brought that story to America and the world. KURTZ: I could argue with that, but of course there's also a lot of motion against the government. Susan Candiotti, you're there on the ground, the effect of the journalists, the cameras, the media presence on those demonstrators, on the Cuban-American community there?

CANDIOTTI: Well, they've been very, become very used to the cameras, that's for sure, and you have the usual things that occur every time people tend to get ready to do a live report. That's when the protesters sometimes start to reinvigorate themselves and perform for the camera. Because most of the time it can be very, very quiet here.

Now, today it was important for the cameras to be here to record that moment. And if I may just add, we're already getting two versions of what happened regarding that photograph and which way the gun was pointing. You, I talked to Al Diaz not long ago, who took those very powerful photographs, and I asked him which way was the gun pointed because the family members are saying that the gun was pointed directly at the boy's head. Al Diaz, who took the photographs, said I couldn't tell, Susan when I was looking through the lens and snapping the photograph. So there's someone you thought might be able to give you an eyewitness account and quite can't give us that detail.

So all sides are trying to use this information and certainly how important and how rare it is to have the cameras this close to that happening to the seizure and so now we can...


ANN LOUISE BARDACH, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, "GEORGE" MAGAZINE: ... he called "La Volce (ph)," which is nanosca perez (ph) and you get a lot of information, I call it wishful thinking. If you are a Cuban hard-liner and you live for the death of Fidel Castro, they will give you the information to support that. Look...

KURTZ: OK, forgive me, Ann, but I want to bring Joe Contreras back into the discussion. Joe, we're all in the instant analysis business on a story like this, "Newsweek" obviously crashing its story, its cover story, I'm sure, for next week's issue. But I was watching CNN this morning, for example, speculation about well what if the father took the son and tried to go back to Cuba without anybody? Child psychologists being interviewed.

Does the speculation get sometimes out of hand, in your view?

CONTRERAS: Well, sometimes it can and we've seen that happen time and time again on this story. I think that it's important to point out the facts, that there has been a commitment by the U.S. government to keep the boy and his father in the United States. The U.S. Justice Department has the power to do so through a departure control order. So I think you always have to keep the speculation in check.

One thing I just want to add about the Spanish language media, it's important to point out that the Latin American Spanish language media has painted these Miami relatives as a bunch of kooks. So it's absolutely true that the U.S. (unintelligible)...

KURTZ: Unfairly in your view? Unfairly in you're view, Joe?

CONTRERAS: Excuse me?

KURTZ: Has the American media portrait of the family been distorted, in your view?

CONTRERAS: No, I don't think so. If anything, I think the coverage of the Miami relatives has in some ways been a little on the soft side. We didn't find out until early February that Lazaro Gonzalez had a drunk driving problem. We didn't find out until early April that the man had not held a steady job in five or six years and had exaggerated or distorted his employment history when he applied for a job as a bus mechanic in the Miami-Dade County public school system.

So, no, in some ways I think that the Miami relatives got off fairly easily in the early going.

KURTZ: Jim...

WARREN: I mean listening to Ann...

KURTZ: Yeah?

WARREN: ... it's good to know that the English language, the "National Enquirer" and "Weekly World News" and other tabloids seem pillars of responsibility compared to what's going on there in Miami. But also, speaking of the English language press, there's no greater burden on anybody in the last month or so than has been on some of the Florida newspapers, "Miami Herald" in particular. There's the Fort Lauderdale "Sun Sentinel," which the "Tribune" owns.

BARDACH: That's right.

WARREN: And what I've seen of both mostly online has been that they've done a fairly good job under very, very difficult circumstances.

BARDACH: I'd like to say that I, there's a new editor at the "Miami Herald" and we're hoping that we're going to see improvement, that's Marty Barron (ph), who used to be at "The New York Times." But it was not the "Miami Herald" that told us that Lazaro Gonzalez had four drunk driving convictions, his brother Delfin four drunk driving, not one, two, numerous arrests for drunk driving, his license suspended for three years in the 1990s alone. That came from the "New York Times'" Peter Kilburn (ph). It was the "Sun Sentinel" who told us the job history of Lazaro, that he was basically an unemployed car mechanic.

Why did the "Miami Herald" not give us that information? Why did we need it from the "New York Times" and the "Sun Sentinel?"

KURTZ: Well, I just want to make the observation...

CONTRERAS: I would also...




Joe Contreras, Frank Rich, this morning's "New York Times" writes that Elian Gonzalez has become the media's new JonBenet Ramsey. He says that Elian has been sacrificed to the media gods who extract a fresh slice of video meat daily. He calls the whole thing a ratings winner. Fair point?

CONTRERAS: It is a fair point and I think there have been some dramatic lapses in judgment on the part of the news media over the last five months, notably the decision by ABC News to air that Diane Sawyer interview not once but over three consecutive mornings without ever once getting the express oral or written permission of his only biological parent, and, of course, the airing of that almost obscene video that one of the boy's Miami relatives did of him at one or 12:30 in the morning which was then handed out to Univision.

KURTZ: It seemed like a POW tape.

KALB: Yeah.

KURTZ: Yeah, absolutely. And yet we've seen that endlessly, just as we will see today's photographs, I'm sure, for many days to come. Jim?

WARREN: And Howie, if I might add, and Joe, the claim of several network TV executives this week that their real interest in this story had to do with the underlying foreign policy dispute over...

KURTZ: Diplomacy.

WARREN: ... Cuba and Castro is absolute hogwash. But if I might have corrected or added one thing to the Frank Rich column, which was very good, on the exploitation of children, there are a lot of fingers to be pointed around here. And if you've been living in Washington the last four or five years, no group of folks have exploited children more for their different purposes than the folks on Capitol Hill and Bill Clinton, whether it's pushing their notions of what to do in Bosnia, whether it's pushing their version of the best budget proposal or whether it's pushing their version of handgun control, if I had a buck for every press conference that I've been to where we've brought on a little kid who probably had scant notion of what the details and the issues before them were I'd be rich.

KURTZ: So it's not just the media. Bernie?

KALB: Before we wrap this up today, let's take a poll among ourselves about the pictures that will be used on the newspapers that were watching all day today, Saturday, on television. Are we going to see both pictures, that is to say, the seizure, the transfer of custody, so to speak, picture, and the picture of the father and son? Will we see both pictures, Jim, or one?

WARREN: If there is one photo, this is going to be an absolutely fascinating difficult choice to make. If there's one, I go with the reunion photo.

KALB: Ann?

BARDACH: I think the reunion photograph.

KALB: The only one you think, huh?

BARDACH: And I think there'll be more reunion photographs.

KALB: What about down in Miami there?


KALB: Susan? Joe?

CONTRERAS: Sadly, I think that the photo that most editors will choose will be the photo of the boy being clutched in the arms of that female INS agent dashing out of the house towards the van.

KURTZ: I think most newspapers will probably have both pictures, but I would bet a fair amount of money that the larger picture will be the more dramatic gunpoint photo.

WARREN: And Joe's answers and my answers are why I will never be a cable television news executive.

KURTZ: Ann, you have some thoughts about the portrayal overall of the Cuban-American community?

BARDACH: Yes, I think that it really troubles me how the media always talks about Cuban exiles in Miami as if it's a monolith and also that Cubans on the island all think alike. There is a lot of diversity there and one of the problems is...

KURTZ: And a lot of diversity when it comes to opinion on this story?

BARDACH: Yes. Well, no, it's true that the majority of Cuban exiles in Miami support keeping him in Miami. But there is a considerable amount, there's a silent faction there, they are silent because there is a fear of speaking. When I interviewed people for my stories, they all have to be off record, literally they tell me they will lose their jobs, there will be death threats. There is repression there and there is no support from the American media to address them, to give them voice.

KURTZ: OK, we'll have to hold it there.

BARDACH: And the same thing is the opposite true, is also true in Cuba.

KURTZ: We will have to hold it there. Ann Louise Bardach, Joe Contreras in Miami, Jim Warren, Bernard Kalb, thanks very much for joining us.

We'll be right back.



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