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Reliable Sources

Elian Gonzalez Case: Has the Media Coverage Been Fair or Inflammatory?

Aired April 23, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. The Elian Gonzalez saga has dominated the news this weekend. Tonight, we'll take an in-depth look at the media's role. Has the coverage been fair or inflammatory? Has the thousands of journalists covering this story gone too far? Today, many of those playing a central role in the story made their case to the cameras.


MARISLEYSIS GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S SECOND COUSIN: Why is there a need to have a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old and an 11-year-old pointed with a gun, "Don't move or I'm going to shoot you"? There was no guns in that house. And thank the lord there was no guns in that house.

DORIS MEISSNER, INS COMMISSIONER: Guns were not pointed at people. That photograph that is reverberating around the world, if you look at it carefully, that gun is pointed downward.

LAZARO GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S GREAT UNCLE (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): This entire situation has been basically and simply to protect a child, whose mother brought him here in a country of freedom. And all we wanted to do is help him as a family, which is ours.

GREGORY CRAIG, ATTORNEY FOR JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ: They forced the federal government to take action to unite the father with the son. And now that this has happened, they insist that they have some right to have access to him. They have no legal right at all. And I think they have a very limited moral right.


KURTZ: Well, joining me now to discuss the media's role in the Elian Gonzalez case from Miami, Tom Fiedler, editorial page editor of "The Miami Herald;" and Joseph Contrares, the Miami bureau chief for "Newsweek" magazine; and from Atlanta, Drew Jubera, the television writer for the "Atlanta Journal Constitution." Welcome.

Drew Jubera, this has been, as we all know, a battle of images. You're watching television, particularly yesterday morning, you see the raid, the armed federal agents, the frightened young boy. You see the angry relatives. You see the outraged protesters. In all of these dramatic pictures and a very tight focus on that, hasn't the other side, that of a father being reunited with his son, been somewhat obscured?

DREW JUBERA, "ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION" TV CRITIC: Well, at first it was, but there was no way around that at first, Howard. You know, those images were so powerful that there was no way to get around showing them. You know, TV did what it's supposed to do. It was there. It showed it. In fact, it did its job so well that it even co-opted what print does. It took a still photograph and made it its own.

KURTZ: But how about six hours later, 12 hours later, 24 hours later? The only thing, again, we saw from Juan Miguel Gonzalez was the handful of photographs, the more smiling image of him with his son. Otherwise, there weren't as much playing to the cameras.

JUBERA: Well, but that was the countervailing image that they put out there and it wasn't that long afterward, you know. There was a point on CBS' coverage where Dan Rather mentioned that the government should come up with some counter image. And, in fact, a few hours later, there it was.

KURTZ: Joe Contreras, all of the tight television focus on the raid and the frightened boy and so forth and the protesters and relatives didn't , in your view, tip the scales somewhat in terms of the coverage of the story?

JOSEPH CONTRERAS, "NEWSWEEK" MAGAZINE, MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Well, I think to some extent, that was determined by Gregory Craig, the attorney for Juan Miguel Gonzalez. He made a decision not to bring his client, the father of Elian, out before the cameras. He made a decision not to bring the boy out in front of the cameras or really to have any kind of access to the father and son. I think that was a correct decision under the circumstances. I'm not second guessing him.

KURTZ: But does television penalize you for that decision?

CONTRERAS: But so doing, you kind of limit your access to that side of the story.

KURTZ: Right. And Tom Fiedler, on that point, it seems to me, I've heard a thousand commentators say that, "Gee, the Miami relatives are really kind of exploiting this boy because it's like "The Truman Show." He lives in a media bubble. We see him playing every day , going on the slide, playing baseball. Of course, the famous videotape that he made that some likened to kind of a POW tape. And yet, television seems to reward this by showing it, by eating up these dramatic visuals.

TOM FIEDLER, "MIAMI HERALD" EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: Well, I think "The Truman Show" analogy is actually a very good one, but that's a question that separate and apart from whether this was actually the right thing for the boy. I hope we're not getting into a situation where we're going to criticize Juan Miguel Gonzalez and Greg Craig for not allowing the same kind of access and not allowing the same kind of photographs that come out. I think that most of us would argue from the standpoint of best interest of this boy that the kind of coverage that we're likely to see from this day forward is probably more healthy for the boy than the kind of coverage that we've seen of him beginning Thanksgiving Day last November until just Saturday morning.

KURTZ: Absolutely more healthy for the boy. But, Tom, I wonder if the media, in their voracious appetite for this story, want - you know, have a sort of a hungry need for the visuals and perhaps have a secondary consideration that the boy shouldn't be paraded before the cameras day after day.

FIEDLER: Yeah, well, I think absolutely. There is this demand for the visual. And clearly, you have a little boy here who has become a media icon. So the question becomes: How do you continue covering a story about a media icon when the media doesn't have access to him? I think it's going to be a dramatic shift in the way we perceive this story from now on, and I would expect that the level of media coverage is going to drop probably significantly out of television and perhaps newspapers, too. It'll become more of a newspaper story and less of a television story, I think, as these next weeks unfold.

KURTZ: I'm not sure I agree but we'll return to that point a little later.

Joe Contreras, the protesters, there were lots of cameras out there every day and I wonder if the mere presence of all these media people, all of whom are doing their jobs, doesn't somehow enflame the situation. I saw a lot of people shouting and cursing on TV who seem very much to be playing to the cameras.

CONTRERAS: There were people in the crowd who I think were very much addressing their message and their tactics and their tone to those lenses. But in all fairness, I think we need not underestimate the amount of passion and hatred and frustration and bile that many of these Cuban-Americans here in Miami feel towards Castro. They made that boy their coveted political trophy just as Fidel Castro has. And I don't think that most of them came out to that barricade on the 2300 block of northwest Second Avenue to see their face beamed back to their mother somewhere in Hialeah. They went out there to vent their rage against Castro, and I think that the fact that the cameras were there might have escalated some of the passions or some of the histrionics. But they would have been there regardless.

KURTZ: OK, Drew Jubera, we have just a little time. The cousin, 21-year-old Marisleysis Gonzalez, she was all over television Saturday, very tearful, very emotional. She was back again this morning, about a ten or 15 minute rambling attack on the government, carried live, CNN, MSNBC, FOX News Channel. Is that kind of live, unedited coverage appropriate?

JUBERA: Well, you know, Howard, you mentioned "The Truman Show" earlier. You know, once TV sort of bought into showing everything, showing Elian, you know, on a slide, in a swing, they were going to show everything that happened. And when this woman shows up, it's there.

You know, CNN yesterday did a report on her not talking on the plane ride coming over so no matter what she says...


KURTZ: If she doesn't talk, it's news, OK.

JUBERA: ... she's going to be reported.

KURTZ: Of course, "The Truman Show," unlike this drama, was not real life. We should keep that in mind. We need to get a break in. When we come back, we'll look at a larger - take a larger telescope on the media's role in this five-month miniseries.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Well, the public apparently doesn't think much of the job that journalists are doing in covering the Elian Gonzalez case. In a CNN-Gallup poll released Saturday, people were asked how the media have handled the situation. Only 30 percent approve, 66 percent disapprove.

And Joe Contreras, I would suggest that part of the reason for those pretty high disapproval numbers is that lots of people sense that the media have turned this into a ratings grabbing soap opera. In fact, figures show that we've already - television collectively - has given more coverage to this story than the tragic death of Princess Diana or of JFK, Jr. So do you think that folks sense that maybe we're kind of milking and exploiting the situation?

CONTRERAS: Well, they certainly have cause to feel that way. As we discussed recently, there was the rather lamentable decision by ABC News executives to broadcast that Diane Sawyer interview of Elian not once but on three consecutive mornings of "Good Morning America" without ever getting the express oral or written consent of the boy's only biological parent. And then, of course, there was that obscene video that was filmed by one of the Miami relatives, which was...

KURTZ: That everybody showed over and over.

CONTRERAS: That's right. It was shown over and over again. However, I would say one thing in all fairness on this story. I don't think that this story is in the same league as the O.J. Simpson murder or the JonBenet Ramsey story or even the Princess Diana death because...

KURTZ: But it does seem to be filling that same...

CONTRERAS: ... unlike those stories, this...

KURTZ: ... it does seem to be filling that same void almost.

CONTRERAS: Well, that may be true, but there was a substantive issue of international relations that this story did plug into. Now you might disagree with the decision by Fidel Castro on the one hand and leaders of the Cuban-American exile community in Miami on the other to make use of this boy as a vehicle to play out their ongoing political debate and tug of war. But there was a substantive foreign policy issue...


CONTRERAS: ... that somehow got mixed up in a custody battle matter. And in that respect, I would differentiate this particular story...

KURTZ: Sure.

CONTRERAS: ... from those other essentially celebrity driven or titillation driven stories that got so much coverage as well.

KURTZ: Well, be that as it may, Tom Fiedler, I mean, presidential campaigns don't get coverage like this, health care doesn't get covered like this, the war in Kosovo, I don't think, got covered like this in terms of this 24-hour intensity.

FIEDLER: Well, it's - I think the coverage is episodic. There is a difference between Princess Diana's death and JFK's death. That was an event that was precipitated by tragedy and it had a definite resolution with the funeral, obviously, and then the story moved on.

This story seemed to grow at several different intervals. It began again with the dramatic rescue off the Ft. Lauderdale coast and then it tied into the WTO. It certainly - it then tied into Castro making this an issue against the United States. And it connected with people in so many different levels. Clearly, in this community, it connected because of their fear about what would happen to Elian if he returned back to Cuba. But throughout the country and perhaps throughout the world, it connected with people as fathers and as mothers as well as their concern about the link with communism versus freedom. It had a lot of different hand-hold opportunities for people all over.

KURTZ: So it really has struck a chord beyond the fact the media are...

FIEDLER: Absolutely right.

KURTZ: ... constantly playing it and replaying it.

FIEDLER: Absolutely right.

KURTZ: Drew Jubera, what's fair game in this story? I mean, should the press, for example, have reported that the great uncle in the case had a couple of drunk driving convictions? I mean, have we gone too far in probing into the lives of people who obviously would not be famous were it not for this unfortunate incident?

JUBERA: Well, but these are folks who also are playing to the media. You know, it seems to me that...

KURTZ: That makes us sound like this is sort of a passive recipient. They show up, they speak, we put them on the air. Whatever happened to editorial judgment? JUBERA: Well, editorial judgment in this case went out pretty earlier. I mean, once the media decided to camp out in front of the house and showed the 6-year-old any time he was visible, everything pretty much became fair game. And this did become a political story right away and both sides were playing to that. And once it had opened up to that, I think these folks opened themselves up to that kind of scrutiny.

KURTZ: OK. Joe Contreras, what about the picture of the national media have painted of not only the Miami relatives in particular but the Cuban-American community in general? I've heard lots of criticism that they've been unfairly sort of painted with a broad brush, that these are a bunch of wackos consumed by hatred for Castro and that sort of thing. And I wonder if we, in the press, or at least many of us, have been guilty of a little bit of stereotyping.

CONTRERAS: Well, I would say two or three things on that point, Howard. First of all, there were people in this community who lent themselves to that kind of description through their very overt, shameless manipulation of this story to advance their own political careers. And we saw many of these people parade themselves time and time again in front of whatever available microphone there was.

Secondly, I would say that there were voices in the Cuban- American community that were under reported, who were not given their fair say because they didn't fall into the stereotype of the shrill, strident, right-wing Cuban-American exile voice. In that respect, I think the news media was at fault. There were people out there like Elena Frere (ph) of the Cuban Community for Democracy who agreed with the father and agreed with people in Cuba that the boy deserved to be back home in Cardenas with his father. And we filed on these people, we tried to get their voices in, but time and time again, they were drowned out by the shrill, strident rhetoric of people like Ramon Sao Sanchez (ph) or Seba Sulto (ph), and for that matter, the Miami mayor, Joe Carollo.

KURTZ: Right. Well, drowned out, I think, is the perfect phrase.

Tom Fiedler, I'm going to take an educated guess and bet that, fairly or unfairly, there are a lot of people in your community who are mad at the "Miami Herald" over the coverage of this case.

FIEDLER: I think that's a good guess, Howard. It's been a difficult...

KURTZ: Tell me why.

FIEDLER: Well, it's a difficult line for us to walk. I think that our role as a newspaper in general is to, as best we can, hold up the mirror to the community and reflect what's there every day fairly. And we are a community that is very diverse, and unfortunately, on issues like this, become very divided. So those people who, for instance, have very little patience with the Cuban community's concern about what would happen to the boy back in Cuba, they are very quick to accuse us of giving too much attention to the Cuban community's arguments. And then the other side of it is we may get from many of the Cuban community the criticism, "Well, why are you suggesting perhaps that Janet Reno is on solid, legal ground here?," whatever the argument might be. Unfortunately, those crevices in our community are very deep and very sensitive and we touch them both.

KURTZ: Clearly, you are caught in the political crossfire, Tom.


KURTZ: We have to take a time out and when we come back, we'll look at where the Elian Gonzalez story and the media go from here.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Drew Jubera in Atlanta, now that the most dramatic, certainly the most visual moment of the Elian Gonzalez saga is over, will the coverage start to fade a little bit? Will we turn the volume down just a bit?

JUBERA: Well, I imagine, you know, we're not going to have CNN on 24 hours with...

KURTZ: Could be 22 hours.

JUBERA: Twenty-two hours. But, you know, we're sort of in the second stage right now where we're doing, you know, our obligatory navel gazing. And from here, you know, who knows what is going to happen in Washington. But, you know, the story now sort of, you know, dies for a while and goes to Geraldo heaven and becomes the staple on the talk shows.

KURTZ: Well, Joe Contreras, I would suggest that even if Juan Miguel Gonzalez shields his son from the media glare, thereby producing fewer pictures for television, you've got presidential candidates, lots of politicians and other folks, not to mention the Miami relatives, who are going to try to continue to drive this story, that it's not going to go away quite that easily.

CONTRERAS: Well, yeah, no, that's very true. Clearly, the Republicans are going to try to milk this for all they can in the coming weeks and months. That's going to keep the story somewhat in the news and on the front page, maybe below the fold and not on the banner headline but it'll still be covered. And you're going to have periods when sudden events will come up like the May 11th oral arguments a the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta that will bring the story back up to the surface. But I definitely do think that it will become more of a newspaper story and less of a television story exclusively, as Tom has suggested. And clearly, the saturation round the clock, 24 hours coverage is not likely to be duplicated unless some extraordinary thing happens like a kidnapping of the kid or something unforeseeable that we simply can't predict.

KURTZ: Well, we certainly hope we don't see that.

Tom Fiedler, if the media - television in particular, cable, even more particularly which loves this story - tries to keep it alive by coming up with new angles and basically refuses to kind of let go even though the news value and the developments are rather few, then would you say that we have become part of the story - part of the problem, excuse me?

FIEDLER: Well, clearly. And I think we have been part of the problem here at other points. I think there was this kind of incestuous relationship that was going on outside of Elian's Miami relatives' house the last several weeks where you did have the reporters the media tent city, and just a few yards away, you had the barricades with the protesters now. Granted, many of those protesters didn't come for the specific purpose of getting on television but with that 24-hour news cycle and when events became slow, it was a very easy thing for the reporters there to wander into the crowds and fill up a lot of air time with various interviews. That's going to be gone now. And I think to the extent that we will have to focus a great deal more on the substantive arguments that'll proceed, the kind of media coverage, the tone of the media coverage I believe and I hope will be elevated somewhat.

KURTZ: OK, Joe Contreras, we have less than 30 seconds left. Two-thirds of the public in that CNN poll turning thumbs down on the media coverage. Fair judgment on the part of the American public or blaming the messenger?

CONTRERAS: Well, I think it's a fair judgment, and I think what that reflects is just the fact that most people in this country basically were up to here with the whole topic of Elian Gonzalez. Here in Miami, of course, people couldn't talk about anything else.

KURTZ: Right.

CONTRERAS: But once you got out of Miami, people were just fed up, saturated. They didn't want to hear anymore, thank you very much.

KURTZ: Well, a case of media overdose but one that is clearly not over. Tom Fiedler, Joe Contreras in Miami, Drew Jubera in Atlanta, thanks very much for joining us.

That's all for this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz in Washington.



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