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Dueling Images: Elian Gonzalez

April 24, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: After months of staking out the Gonzalez family home in Miami’s Little Havana, the moment the media had been waiting for was over in less than three minutes. Cameras outside the home caught the pandemonium as federal agents rushed little Elian into a van, and away. Networks quickly broadcast that scene, but their earlier efforts to place a pool camera inside the house went awry. During the raid on the home, federal agents intercepted the camera crew in the yard. The crew claimed later that an agent broke their camera cord and even struck one of them with a gun.

The only coverage inside was the camera of Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz. Invited in by the family, he caught the image that, for many, has already come to symbolize the Elian saga. That photo, plus this happier reunion scene, taken in private later Saturday at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and distributed by the father’s lawyer, quickly framed the media debate over whether the government had done the right thing.

The story predictably dominated the nation’s Sunday newspapers. The Miami Herald, which at times has devoted as many as 31 reporters to this story, used this huge headline atop what has become known as the rescue picture of Elian being hustled out of the house. Below the fold they ran the more ominous shot of an INS border patrol agent brandishing a gun.

The New York Times focused instead on the so-called family reunion photo on page 1. The paper ran a cropped version of the gun-toting agent on page 14. On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Times gave the two images equal play, as did the Washington Post, which emphasized the reunion that took place in its backyard. As the story was evolving, Time magazine went to press, playing up Elian and his papa. Newsweek went inside the raid.

The still photos of the seemingly happy father and son were challenged in a Sunday news conference by Elian’s cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, who contended that they had been doctored.

MARISLEYSIS GONZALEZ: Look how short the hair looks when he was taken out of the house. And look how long the hair is in the picture that they show today. That is not Elian smiling.

TERENCE SMITH: But the Associated Press later confirmed that the photos, and others released later, were genuine. Just as editors had weighed fairness in choosing which photos to emphasize, editorial page writers wrestled with their own sense of right and wrong. The Boston Globe and others supported the government’s move, describing it as “justice,” while the New York Times came down hard on Attorney General Janet Reno for ordering what they called a “precipitous raid.”

This came after weeks in which the paper pressed the attorney general to take action to reunite father and son. And in the Midwest, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial cartoonist, Jeff McNelly, took this slant. Today, the media scrum continued its wait for a glimpse of 6-year-old Elian outside the gates of Andrews Air Force Base. The crowd suggested that the Elian story is far from over.