|THE FRENZY ABOUT ELIAN|
April 4, 2000
Media correspondent Terence Smith takes a look at the media's fascination with the story of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez. Following a background report, Smith discusses the media frenzy with four journalists.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
SMITH: Here to discuss why the cameras are omnipresent in little Elian's
world are Miami Herald associate editor Mark Seibel, who has been managing
his paper's coverage of the story for several months; longtime journalist
and observer Hodding Carter III, who is president of the John S. and
James L. Knight Foundation in Miami; Susan Candiotti, a CNN Miami bureau
correspondent who has been stationed at Camp Elian; and with us here,
Armando Guzman, a national correspondent for Univision's Spanish-language
television news in Washington. Welcome to you all.
|The story isn't just about a little boy|
HODDING CARTER, Knight Foundation: Well, it is a mixed answer. First, for Miami this is a major story. It involves most of the most passionate elements of this community. It is a story in its own right for almost anybody else.
But for most of the media outside of this immediate area, this is a great piece of exploitation. It is an exploitation of a traumatized child. It is an exploitation once more of making Miami into some of the freak show for national coverage. It is exploitation that is involved with the politicians on both sides of the divide between Cuba and here. It's exploitation by many of those I would add within the community of Miami who are dealing with real emotions about a real child to produce what amounts to metaphorical combat. And what's lost in all of this is the best interests of one little boy. It's been disgusting, frankly.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Candiotti, what is your reaction to that? Do you feel the coverage has been exploited?
SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN: Well, indeed it has been very painful to watch, quite frankly, all the cameras that have been camped outside this home and wonder what kind of effect if any it has had on this youngster -- also painful to see the child put on the shoulders of many of the adults at this home when supporters have come by begging for the boy's appearance, and the Florida relatives here have willingly paraded him out in front of the crowds and in front of the cameras on at least a few different occasions when perhaps some might wonder, some have already raised the question about the priority of that and perhaps simply keeping the child as much as possible inside the house.
You know, at the same time you have to wonder what exactly the child is thinking when all of this is going on as people are reaching out to touch him, as though they'll get a special feeling or perhaps a special power from him. Everyone -- the Cuban exile community in particular here -- feels a special connection from this boy, that he has become a symbol to them I think of the ongoing cold war in their minds between the United States and Cuba.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark Seibel, do you think this extensive coverage is justified?
MARK SEIBEL, Miami Herald: Well, I do as a matter of fact. Of course, as a local story, we've devoted reams and reams of newsprint and tens of thousands of words to it. And it's a very important one for our readership, but I think even in the discussion of whether we're exploiting the situation, I think in a way that is almost a caricature of the story because the nature of the story is really much deeper than that.
It's not just about a little boy. And while that sort of -- how shall I say not to appear inhumane that is a humane way of looking at it -- it is a little boy in a very traumatic situation -- but it touches a nerve in this community that goes much deeper than that and, yes, everyone is concerned about the welfare of the child, but there is a 40-year history about Cuba that this city lives every day. And so when an event like this happens, there is a whole range of political and emotional sensitivities here that I think we have to explore and explore in great detail. It goes even beyond this community. Obviously one of the concerns of the United States government is how a case like this affects our ability to return children, American children that are being held by parents or others in foreign countries. So it's not just about a little boy.
TERENCE SMITH: So a big story by several points of definition.
MARK SEIBEL: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Armando Guzman, it's obviously also a special story for the Spanish-language press and the Hispanic community. How have you and how has that sector of the media approached it?
ARMANDO GUZMAN, Univision: Well, very extensively. We hope -- we had looked for all the angles that everybody else has looked for. But let me tell you I think that is a legitimate story for many reasons, and I don't think that this is important only for the community in Miami.
Elian, his mother and all the others, they didn't come in a boat to Miami; they came to the United States. And that's why this debate and this discussion about what to do with Cuba for 40 years is reflected so intensively in this story. That's why for us in the Hispanic community and for the rest of the community of the United States, which is not different in that respect, it's a big piece.
|The media -- and the family -- may manipulate story|
TERENCE SMITH: Hodding Carter, who is manipulating whom in this situation?
HODDING CARTER: Well, let me begin with something because the image that comes immediately to mind for me is of a 6-year-old boy being used as a club literally in an ongoing fight, and nothing new has come out of any of the coverage about this 40-year-old fight. Not a single new issue has arisen which is resolved by it. Indeed some issues have been obscured -- not least the question of what United States law actually is, and how in this case, betraying that law calls into real question the deep needs of literally thousands of parents and children.
That -- I might add -- has been obscured here -- but in all of this coverage, I defy anybody to tell me that the discussion about the relationship of a totalitarian government to a democracy to that child and his family, this community and that community, how any of that has been advanced by the coverage. I'll tell you what has been advanced. For the most part, for those outside this community and the media, what has been advanced is a slight uptick they hope in what it is they are getting in a diminishing media with an audience increasingly appalled by what media do. In a list of 20 journalistic values, this illustrates again that compassion is roughly 55th, and this is the main problem about this coverage.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Candiotti, let me ask you as someone who is there day in and day out, does the presence of the media change the story? In other words, would it be different if there weren't all the cameras there? Does some of the story -- some of the demonstrators, do they appear because the cameras are there? What effect does the media have on it?
SUSAN CANDIOTTI: Well, certainly as recently as this day, a few hours ago a group of about 80 people broke down police barricades and shouted and chanted in front of the home, and the cameras rushed forward and took their pictures. And it was hard not to miss that. As soon as the cameras pulled back after this had gone on for several minutes -- and the crowd did indeed back off too.
But I must say, you know, we really have not been here day in and day out. There have been fluctuations. As news warranted at least we at CNN have tried to regulate our camera presence here accordingly. For example, we have been part of a media pool that the family was very much aware of and had no objection to from the very beginning, whereby we had a single camera here to watch the house because there had been reports in fact that someone might try to either snatch the boy or that the family themselves might move the boy someplace else so that he could not be returned to his father in Cuba.
And then as developments warranted it, we would come here and spend more time at the home, but it's also important to show I think by our presence here what has been going on outside -- to show the circus atmosphere that at times has arisen. That is part of the story because, of course, all sides are using this child, both forces that belong to the Cuban government, the family themselves and even the U.S. government. So everyone has got to play, everyone has a piece of this child, and while we see him happily playing outside the relatives tell us that he is crying inside, that he doesn't want to go home. It's difficult to say what is going on in the mind of a child so young while all this is going on around him.
|It's still a big story|
TERENCE SMITH: And that's his home right there that you see. Mark Seibel, I know that you feel that the coverage is justified, and yet I want to read you a quote from Carl Hiassen, the columnist who wrote in your newspaper "We in the media are such self-important blockheads," he wrote, "that we don't recognize our role in screwing up Elian Gonzalez's life. The fact that we're being played for suckers by a couple of hundred noisy zealots has conveniently escaped our attention." Has it?
MARK SEIBEL: Well, I don't think it has at all. I mean, we're very concerned, you know, of course I work for a newspaper. We have the ability to stand back and not have to have a lot of camera equipment. But you know, we went through a period where we didn't send anybody to the house, and we went through a period where we didn't make any effort to contact the family or to talk to the boy or any of those sorts of things. We've always worked through their spokesman, their lawyers, you know and there is a lot of those. I mean they have a professional spokesman who is very well known here, and seven attorneys. So there is lots of ways to talk to the family without actually having to talk to the family.
We did a piece early on about the problem that the whole media coverage and the event itself had had for the family. I mean, they couldn't cook dinner because the lawyers had all their files stacked up on the stove so it was -- you know -- I mean, we've done those kind of stories and we do worry about that. But in the end, you know, when we talk about media exploitation of a problem, I mean I think Susan is right to raise the point of who puts the kid on their shoulders of somebody and walks him around or, you know, when they come back from the visit with the grandmothers, who brings the child out in front so all the cameras can take a picture of him and who taught him to make a victory sign for the cameras?
I mean, you know, I'm not sure where the exploitation is really the media's or where it's somebody else's. I mean, I think the media needs to be sensitive to the moments when we're being used and manipulated and that is our responsibility. But in the end we have a story that is dramatic by its nature. A child survives 50 hours in an inner tube at sea. It is dramatic in the emotions of the political situation that he gets immersed in in Miami. It's dramatic because it involves the highest officials of two countries and involves international law and state law and family custody matters, and it goes back to the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, which has given the INS incredible powers in this case. So there are lots and lots of things that go into this story, and because it involves a 6-year-old boy, I don't think we cannot write about it. I think we do have to have some compassion for the child, but I don't feel that we put the child in that situation.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. And it's obviously far from over. Thank you -- all four of you -- very much.
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