DeFede

Used, Abused, and Alone

I understand that Elian's American relatives were unprepared for the onslaught of media attention, but they should have realized almost immediately that parading him in front the cameras was a bad idea. They were convinced that to keep Elian in the United States, they needed to elicit sympathy from the public. The best way to generate that type of emotional response, they believed, was to let people see what a beautiful child Elian is. The cost of doing that, however, clearly is too high.

Many in the exile community have attempted to rewrite the brief history of this case by suggesting Castro fired the first shot in the public relations war that has raged for more than three weeks. It wasn't Castro. It was U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and members of the Cuban American National Foundation. The foundation plastered the boy's picture on thousands of posters and dressed him in one of its sweatshirts, while Ros-Lehtinen raced through every red light in her district to get to Elian's house in time to be seen on the evening news frolicking with him.

Exiles made the boy a prop.

Castro made him a cause.

And the media blindly went along with all of it.

"The child is a gigantic story," says Channel 7 (WSVN-TV) reporter Mark Londner. "The only negative is that the child has been subjected to the media frenzy that accompanies this sort of thing. I just don't think it was avoidable."

Of course it was avoidable. If the INS had placed Elian with Catholic Charities -- as it does with most children in his situation -- no television crew or photographer would have come within a mile of him. Instead INS officials turned him over to relatives in Miami, a perfectly reasonable decision. Technically, though, the boy remains a ward of the INS, and as such it is the agency's responsibility to see he is not mistreated. In this the INS has failed miserably.

Agency officials should have contacted the family and ordered them to keep the media away from Elian -- who, we shouldn't forget, is still grieving the death of his mother. They also should have prohibited the family from involving the boy in a series of publicity stunts, such as taking him to Disney World and trotting him out to visit a local private school he might attend.

These outings are not only crudely exploitative, they constitute a form of child abuse.

Last week Channel 10's (WPLG-TV) Michael Putney made similar comments, adding that the time had come for the media to leave the boy alone. Following those comments Putney was castigated on Spanish-language radio, where he was branded "Michael Sputnik" and vilified as being anti-Cuban. (Someone should tell that to Putney's Cuban-American wife, Marta.)

Both Londner and Putney talked about the pressure they feel from their bosses not to miss any opportunities for fresh footage of Elian. When he had a birthday party two weeks ago, a couple of the stations came back with film of the celebration, which set off a frenzy of activity as news directors at other stations demanded that their reporters come up with something new as well. And when the Herald printed a story that contained direct quotes from the boy, it was as if a free-for-all had been declared.

"That was the crack in the dam," recalls Londner. "It raised the stakes competitively."

The subsequent intense coverage prompted this comment from one member of the foreign press pursuing the Elian story: "I think if the kid wasn't traumatized before he got off the inner tube, he must be completely traumatized now."

Today we have news crews staking out the boy's house, sometimes all night long. And because everyone knows they are out there, idiotic things can be expected to happen, such as Willy Chirino and school board member Demetrio Perez paying friendly visits and mugging for the cameras. What in God's name does Willy Chirino possibly have to say to this boy? " Qué tal, chico? Here's my latest CD. Enjoy! And oye, you can still get tickets for my New Year's Eve espectáculo at the Hyatt Regency!"

Finally, after last week's debacle at Demetrio Perez's Lincoln-Martí school, in which Elian was nearly crushed amid a throng of reporters, the family has declared they will no longer make the boy available for photo ops and won't provide the media with a daily itinerary.

Putney says Channel 10 has decided it will no longer air stories about Elian that merely follow him around and document his daily activities.

We'll see how long those promises last.

I asked Linda Osberg-Braun whether she thought Elian was being exploited, and if so, whether she, as the boy's attorney, should have stepped in weeks ago and put a stop to it. She evaded the question again and again. Our interview ended with her refusing to acknowledge that any exploitation was taking place.

That's when I realized no one is actually representing this six-year-old child. We have attorneys who say they are representing him, but in fact they are representing his American relatives. No one represents Elian. No one is there to protect him from his lawyers and his relatives and his handlers and the media and the politicians and the publicity-seekers. No one is there to say, "Enough!"

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