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At the entrance to the Little Havana street where kindergartner Elian Gonzalez currently resides, two Porta Pottis stand ready to accommodate the press and crowds that regularly throng the block. On one an enterprising media member has tacked a sign that reads, "Welcome to Camp Elian." Almost anyone watching television on Monday, January 24, witnessed in full flower the madness that has touched down in Little Havana over this little boy. Not since Gianni Versace's murder in 1997 has South Florida witnessed such a crush of reporters.
A thicket of media cameras and microphones flanked the humble home. Satellite trucks hogged corners and right-of-ways. A few news organizations had convinced neighbors to rent out their lawns and property for wildly divergent daily fees that ranged from CNN's miserly $50 for a bit of driveway to the payment shelled out by CBS and ABC, who set aside network rivalry to split $500 for an entire patio. Directly across the street, a row of blue-and-white tents sheltered local and national television crews. Veterans brought collapsible chairs. Some stalwarts had already spent nearly two months camped out here watching hawklike for signs of movement from the house across the street. As the day's events would reveal, the media juggernaut would neither be stopped nor slowed, even if there was no news to report.
The object of their attention would not be home from school for three more hours. Since his rescue at sea on Thanksgiving, the photogenic boy rarely has been out of the camera's eye. Yet that day it was not just him the media craved. Information had filtered out that the boy's grandmothers were on their way to Miami from New York to visit him.
One reporter gushed the story had everything: family drama, a 41-year history of rancor across the Florida Straits, national politics, passion, tragedy, pathos, and conflict galore on every level. It also made for good public viewing. "TV loves it because the kid is cute, the grandmothers are cute, the grandmothers cry, [the relatives] cry," explains Mike Williams, a reporter for the Cox newspaper chain who flew in from Orlando to write about Elian.
Yet despite the juiciness of the material, in interviews with more than a dozen local, national, and international journalists, nearly all expressed unease and discomfort with what they were doing. Some were reluctant to talk on the record, citing rules or fear of being blackballed by those who control access to Elian.
"It has been a horrible experience," notes Bernadette Pardo, a newscaster and radio host with WLTV-TV (Channel 23) and WQBA-AM (1140), respectively. "He's just a six-year-old child." Despite their misgivings they continue. "It's like eating something that is bad for you but you can't help yourself," remarks a writer for a major weekly magazine.
Although none declined the meal, some journalists, particularly those from other nations, are casting an increasingly critical eye at the source of the food. Their skepticism and the portraits they paint of Miami is by comparison an indictment of some local journalists, who have shed even their traditionally thin veneer of objectivity.
"The story is like a Rorschach test," comments Pardo. She observes that everyone projects themselves on to Elian. "If you are not Cuban but you are a father, you project the right of a father over a child. People who have been in custody fights will see it another way." Pardo says covering the story for a Spanish-speaking audience as a woman and a Cuban has been particularly hard. "Everybody knows someone who came here on a raft," she notes. "It is very difficult for Cubans to argue it rationally."
In fairness to local reporters, they face consequences their national and international colleagues don't. One station was picketed by Cubans outraged at its coverage. Another decided not to air a controversial story, later published by New Times, about the criminal record of Elian's Miami relatives. A veteran South Florida reporter says his entire family was denounced on Spanish-language radio, and another claims to have received reams of hate mail for her coverage.
On Monday the 24th, the Elian story soared to another level of absurdity, capped by a bizarre evening finale when Elian's present guardians raced to the airport, media helicopters buzzing overhead, in an attempt to intercept the grandmothers' departing plane. Although little hard "news" came from the experience, the day revealed much about the care and maintenance of the media beast and the nature of the adults controlling the six-year-old boy.
Intimidation -- verbal, physical, and economic -- has influenced both the coverage and the conduct of reporters on this story. Through manipulation, truth and fact have been the first casualties in what has turned into a brutal propaganda war. Many reporters who rightly question the legitimacy of mammoth state-sponsored demonstrations in Cuba abandoned such scrutiny in Florida.
At around 1:00 p.m. on that Monday afternoon, a thin man in a baseball cap, whom a reporter identified as "security," unlocked the gate to the Gonzalez house and let Armando Gutierrez out into the street. Gutierrez, a controversial but effective public-relations man infamous for the tone of his political campaigns, particularly in Spanish, would be the ringmaster for much of the events that day. Gutierrez insists he is not being paid for his involvement, which began a few days after the boy was found.