Fine Young Cannibals

The reporters providing us coverage of Elian Gonzalez seem to recognize they're taking part in a shark feed. And they just keep chomping.

Rodriguez, who is Cuban, has watched as visitors come to put flowers and candles in front of the Gonzalez house. Parents bring their children to touch Elian. "It's like, 'Get a life,'" she says. "The prodigy stuff is wrong. It's wrong for the kid."

At least one journalist professed incredulity at this development. "I am Catholic," says Victor Robert, a television reporter for a popular weekly investigative news show in France. "For me it is a blasphemy to say that Elian is the son of God. He is not."

His holy status notwithstanding, the child attracts VIPs such as Sen. Bob Smith and Rep. Dan Burton. In early January Smith, a Republican senator from the chilly state of New Hampshire, came to the Gonzalez house on a trip sponsored by the Cuban American National Foundation. The senator, who does not speak the boy's native Spanish, reports the child said, "Please help me, Mr. Smith. I don't want to go back to Cuba."

courtesy Louis Wolfson II Media History Center
courtesy Louis Wolfson II Media History Center

The senator's comments became the subject of great humor in the assembled national press corps. Mimicking the senator, one cynical journalist cracked: "Yeah, the kid told me he backed my tax plan and wanted a Republican as president, too."

Representative Burton, a Republican from Indiana, also made the trek to the house with the same language skills, the same insistence that the boy spoke his mind freely, and the same result.

Relaying Elian's utterances is a task also performed by Armando Gutierrez. Not surprisingly Elian makes trenchant observations about the problems in his native Cuba on occasion. "The way they come out and say this is what the boy says or wants is fucking idiotic, as anyone who has a six-year-old boy knows," fumes one foreign journalist happy to vent after months of nonstop reporting on the story. He has instructed his colleagues on certain rules of language in covering Elian: Don't say it's the kid's lawyers; it's the family's lawyers. Don't refer to the relatives here as "family." His family is in Cuba. Those who are here are his Miami relatives. Don't say this is what the kid says; it is what the family says the kid says. The protesters outside the house should never be identified as Elian's supporters. They are demonstrators.

"I don't see that as bias," says the long-time news veteran. "I see it as clear and concise writing."

Such distinctions would rarely be in evidence that Monday.

Not since television viewers missed part of the NBA finals to watch O.J. Simpson's white Bronco drive down a Los Angeles expressway have the hazards of live television been more vivid than later that afternoon. Looked at objectively the day's events could be summed up like this: Two Cuban grandmothers flew to Miami to try and see their grandson. After a little more than four hours of fruitless, secret negotiations and brinkmanship, they left.

Yet the major local stations pre-empted their daily programs to bring a constant stream of Elian "news." Not all viewers were happy. One station that showed e-mail responses to the coverage displayed a message that read: "I am tired of hearing about this child every time I try to watch the news."

Despite the fact that next to nothing occurred, TV anchors lavished their reports with hyperbole such as "dramatic," "stunning," and "whirlwind." The commentary took on a surreal flavor, and if viewers took into account the child's welfare, left a bitter taste.

It's unclear which eager journalist desperate to fill airtime first asked Armando Gutierrez what the family would serve the grandmothers for dinner when they finally arrived. But by 4:00 p.m., the public-relations master had reporters salivating at a vision of grilled pork, chicken, and rice. When asked an hour later, Gutierrez had more to offer. The dinner now consisted of breaded chicken, pork, and moros y cristianos, a.k.a. black beans mixed with rice.

Attorney Spencer Eig, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for airtime, spent the day spinning his version of events to eager journalists. When asked why he was there, he told one television reporter: "I just came by to offer encouragement and see if they need any help cooking." Eig, considered an informed source, revealed a revised menu: roast beef with beans and rice.

In keeping with Channel 7's (WSVN-TV) effort to paint the Gonzalez family in Norman Rockwell hues, newscaster Diana Diaz lauded the family atmosphere in the home and the joy the assembled crowd felt about the reunion. "This is going to be a good time for the family," she raved. "The feeling is excitement among the people gathered."

The meal for the night, Diaz reported, would be imperial chicken, pork, and rice. Thanks to Diaz's aggressive journalism, an hour later the television reporter would tell viewers the meal was in fact imperial rice, chicken, and pork.

Her breathless colleague Brian Andrews labored hard to convey his perfect vision of hearth and home to Armando Gutierrez. Andrews's hype seemed to take even the master publicist by surprise.

Andrews: "The excitement for this little boy now that he knows. It must be really incredible inside the house."

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