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.

Gutierrez: "He's excited, you know. He knows they are coming. He is waiting for them."

Andrews: "And I'm sure that the smell of food is wafting through the kitchen?"

Gutierrez: "Yeah, it smells good in there."

Angry and religious in Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Angry and religious in Miami

Channel 10's Michael Putney added nuance, reporting the family would serve a roast with black beans but then contributed a dramatic new detail. The meal would also include a big salad. (Most of the press corps had their minds on other forms of sustenance. At one point a photographer perched on a ladder in the midst of the pack shouted, "Where are the margaritas?")

Telemundo's Channel 51 (WSCV-TV), apparently using sources not available to anyone else, told viewers the dinner would in fact consist of the Spanish specialty paella. Channel 4 (WTVJ-TV) reporter Alita Haytayan played it safe and kept with the pork, black beans, and rice menu. She then offered a piece of information that underscored the ridiculousness and manipulation involved in the day's nonevents. Haytayan told viewers she had just witnessed prepared food being delivered to the house.

Some like Putney did give it that old college try. As Channel 10 continually cut to him live outside the house, he kept repeating that the day's events had little bearing on any ultimate decision about whether the little boy would stay or return to Cuba. "I might have tried to make that point ad nauseum," admits Putney. The message seemed as much directed at station news directors as viewers. Putney and others in the business say they have argued with their bosses about the necessity of doing their stand-ups in front of the house to report the story. "We [the news media] are incapable of exercising restraint," he says.

As was clearly evident when Gutierrez, Eig, and family members took a wild ride to the airport. Despite reports on local and national television that the grandmothers had filed a flight plan to leave at 8:00 p.m., at about 7:45 the group jumped into their cars to try to stop the plane. It was a made-for-television moment, full of drama and empty of meaning. Gutierrez's green Lexus raced down the highway as television helicopters followed and Channel 7's Rick Sanchez talked excitedly with Gutierrez on his cell phone. The group arrived just as the plane took off. Gutierrez, still trying to gain the upper hand in the propaganda war, made much of the fact that the impatient grannies couldn't wait 42 seconds.

Without any real news available, Monday quickly degenerated into a festival of symbolism. Wary of bad press after criticism about traffic disruptions, Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Movimiento Democracia ordered hundreds of carnations handed out to the crowd amassed near the house.

As the possibility of a meeting grew more distant, the issue of the demonstrators had grown more important. The press reported the grandmothers refused to come to the site because they were afraid of the crowd. The grandmothers had in fact requested a neutral site from the start. (Indeed the INS the following day would force a "neutral" site.)

Spencer Eig argued on camera that the mere act of the grandmothers touching down in Miami-Dade County signified their acceptance of the dinner invitation at the house, ipso facto. It stood to follow that because the grandmothers had accepted the invitation, their subsequent refusal was the work of Fidel Castro's manipulators. A compliant local press corps lapped up Eig's assertions without question.

Some went further, abandoning even the pretense of independent journalism. "You can see they are waiting for them with flowers," said Spanish-language Channel 23's José Almora. "Apparently the grandmothers have said that they are so scared, that this public has scared them," he said, motioning to the assembled crowd. (In a few hours that crowd would be rabidly screaming about how the grandmothers didn't love their grandson because they failed to come to the house.) "I reiterate that what they have is flowers in their hands," he continued. Almora then took a carnation from one of the demonstrators. Staring into the camera he beseeched the grandmothers: "If they are watching in the airport, from us at Channel 23 [we say] all they have is flowers waiting for you."

Perhaps the most egregious examples of biased commentary flowed repeatedly from Channel 7, highlighted in an exchange between anchor Rick Sanchez and reporter Patrick Fraser, who was waiting at the airport.

Sanchez: "You say [the grandmothers] have been in a closed meeting. Could they possibly have gotten a phone call from Havana telling them it wouldn't be a good idea to show up there?"

Fraser: "Rick, it could be anything. Speculation here is that they are afraid to go over to Little Havana because ..."

Sanchez: "Afraid of people with flowers?"

Fraser (a little annoyed): "Rick, I am not analyzing this. I am just telling you what the speculation is here. The word coming from inside here is that they have some concerns...."

Anchor Laurie Jennings: "It does raise a lot of questions. Questions about a call from Havana. Questions about whether they want to defect...."

Sanchez: "It would really be bizarre if they don't get the opportunity for these people to come together, huh?"

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