Fine Young Cannibals
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.
The reporters flocked to him as he handed a photocopy of a letter dated that same day to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, inviting the grandmothers to dine at the Gonzalez house at 6:00 p.m.
"[Gutierrez] comes out and throws us these little nuggets, and we all dive to gobble them up like little puppies going after treats," observes one photographer who fears Gutierrez's ability to shut down access on a hot story enough to ask to remain unnamed. Earlier in the day the publicist had spoken to Spanish-language radio personalities and community leaders, urging them to tell people to behave during the grandmothers' visit.
Now Gutierrez looked around at a handful of fellow Cubans on the street before the house and tried to get them to disperse. "We can't fall into that trap," he told one elderly gentleman. The man did not agree. "We should be here and receive [the grandmothers] with applause," he protested.
Gutierrez shrugged, then spied Angel Valdez and her sign. Valdez's statement was blunt, printed in large black letters on fluorescent-orange posterboard. "Channel 10 get the f...out of here. A Free Cuban. Liars." Valdez was still angry about tape the local Channel 10 (WPLG-TV) television station aired of young Elian talking. Eleven days earlier the station had translated the boy's words as "I want you to take me back to Cuba." Angry exiles who understood the words to mean the opposite had demonstrated in front of the station.
"They are liars," says Valdez, a petite chain-smoking women with a shock of white hair. "They shouldn't be here." Valdez herself is a frequent visitor to the street outside the home.
A core group of about fifteen Cuban exiles have regularly shown up at the house. One of the leaders of the group, called the Movement for the Dignity of the Cuban People, is Jorge Gonzalez (no relation to Elian's relatives). Gonzalez, with a miniature bullhorn in hand, has tried to direct the crowd and relay instructions from Armando Gutierrez and others. Gonzalez led a short-lived hunger strike in early January to protest efforts to send the boy back to Cuba. The four-day action was marred by violence when the hunger strikers clashed with someone who disagreed with their position, landing the critic in the hospital.
(The threat of violence is real. It was for Phillip, a lawyer on Miami Beach who asked that his last name not be used out of concern for his family's safety. Phillip showed up at the scene of the actual meeting with the grandmothers, which took place two days later, on January 26. Outside the gated house of Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, who hosted the meeting, huddled more than 80 demonstrators, including Gonzalez and members of his movement, and more than 100 media people. The lawyer took the risky action of hoisting a sign that read: "Stop the deaths at sea. Repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act." Within minutes of raising the sign, Phillip was surrounded by angry demonstrators. The crowd began to punch and kick him before he was whisked away by Miami Beach police. As the cops escorted the lawyer from the scene, an elderly woman, who held a sign that read, "Three Kings, Three Children, Moses, Jesus, and Elian," kept repeating to a reporter: "Good news for you. Good news for you.")
In her coverage as a newscaster and radio commentator, Bernadette Pardo has made a point of never declaring her position on whether Elian should stay or return to Cuba. This traditional journalistic objectivity has made many in the Cuban exile community assume she supports the boy's return to the island. As a result Pardo says she has received abusive and threatening mail. "To keep above the emotions sometimes is very hard when you are getting hate mail," she says.
The lingering hostility toward Channel 10 prompted one of the channel's cameramen, when spotted by a crowd of demonstrators on Monday, to insist loudly in English with a bit of a grin: "I don't speak Spanish. I have no idea what he said."
But the pressure on Channel 10 journalists is far from humorous. Political reporter Michael Putney says he and his family were attacked on Spanish-language radio. "I have been extremely vocal to my detriment," he says. According to Putney, on stations Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) and La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) he was denounced as a Castro agent. In addition his wife was accused of being the daughter of Magda Montiel Davis, infamous in exile circles for kissing Fidel Castro on the cheek. Putney's daughter was said to be married to vocal Cuban embargo opponent Francisco Aruca's son.
"I am a public figure of sorts and I expect a certain degree of that, but I detest it when they reach down and start saying things about my wife and daughter," declares Putney. The news veteran suspected Gutierrez's fingerprints on the accusations, but the spin-doctor denied involvement.
Despite the risks the pressure to quote little Elian is strong. After all some believe the six-year-old boy is godlike, rescued by dolphins to lead the faithful from exile. It is these people, not the media, who worry one of the Gonzalez neighbors. "It's driving me nuts," says Mary Rodriguez, who lives opposite the house and has kindly let reporters use her patio without charge. "It's not a press problem. It's more the people, the mob."
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."
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."
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."
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?"
Fraser: "Rick, I can't imagine the repercussions of something like this...."
Sanchez: "This would be very bad PR."
Outside South Florida the bad PR seems aimed in one direction: Miami. The local manipulation of Elian may be backfiring. Perhaps in a concession to this, recently the family tried to put up a fence to shield the boy from the glare of the cameras. But it might be too little too late for both the boy and the reputation of his handlers. A survey of some European journalists covering the story indicates that the actions of Elian's caretakers here are not well received on the continent.
"I think the hard-line Cubans here seem to reproduce the same propaganda one hears in Cuba," notes French television journalist Victor Robert.
Robert and a cameraman had rushed to the house from the airport on the following Friday, January 28. From the house Gutierrez invited them to accompany him and the uncles to a cancer fundraiser at the Airport Hilton hosted by Radio Mambí station director Armando Perez-Roura. The event also was attended by Mayor Alex Penelas and Jorge Mas Santo, head of the newly minted Jorge Mas Canosa Freedom Foundation. "It was like something out of a Martin Scorsese movie," recalls the Frenchman, taking a break from some last-minute shots outside the house. About fifteen feet away, a few Cubans have playfully embraced Robert's vision of them by selling black T-shirts that read, "I am a member of the Cuban-American mafia."
Robert's story will focus on fear and intimidation in Miami-Dade County, he says. "For me it is a good, hard-working community here, but the people like Gutierrez you have at the top don't give a very good image of this community," he opines.
"It is an enormous manipulation for political purposes," says a reporter for Spanish television. "No one, not the radical exile groups here nor Fidel Castro, cares about the boy. I tell you this only because it is what I am saying in my reports."
A disgusted print journalist was even more scathing in his appraisal: "The whole thing -- the media trips to Disney, the daily parading him in front of cameras, the V for victory signs. Who are they trying to kid? They might be kidding Channel 7 and exile radio stations, but at best they look like clowns and at worst they look like a very nasty bunch."
There are signs that both the media and the Miami relatives have become aware of this. The Miami Gonzalezes recently asked the media to back off, leaving just a pool cameraman. "It got to be a little out of hand," admits Gutierrez. But it is unlikely this will be more than a brief reprieve until journalists start behaving more professionally and remember that Elian is a child first and a symbol second.
One photographer, Bill Cooke, who has been part of the media scene almost since the beginning, remembers a day in early December, camped out by the house waiting for a glimpse of Elian. An ice-cream truck appeared down the street, and Elian and other little children bounded out of the house. The photographers and cameramen rushed to take pictures of the boy. For just a moment Cooke stepped back to appraise the scene, and saw how bizarre it truly was.
"We were salivating, going crazy over a little boy buying ice cream," he recalls.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.