All weekend long, the rush of television images made Miami's suddenly famous Gonzalez clan look like the victims of a terrible and militaristic federal government.
It wasn't just the chilling Associated Press photo of the gun-toting federal agent and the frightened Elian Gonzalez--a picture that existed only because the 6-year-old's relatives allowed the photographer in. It was the endlessly replayed footage of the agents hustling the boy into a van and driving off in the predawn darkness, followed by the inevitable shots of angry protesters.
And then, on the cable networks, came as many as three interviews on Saturday morning with Elian's distraught cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel all cut away from Attorney General Janet Reno's news conference as the 21-year-old railed against the government raid, castigated President Clinton, gave a tour of the damaged home, said she'd begged the agents not to bring guns into the bedroom--all with hardly an interruption.
Incredible emotion. Great television. And a one-sided picture of events, obscuring the fact that the family had left the government little choice but to seize Elian by refusing to surrender custody during lengthy negotiations.
Yesterday morning, Marisleysis Gonzalez was back again with a tearful monologue on Capitol Hill--again carried live by the three cable networks--demanding to see Elian and holding up the AP photo emblazoned with the words "Federal Child Abuse."
Nearly lost amid the sound and fury was Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father, who remained secluded with the son he was seeing for the first time in five months, refusing to play the game of parading the boy for the cameras. Mindful of the propaganda war, however, Gonzalez's lawyer rushed to release photos of a smiling Elian reunited with his dad, stepmother and infant half brother, creating a reassuring counter-image to the violent scene.
Still, the Elian-at-gunpoint picture seemed indelible both on the air and in print. "Given the potency of television, that could be the lingering image, and it's a powerful one," says James Warren, Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune. "It will ignite all the crazies. . . . The focus on the Miami relatives and the Reno-bashers really grotesquely distorts the public response to this whole matter."
But Dennis Murray, a Fox executive producer, says: "That was the news--the federal government deciding to send armed immigration agents to smash into that house." As a public service, he says, "we showed the image of the screaming kid being taken out. When the other photo [with Elian's father] became available, we did our best to balance the new image into the battle of images."
Such images may be less critical in the long run, suggests Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Pictures like these will rivet people's attention, but there's been so much coverage that most people have already made up their minds about this case," he says. "The reaction is either 'look how awful the government is' or 'look how awful the family is for forcing the government to do this.' "
The dueling images also created a dilemma for the Sunday newspapers: Which shot more accurately captured the day's tumultuous action?
The New York Times ran a large picture of Elian and his father, with a smaller one of an agent carrying the boy to the van. The New York Post ("Papa's Boy") and Daily News ("Together Again!") ran full-page shots of the reunion scene, projecting a happy image.
By contrast, the Washington Times ran a large picture of Elian at gunpoint and the Baltimore Sun a large one of the boy being carried away, both using smaller shots of Elian and his father--a display projecting a more sinister message. The Washington Post ran the gunpoint and reunion pictures the same size; the Los Angeles Times also published both, with the gunpoint shot slightly larger.
Even the pictures themselves have been called into question, with the family and some Spanish-language radio stations charging that the reunion photo, in which Elian appears to have slightly longer hair than in the early-morning shot, may have been doctored.
The media have gorged themselves on the story, helping to turn a custody case into an international crisis whose saturation coverage, according to the media center, has now surpassed that of the Princess Diana and JFK Jr. tragedies. The Gonzalez relatives have helpfully furnished the pictures by turning Elian into a "Truman Show" character in the media bubble, playing and frolicking for the cameras and making the suspect "I don't want to go back to Cuba" videotape.
The question now is whether the pictures will fade and the press, filled with declarations about the best interests of the boy, will stop hyperventilating and abandon the round-the-clock stakeouts. That, in the current environment, seems unlikely.
"I'm not going to pitch [for Page 1] the crazy family running around here all day and bitching on television, but it's going to be all over CNN and MSNBC and Fox," Warren says. "The soap opera will continue. It's good and cheap television."
How Are We Doing?
USA Today wants to know when it's wrong.
In an unorthodox move, the Gannett paper is sending hundreds of "accuracy surveys" to people quoted or mentioned in stories. The effort will take place during the next year.
In the survey, posted by the Web site Thesmokinggun.com, USA Today asks respondents to assess possible errors on a scale of 1 to 7: "Numbers wrong. Factual error in headline. Headline not supported by story. Inaccurate quote. Quote out of context. My name was misspelled. Job title was wrongly abbreviated. Job title was totally wrong." And so on.
Finally, the questionnaire asks whether the story was fair, whether the person had contacted the paper and, if so, how the complaint was resolved.
"It's not like I think there's a big problem," says Editor Karen Jurgensen. "I just felt, let's do a reality check. We're big enough to see how we're doing."
Jurgensen says the move was inspired by industry studies on the importance of credibility and her own experience after being named to the editor's post. "In truth, there were a lot of stories about me, and there were errors in a lot of them, and I felt like the public feels."
"It's the dumbest thing I've ever covered. Some people think Hell is a place where you wake up in the morning in a bed of coals. I think it's where you wake up and find out you'll be writing about Elian for the next 643 days."--New York Times reporter Rick Bragg to Knoxville's MetroPulse.
Elian to the Rescue
The first redesigned issue of George magazine was heading to the printers with Al Gore and George W. Bush on the cover--hardly a surprising choice, given that George is about politics.
But the new editor, Frank Lalli, pulled a switcheroo at the last minute. He had an Ann Louise Bardach story about the three other survivors of the boat that carried Elian Gonzalez near Florida, plus exclusive photos of Elian and his family. So while subscribers still got the presidential candidates, Lalli ordered a change for 15,000 street copies.
"I made a judgment we should go 100 percent on the newsstand with the Elian cover because it is the hot news story," Lalli says. In the future, he says, "we're going to try very hard to break news."
What's more, says the former Money magazine editor, "we've raised the bar for celebrities to get into this magazine." So what about that empty feature in which Heather Locklear dishes advice to Rudy Giuliani? Just an excuse to run a sexy picture of the starlet?
"I plead guilty," says Lalli.
"House Speaker to Oppose China Trade Legislation"--New York Times story on Rep. Richard Gephardt, who at last check was still minority leader. (The Times quickly corrected the early-edition flub.)
What Were They Thinking?
Bowing to complaints from Muslims and a petition signed by 200 staffers, the Los Angeles Times has dropped ads that featured Muslim women in chadors next to bikini-clad babes.
Howard Kurtz appears on CNN's weekly media program.