The press and the shipwrecked boy

National | With a court decision, a Justice Department ultimatum, and a Castro delegation all to come, at least the "fourth branch" has issued its verdict in the Elián Gonzalez case

Issue: "Money to burn," April 15, 2000

Local journalists covering the Elián Gonzalez saga have taken a pounding in Miami. Newswoman Bernadette Pardo of television station WLTV collided with her own photographer while leaving the federal courthouse where the 6-year-old Cuban boy's case was heard last month. She was taken to the hospital with a head wound and received stitches. She returned to the air in time for the evening news, wearing a prominent bandage. In front of the Gonzalez home, a Fox 7 cameraman fell in the crush of the crowd and was taken away in an ambulance. Others complained so much about having to leave the scene for facilities at a nearby Burger King that portajohns were delivered to the corner of 2nd Street and 23rd Avenue near the Gonzalez home.

For reporters covering the news from Havana, it is the same, as the saying goes, only different. Last year the Cuban government detained 40 out of 100 non-government Cuban journalists. Plainclothes security agents seized tape recorders and cameras as they took the journalists into custody. At least two reporters were evicted from their homes. Persistent harassment forced 10 Cuban journalists into exile. Government agents threatened them and others with prosecution under a 1999 law that further restricts freedom of the press in Cuba. It sets prison terms of up to 20 years for those who send reports abroad that are deemed to support pro-U.S. sentiments in any way. A Cuban court sentenced journalist Jesus Joel Diaz Hernandez to 4 years' imprisonment for "dangerousness." Another court sentenced Cubapress correspondent Mario Gonzalez Castellanos to 2H years in prison for showing disrespect to Fidel Castro.

The details of those incidents were contained in two recent and respected reports: the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights and a bulletin from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Both reports warn of similar threats to foreign correspondents working in Cuba. Last year Ricardo Alarcon, a key Castro advisor and the head of Cuba's legislature, threatened accredited foreign journalists with 20-year prison sentences if they published information "deemed to serve U.S. interests."

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Cuba's constitution decrees that all forms of print and electronic media are state property. The Communist Party controls all media "as a means of indoctrinating the public," according to the State Department report. News outlets are regularly denied access to mass printing equipment. The regime continues to jam U.S.-operated Radio Marti and Television Marti.

Examining the course of the Elián Gonzalez case in light of the limitations to free speech in Cuba helps to explain why Mr. Castro has gotten such good press throughout the 6-year-old boy's ordeal. Reporters in Havana are clearly intimidated into following the party line when it comes to Elián. Journalists are among the few professional categories exempt from the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, a privilege risked by independent reporting.

But more significantly, news organizations like CNN, with journalists operating in Cuba, want to preserve good relations with Mr. Castro in order to hold onto their Havana bureaus-and keep their reporters out of jail. Only this time, they feel no obligation to issue disclaimers, as CNN regularly did during the Persian Gulf war, when it warned viewers that reports from Baghdad were subject to censorship by Saddam Hussein.

In this environment, newspeak from Cuba has posed as news coverage. Mr. Castro becomes the spokesman for parental rights and patriotism-a harmless, cardboard dictator. The Cuban-American exile community in Miami, on the other hand, is increasingly portrayed as the NRA of minority-group activists. The Clinton administration-particularly Attorney General Janet Reno-is the besieged Goliath trying to get just a little understanding from the Cuban David living in Little Havana. Newsday columnist James Pinkerton acknowledged, "Even by mainstream media standards, reporting on this story has lopped to the left."

The slant became most apparent when ABC played up Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Elián, but downplayed its decision not to air the boy's remarks about wanting to remain in the United States. "We're not trying to take a position in a highly charged political atmosphere," was ABC News president David Westin's explanation for the editing.

Meanwhile, ABC anchorman Peter Jennings began one report: "Once again, the government has failed to get the kind of cooperation from the relatives that might allow the case of this young boy to end in a civilized manner that is best for him."

Other major news outlets have been quick to carry commentary favoring Elián's return to Cuba, but without context. The New York Times devoted three-quarters of a page March 29 to an op-ed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature complained that "the real shipwreck of Elián did not take place on the high seas, but when he set foot on American soil." He accused Miami relatives of harming Elián's mental health. At story's end, an identification note mentioned the Nobel Prize of Mr. Marquez, but not his close friendship with Fidel Castro. The Colombian-born novelist travels frequently to Cuba; in March alone, he showed up in Havana twice. He attended a cigar festival with Mr. Castro and, one week later, dined with the Cuban dictator along with New York-based playwright Arthur Miller and author William Styron. On both occasions, the Gonzalez case was a topic of conversation.


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