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Reno's reporters

National | The press tries to justify administration's handling of Elián case rather than scrutinize it

Issue: "Supreme Court dividing line," May 6, 2000

Media justification of the April 22 seizing of Elián began quickly. That Saturday morning, CBS's Dan Rather defended Janet Reno ("It's hard to see how she gets criticized"), lauded Fidel Castro (who "feels a very deep and abiding connection to those Cubans who are still in Cuba"), and found that the child suffered at the hands of the AP photographer who showed a gun pointed at him, not the gunman ("Even if the photographer was in the house legally ... there is the question of privacy, beginning with the privacy of the child").

CBS reporter Jim Stewart mourned that Ms. Reno would be remembered largely for the Waco fiasco and this new use of force: "It is appalling from her perspective because of the true compassion she has for children. If you've ever seen her around children, you know how much she truly cares for them, and this has got to be tearing at her." That night, every "objective" reporter on the political-roundtable talk shows supported the raid. Newsweek's Evan Thomas called Ms. Reno "principled" and "apolitical."

Administration spokesmen were less than credible. When Tim Russert pressed Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder about previously denying Mr. Russert's suggestion that the Clinton administration would "send a SWAT team in the dark of night to kidnap the child, in effect," Mr. Holder suggested it wasn't really night: "We waited till five in the morning, just before dawn."

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One of the most fervent administration spokesmen was ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who asserted on This Week that the AP photo of Elián face to face with a submachine gun was the family's fault: "It's a picture nobody wants. But whose fault is it? It's the family's and they bear the moral responsibility for having that picture there. They're the ones who wanted this and every step of the way they've chosen to create propaganda over the psychological health of the child."

Two days after the raid, ABC anchor Peter Jennings announced in his afternoon e-mail (which he sends out to promote his show) that "The sorting of fact from fiction is, when we do it well, one of the most satisfying exercises in journalism. Sometimes, as you'll see tonight, the truth remains elusive. Other times you can nail it down." ABC correspondent Terry Moran's "satisfying exercise" on that evening's newscast: correction of four "fictions"-all of them the arguments of anti-communist Cuban Americans.

When the pro-Castro camp responded to the AP photo with its own privately taken photos, journalists accepted the new photos and every claim of Elián's hidden happiness without skepticism. For example, Newsweek's Evan Thomas and Martha Brant quoted Greg Craig, the lawyer speaking for Elián's father: "There was instant delight on Elián's face when he saw his father.... He was totally relaxed, totally comfortable."

Newsweek's opinion of Mr. Craig was underlined several weeks before, when it hailed Senator Patrick Leahy, who "had performed a greater service than a good legal argument: he had found Elián's father a good lawyer."

Newsweek's "Conventional Wisdom Watch" feature flippantly saluted Attorney General Janet Reno: "Better late than never. Waco. Ruby Ridge. The third time's the charm." Newsweek suggested Elián's cousin and caretaker Marisleysis Gonzalez as the new personality to replace Kathie Lee Gifford sitting next to Regis Philbin.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went so far as to extol the AP photo: "Yup, I gotta confess, that now-famous picture of a U.S. marshal in Miami pointing an automatic weapon toward Donato Dalrymple and ordering him in the name of the U.S. government to turn over Elián Gonzalez warmed my heart," since the administration was upholding "the rule of law." He was not kidding.

The raid could be seen as a culmination of the media's biased coverage. Like the Monica Lewinsky scandal, where the administration and the media spent seven months demonizing the opposition, reporters have spent the last six months describing anti-communist Cuban Americans with words like "hard-line," "militant," "dysfunctional," "opportunists," "zealots" running a "jihad." A two-man camera crew working for NBC on the Elián beat created a mock press credential badge labeled "Camp Elián," which was followed in Spanish by "Prensa, Republica de Banana." The reference to "Banana Republic" is deeply offensive to those living in Little Havana. An MSNBC graphic on Cuban exiles pledging to surround the Gonzalez home actually declared, "Captors or Saviors?"

Meanwhile, media stars aimed no ideological labels or political slurs at the president, the attorney general, the Justice Department, or Juan Miguel Gonzalez's lawyer Greg Craig. None of them were captors. They were saviors.

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