Stirring passion, stifling discussion

Elian's story is only the latest example of how free speech is trampled in Miami.

April 16, 2000|By Rick Rockwell

"... A free press is the first enemy of dictatorship."

It may seem unconnected but that quote has come to mind repeatedly during almost five months as the nation has watched the Elian Gonzalez saga. Beyond the tragedy of a family torn asunder by fate and international politics, the subtext of the Elian story is the sacrifice of free expression on the altar of propaganda.

Media coverage of Elian has been more than manipulated. Other words apply: misleading, myopic, muddled.

The obvious culprits are the anti-Castro zealots and Florida politicians who have shaped the debate and the coverage during much of the Elianwatch.

Finally last week, as this story continued to unfold, the inevitable happened. Many Cuban-Americans started castigating the national media for distorting the coverage of demonstrations in support of keeping Elian in Miami. This was inevitable because the Cuban community long ago cowed most of the media of South Florida.

During an international communication conference in Miami weeks before Elian's father landed to lay claim to his son, journalists complained about the chilling effect angry community reaction has produced.

Professor Leonardo Ferreira of the University of Miami asserted that his colleagues at universities around the state were afraid to give opinions to the media about the Elian situation. They feared that unless they hewed to the Miami party line of saying the law, moral authority, and social responsibility were on the side of those demanding Elian stay in the United States these experts would suffer for their doubts. Ferreira said the consequences could be having your phone or computer swamped with angry calls and messages. Or being the subject of malicious gossip on Spanish-language radio. Or having protesters come to your home or office.

As a result, the Miami media have bowed to community pressure and many media outlets have become megaphones for the message that Elian must stay on this side of the Florida Straits. Ferreira singled out WSVN-TV, Miami's Fox affiliate as one of the worst for distorting coverage.

WSVN-TV was one of the stations leading newscasts with items casting Elian's grandmothers as perverts, as opposed to other news outlets that opted for more substantive items from the U.S. Justice Department.

"We cover this story like we cover any other story, fairly and accurately," responded Alice Jacobs, vice president of news for WSVN.

WSVN is not alone in facing criticism of its approach. Coverage of tiny Elian, the boy who was rescued on an inner tube on Thanksgiving day, has ranged from the maudlin to the manipulative.

We've seen Diane Sawyer of ABC's "Good Morning America" fawn over the boy, transforming herself into some sort of star babysitter instead of a journalist.

ABC News, Spanish-language network Univision and various cable outlets also bit hard on this week's propaganda ploy: a stage-managed videotape of Elian.

Newspaper and magazine editors also haven't been without fault for following the old tabloid philosophy credited to William Randolph Hearst: Kids and animals on the front page are almost a guarantee of increased sales. With few exceptions, the media have declined to use the Elian saga to discuss our nation's outmoded Cuba policy, today's political reality in Havana, or even a more measured debate about divorce and child custody. Instead coverage has devolved into repeating legal minutia or the latest intrafamily squabbling swirling around the case.

Perhaps this is the way the politicians pandering for votes (Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore and a list of others who feel they must bow to the anti-Castro lobby) want the media to play the story. We should stay distracted by the emotion so we can ignore the issues.

Hidden by the Elian smoke-screen is how Miami-Dade County tries to thwart free expression through its control of its arts budget. Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took the county to court because of a requirement that all arts groups receiving county funds, using county facilities or seeking a contract with the county must be free of all business ties to Cuba. Last fall, the Latin Grammy Awards moved to Los Angeles, because the program's organizers refused to bar Cuban nationals from the event. The county has lost a number of other events because Cuban nationals were invited to attend. The ACLU contends the county is curbing free expression through its requirements, which supersede U.S. policy. Although we may not have official relations, cultural exchanges exist between the two nations.

Even when Cuban artists have avoided Miami-Dade's restrictions, they have had to deal with ugly rallies staged by anti-Castro groups. In October 1999, thousands of protesters threw eggs and bottles at those brave enough to attend a concert by the Cuban band, Los Van Van. The group is known for its dance music rather than political lyrics.

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