He was found by two fishermen on Thanksgiving Day, clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in waters where his mother, stepfather and other Cubans had died while trying to reach the U.S. Now, see this sweet-faced child of tragedy on television.
See him play with his new toys.
See him play with his new teddy bear.
See him play with his new puppy.
See him swing his new baseball bat.
See him go to Disney World.
See him wave a subpoena above his head and grin.
See him learn to give the "V" for victory sign.
See him at rallies and demonstrations.
See him hoisted on shoulders and displayed like a poster.
That's because 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez--this winter's most famous child--is a poster. A political poster that TV beams to the multitudes daily, enlisting itself in the cause of Elian's relatives and other Cuban Americans in Miami who are tenaciously opposed to his return to Cuba and to his only remaining parent, his 31-year-old father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
That cause got a boost Monday when a Florida judge set a March 6 hearing for one of Elian's Miami relatives to argue for temporary protective custody of him, that decision coming a few days after the Immigration and Naturalization Service had ruled that the boy should be reunited with his father, who lives in Cuba, by Friday.
The politicians have been circling ravenously, with Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), for example, subpoenaing Elian to appear before the Committee on Government Reform on Feb. 10 as a way of extending his stay in the U.S.
"He was out last night apparently celebrating the issuance of the subpoena," someone on TV reported. And to prove it, there was little Elian, arms raised, two fingers on each hand forming a "V," as if a 6-year-old could fathom these legalities.
Although some public-opinion polls show a majority of Americans favoring Elian's return to his father, the ultimate impact of TV on this painful saga has yet to be measured.
You could say that anything making this emotionally scarred, motherless child smile is good. You could say that there's something touching and distinctly American about this nation becoming his extended family through TV and other media. You could say that his Miami relatives truly care for his best interests. You could say that their actions are motivated primarily by love and compassion.
And you could say that the hordes of newscasters covering this story on the scene, with TV crews planting themselves like palms wherever Elian happens to be at the moment, have been manipulated by the camera-loving, media-savvy crowd in Miami's Cuban exile community.
Just as they let themselves be used by Fidel Castro's regime when automatically showing huge throngs in Havana demanding that Elian be returned home. As if these Cuban masses were acting spontaneously and not ordered into the streets with their flags and "Free Elian" signs by that despotic master puppeteer Castro, in his quest to whip up anti-U.S. feeling.
As CNN's Lucia Newman reported from Cuba recently: "We've had millions and millions and millions of Cubans go out in the street, organized, told by their government to go out and march."
And those big, fat, porous sponges in the U.S. media are ever on the scene, sopping it up in Cuba's Havana and in Miami's Little Havana.
As zealots in both cities create political theater for the cameras.
In a way, TV is doing what comes naturally, for being used is built into journalism. It's structural, the very foundation of a system in which media willingly let themselves be taken advantage of in exchange for information or news.
Does anyone naively believe that reporters are given tips or stories necessarily for altruistic reasons? Or that an unspoken pact nearly always exists between news media and newsmakers? In other words, I'll give you access on some level--time or space for your cause--but only if the story you supply me in return is worth that cost. That's how media business is transacted, and there's nothing wrong with it.
Except when the exchange is destructively one-sided, as in the Elian Gonzalez story--in Cuba at times, and even more so in Miami, where seemingly no photo-op has gone untelevised. However sincere the tenderness lavished on Elian by his handlers--and however much he deserves whatever happiness they can grant him--these are media stunts to sway public opinion.
And by paying attention even when there is no news of consequence to report, TV is encouraging them to continue.
Not that fresh photo-ops are needed when old photo-ops are available to a medium unable to breathe without the oxygen of pictures, as in TV repeatedly using the same footage of Elian and his Miami relatives to wallpaper its coverage of this case. Giving these media stunts an extended life--through constant repetition--reinforces the message that Elian's handlers want to deliver: