Elin nation

Media becomes part of the story, as plight of Cuban boy plays out on TV

The life of 6-year-old Elián González wasn't substantially changed last week, although he became pint-sized agitprop for a cause he may or may not believe in: his continued presence in the United States.

The family provided controversy last Wednesday by giving Univision a home video of Elián proclaiming he did not want to return to Cuba. Staged? Propaganda? Some suspected as much, and, while the circumstances gave some news operations pause, it didn't stop them from airing the video. (Univision wouldn't comment.) "Dad, I don't want to go to Cuba. If you want to, stay here," he said in part of his message. "I am telling you now that I do not want to go to Cuba."

Following its first broadcast early Thursday morning, Univision distributed the tape, and within hours Elián's message had appeared on TV hundreds of times.

Excess is nothing new here. ABC, NBC, CBS and AP Television earlier arranged with Elián's great-uncle, Lazaro González, to wire his Little Havana house for cameras to shoot inside whenever federal authorities come for the boy.

The family released the tape, they said, to demonstrate the boy's true wishes, and most of the criticism of the videotape was directed at them. But there was some bitterness toward the media as well-not the least by Elián's father, Juan Miguel González. Through his attorney, he asked that the media stop showing the tape. "Mr. González-and only Mr. González-has the legal and moral right to speak for Elián González," attorney Gregory Craig said from Bethesda, Md., where he and his client had begun the day expecting father and son to be reunited. Craig said the boy "has been exploited enough."

By Thursday afternoon, MSNBC was polling its viewers to see if they believed the boy was speaking from the heart or parroting the words of the relatives who have been caring for him since his rescue. A newspaper likened his performance to a prisoner-of-war confession.

In January, Miami's WPLG(TV) picked up a comment and a controversy when the boy pointed at a passing airplane and appeared to be saying he wanted the plane to take him back to Cuba (B & C, Jan. 17). South Florida's Cuban-American community bitterly disputed that interpretation.

About the latest controversy Aly Colón, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute journalist think tank said, "I understand that the video clip is news. But I don't see a lot of information value. What's the purpose of showing the tape? Are you trying to get Elián's image and the family's point of view out there, or are you doing what some accuse the González family of doing: exploiting a child for your own purposes?"

Similar charges of exploitation were leveled at ABC two weeks before, when Diane Sawyer got an apparently much-coveted sit-down with the boy. That experience factored into how ABC would use this latest tape but was not a determining one. "We were sensitive to the issues because of our experience," said ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy, "but I think we would have been sensitive anyway." ABC News broadcast the video.

"Our slogan is, 'We report, you decide,' "said Dennis Murray, executive producer of daytime programming for the FOX News Channel. "We think the viewer of an all-news channel is intelligent enough for that. It's pretty obvious that this is one side against the other, and this was a salvo sent out by the family."

"Any kind of material that comes from the outside raises questions about how to handle it," said Keith McAllister, senior vice president and managing editor, national newsgathering, at CNN. "Our decision was that there was news value to the tape, but we needed to present it in as full and fair a way as possible, and with all the context and information we could provide. The videotape was given to all television and video outlets. We reported the source and how we got the tape, and we put a child psychologist on the air to put the tape in context. It's not for us to judge what's going on, but it is our obligation to put it in context."