One of the beauties of television," said Janet Reno, "is that it shows exactly what the facts are." Reno was responding to a question about the level of force used in the April 22 pre-dawn effort to seize 6-year-old Elián Gonzáles that day.
But, if the attorney general had hoped for video to add perspective to the Associated Press image of the 6-year-old staring in terror at a heavily armed government agent, she had hoped in vain.
While TV networks had collectively negotiated with Elián's Miami relatives for the opportunity to be in their house during an anticipated transition, the NBC news photographer on duty could not negotiate his way past federal agents at the door. The camera that might have told the story to Reno and the American public was on the floor, with cameraman Tony Zumbado, who said he was told to stay down or be shot. Zumbado said later he was roughed up and maced as he was prevented from entering the house when the raid began, leading NBC News Vice President Bill Wheatley last week to ask the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for an explanation.
As a result, a story that had provided endless hours of video images was reduced, in large part, to that single-albeit remarkable-image. Although a great deal of compelling video was shot outside the Gonzáles house-particularly of the agents exiting with the boy-Al Diaz' AP photo quickly became the dominant image.
"I'm used to just running in," said FOX cameraman and witness to the raid Harold Rosado. "But they were really adamant about it. I would have been thrown to the ground. Somebody should have shot some video in the house. I wish it could have been me."
CNN correspondent Brian Cabell, also at the scene, commented: "That's just the way it goes. TV is just a more difficult way to get the story across; there's cable to deal with and much heavier equipment. But the still photo is remarkable. Journalism is well served by the photo. It would have been better served had we had a [TV] camera person stationed inside."
Regardless of the result, the attorney general was given credit for deciding not to prevent photographers from taking pictures of the raid. Three days after the event, The Washington Post reported that sources said Reno, "[a]gainst the advice of some Justice Department officials, ordered agents not to obstruct or eject photographers, including Associated Press freelancer Alan Diaz, who she anticipated would be allowed into Lazaro González's home during the raid by INS agents and federal marshals."
Regarding Zumbado's treatment at the house, Carl Stern, a former Justice Department spokesman and a former NBC law correspondent, said it was important to distinguish between the operational conflict and the policy decision made by Justice leadership.
"You can't work backwards from what happened," Stern said. "If a cameraman collided with a swat team member going through the front door, [it's] no reflection on DOJ policy. Maybe the camera crews should not have been outside of the house. That has nothing to do with a policy decision, made quite courageously by Justice, not to interfere with camera equipment."
Stern noted that Diaz was not interfered with inside the house and that no barriers were placed outside that might have prevented video of the agents exiting with Elián. "While we all regret that image" of the boy facing the heavily armed agent, "in an entry like that, agents rely not on their ability to out-debate the inhabitants of the home but on their ability to go in and frighten them into submission. That's why they go in with this gear. If they went in with blazers and penny loafers, there might have been more extensive injuries."
However, Roger Pilon, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies, said, "It appears [Reno] was trying to pat herself on back for not doing what she had no right to do in the first place." That a TV camera was stopped from entry into the house, Pilon said, "is outrageous."
That AP cameraman Diaz apparently roamed freely in the house, said Pilon, a former official in the Ronald Reagan Justice and State Departments, may have been "merely an oversight on the part of the raiding party or a conscious decision not to interfere with his work. We have no idea."
Other press photographers speculated on ways video might have been better ensured during the raid, including pre-configuring the house with cameras or smaller, less cumbersome equipment. NBC believed it was well prepared to cover a transfer of the boy, but the speed and intensity of the raid was not anticipated.
The raid took most by surprise. FOX free-lance cameraman Harold Rosado said, "We were just standing around in front talking when we heard noises behind the house. One of the family's security guards started shouting, 'Estan aqui, estan aqui' [they're here]. I tried to jump over the railing, but the cops told us to go back or get thrown to the ground. All of a sudden, Elián came out. There was no problem shooting Elián and the agent.
"Then the cops started gassing protesters and knocking people around. A bunch of us, from wtvj, wsvn, were also shot with tear gas.
"The INS and the police ran over the mikes we had set up at the podium we set up in the middle of the street for press conferences," Rosado continued. "It had been blocked off by barricades. When they pulled out, I yelled, 'Asshole, you're running over our mikes.' I was pissed, I couldn't see."
CNN correspondent Brian Cabell "didn't think the force was unusual, but it was intimidating. They sprayed the demonstrators at the time of the raid, not [directly at the] media, but we did get some of the spray. I had to go off the air for a few minutes. I couldn't talk."
"It was unbelievable." said Tony Winton, Southeast regional reporter for Associated Press Radio. "The whole thing took three minutes, but it seemed like a half hour, there were so many things going on." Reporters said problems with police continued throughout the day, when reporters were covering the ensuing protests, with some network reporters detained by police.
It was the biggest day for cable news ratings since the day following the downing of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane last July.
All the networks, led by CNN, FOX and MSNBC, reported the raid within half an hour. Dan Rather, who went on the air just before 7 a.m., was the only one of the Big Three broadcast network anchors on the air Saturday morning. Rather had gotten an interview with Elián's father, Juan Miguel Gonzáles, which had been shown on 60 Minutes the previous Sunday.
ABC broke in several times during the hour and a half following the raid, then went live until it became the first network to leave continuous coverage at 9:30 a.m., although it broke in again later with the president's remarks. "It was an editorial decision," said a network spokeswoman. "We felt we had covered the story quite comprehensively."
But in these days of 24-hour news cycles, sometimes the news broadcasts must go on even after the news is over, and some ABC affiliates were dismayed when the network left the story. "It's safe to say we were disappointed when they were the last network to go wall-to-wall and the first network to bail out," said a major-market ABC-affiliate news director, who noted that his station was winning locally while it had the network feed but lost viewers to other stations when ABC went back to its Saturday-morning cartoons.
WCVB-TV Boston News Director Candy Altman said her station also lost viewers after 9:30 a.m., when the network stopped its live broadcast, and the station continued with CNN feeds through Clinton's remarks.
Local stations faced criticism for taking the hometown position. Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel TV critic Tom Jicha wrote that "South Florida TV clearly was playing to its exile viewers. Ch. 4's [headline] was 'Elián Seized.' At wtvj, it was 'Seizing Elián.' Wsvn went with 'Taken by Force.' Wplg's choice was 'Taken in the Night.' None was designed with keeping peace in the community in mind."
Alice Jacobs, news director at wsvn(tv) Miami, disputed allegations of bias aimed at her station. She said that, while her staff had developed close contacts with the Gonzáles family, the station also used its CNN links to carry live shots from Cuba.
Wplg(tv) News Director Bill Pohovey said he thought the local reporting was generally balanced.