TV Finally Tells the Elian Story Straight Up
This famous photo of Elian Gonzalez being taken from his Miami relatives turned up thousands of times on TV broadcasts. PBS' 'Frontline' analyzes the story
--and how the media warped it
By KINNEY LITTLEFIELD
In my heart I don't trust the media - although I am one of "them."
I know you know the rant.
TV news speeds too fast. It shills shamelessly to snag eyeballs and sell commercials in between those often ill-formed talking heads.
Newspapers also are squeezed by time and budget pressures and increasingly do not report as thoroughly as they should. (Yes, I'm a refugee from eight years of daily print journalism. I know how it goes).
Web news flies even faster and is rife with unsubstantiated buzz. (Yes, I'm now one of those Web types. But I'll try to steer you right).
Which is why I want you to know I'm a "Frontline" fan. The venerable documentary series on PBS takes the time to explore issues intelligently and sniff out trends thoroughly--as few other series do.
(Of course, there are essentially no documentary series on commercial broadcast television so "Frontline" has little competition. And--here's another confession--I was once a producer/reporter for KETC-TV, the public station in St. Louis. It paid practically nada and the digs were shabby but I've still got a PBS jones).
Given all that, I urge you to catch the new "Frontline" documentary "Saving Elian," premiering February 6 on most public TV stations. (Check your local listings). It's the most sensible, thorough and insightful analysis of the media-warped tale of Elian Gonzalez that I've seen to date.
It's straight-up and savvy. It makes you realize how much deep stuff was going on in Miami's Little Havana at the time of Elian's odyssey that TV news never cared or chose to report.
Produced by seasoned documentarian Ofra Bikel, "Saving Elian" recounts the real-life story of little Elian, pulled from the water off the coast of Florida on November 25, 1999 and taken home by his Miami relatives who did not care to return him to the legendarily evil land of Fidel.
As in Castro.
As in that Communist country so many Cubans fled to make their homes-in-exile in the United States.
One eye-popping aspect of "Saving Elian"--it includes riveting footage filmed in Cuba at the time of the Elian crisis. We see Cubans marching en masse to demand Elian's return to his home country. We see an elderly but still supremely theatrical Castro rallying his people against us American imperialists, using Elian's name as a smoking gun.
One remarkable scene shows Cuban school children acting out a skit in which strong and principled young Cubans berate a weak and cowardly child decked out in an American flag costume, representing the morally corroded U.S.
On the flip side "Saving Elian" does not spare Cuban-Americans from scrutiny.
It does not flinch from showing how Elian became a pawn of sorts for Cuban-American political interests, a kind of war chant for anti-Castroism and keeping the Cold War alive.
Before Elian, non-Cubans thought the Cold War had ended.
Still for months TV news delighted in turning Elian into a political symbol. It drooled--ah, the prospect of high ratings!--as it turned Elian into a twisted fairy tale replete with caring, if overly protective, U.S. relatives--perhaps with hidden motives.
Remember the character of Elian's handsome, heartbroken father desperate to return his son to Cuba--but manipulated by a devious Communist dictator?
Plus that staple of spooky fairy tale lore, the wicked grandmother.
Two of 'em.
"The grannies," TV news called them. Highly suspicious, they were. They flew to Miami, visited Elian and promptly checked out the size of his penis.
Could the fascination of Cuban grannies with the young male organ be an important cultural tick non-Cuban America didn't know about?
I'm sure you remember the media-amped mess of it all.
We called it simply "Elian," just as we called our wacko national obsession with the O.J. Simpson double murder trail "O.J."
Oh, how we reeled from Elian overkill!
Just as we got over-juiced on O.J.
With so many news outlets competing for viewers, their kneejerk reaction and relentless repetition often turn stories that are not world-shakers into cultural Godzillas.
Fear of losing a story to a rival network, of not hyping it enough, drives everything. So Court TV and CNN jumped on O.J., fit to kill. For seemingly endless months O.J., the real-life soap opera, spiked their ratings and helped fill their coffers.
It made us forget two tragically slain victims--O.J.'s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman--while we pondered prosecutor Marcia Clark's latest coiff and legal complaint.
For months Elian also was the media's daily bread.
"Saving Elian" doesn't let us forget that.
But Bikel does not mention the infamous penis episode in "Saving Elian." Instead she focuses on more serious and worthy food for thought--the entrenched dynamics of Miami's Cuban community as a whole--and helps us understand it better.
Little Havana is a community that does not see itself as immigrants but rather as exiles, "Saving Elian" says.
It is a community that wields extraordinary power in local and state politics. Miami's Cuban American National Foundation, led by the late Jorge Mas Canosa, influenced the anti-Castro policies of U.S. presidents including Bush the elder and Bill Clinton--through "persuasion and donation," the documentary says.
Little Havana is a community that does not brook changing attitudes or easing of anti-Castro sentiments, that in the past violently retaliated against its own for views deemed too liberal or soft, Bikel shows.
Included are many interviews with Cuban-Americans who felt Elian should be returned to his father, but who either were afraid to say so publicly or knew others too afraid to speak out.
This is what grabs me about "Saving Elian"--its tenacious non-sensationalism. It digs under the thin, shallow, done-to-death top of the news--gossipy rumblings about the Miami family and the grannies--to get at this story's heart.
It shows how Castro won the ideological and political struggle for Elian, how Cuban Miami got locked into Elian-as-anti-Communist-metaphor, how the city stays frozen in Cold War time.
Yet "Saving Elian" never indulges in turning a little boy into a quick and easy symbol.
Just another example of why I'm high on "Frontline."
And why a thoughtful, long-look documentary is worth hours and days of instant but brainless TV news.
© 2001 by Kinney Littlefield.
Read Murry Frymer's column on the Elian Gonzalez case by clicking here: ELIAN
Introducing Our New Columnist: KINNEY
Kinney Littlefield is one of America's most respected television critics and columnists. She comes to us from the Orange County Register in Southern California, where she covered the medium from 1993-2000.
Littlefield knows television intimately after several jobs in the medium, including producing and reporting for KETC in St. Louis, Mo.; KERA in Dallas, Texas, and GroupW cable in Irving, Texas.
Littlefield currently writes about visual arts for the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times and has written for Broadcasting & Cable Magazine, the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Observer.
Her background includes work as a photographer, film programmer, teacher, gallery curator, media librarian and community video producer. She also has studied acting in the adult conservatory of the acclaimed South Coast Repertory theater in Southern California.
A detective fiction addict, she will write for our DARK CORRIDORS pages while also writing about TV and a variety of other topics.
She lives in Santa Ana, Calif.
You can comment on this column or contact Kinney Littlefield with an email to: email@example.com
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