The Elian Event, or How to Hype a Sorry Spectacle

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At this point, it probably doesn't make much difference if or when Elian Gonzalez is finally extricated from the clutches of his Miami relatives. The damage has already been done. In 10 or 15 years, Elian's much-discussed psychic injuries will or will not have manifested themselves in some regrettable way, but we'll just have to wait and see. And when we get the news of his inevitable breakdown, we'll sit around and tsk-tsk, trying to remember specifics of the half-year melodrama that brought Elian so relentlessly into our homes and water-cooler conversations.

Chances are we won't be able to remember exactly what the arguments were for keeping Elian here or for sending him home. Instead, we'll remember media-crafted images, because that's what this whole case has been about. There's no legal or emotional logic; there's only the mind-numbing parade of made-for-television snapshots: The self-righteous Miami Cuban-American community, chanting and mugging for the cameras; the indignant lawyers; the self-serving talking heads and the political posturing. If we're really lucky and concentrate hard, we'll remember the bemused expression of the little boy himself.

Who do we have to thank for this montage of manipulation? The media, of course (yours truly included). What began as a human catastrophe (refugees drown at sea, motherless boy picked up by kindly fishermen) has been turned into something far less redeeming than a circus. When this fifth-rate soap opera began, there was talk of various positive, if peripheral, consequences. Could this little boy's plight push the U.S. government into a more reasonable relationship with Cuba? Would there be a heartwarming and speedy reunion between Elian and his father? Might the members of the American media be able to act like adults and take this for what it is: an intensely private family tragedy of a little boy lost?

In retrospect, we should have known things would be bad. Elian's damp arrival on our shores interrupted a couple of spectacularly slow months in the nation's newsrooms — there was nothing to hold us back, so we stampeded down to Miami with our microphones amped and our camera lights blazing. Six months later, according to the media mavens at, Elian has become the most covered media object since O. J. Simpson, surpassing JFK Jr. and even Diana in network stories. Various networks and CNN have cut a deal with the Miami relatives allowing cameras into the house, should INS officials or federal marshals finally make a move to retrieve Elian. The New York Times reports that CBS is hard at work on an Elian miniseries (do they know something about the ending that we don't?) and multiple magazine and newspaper writers camped out in Miami have been overheard threatening to quit if the story doesn't end soon.

The only way the story will end, of course, is if a highly unlikely scenario develops. Picture it: We just wake up as a nation one day and collectively decide we've had enough. Enough of Diane Sawyer subjecting a six-year-old to the glare of a camera. Enough of the Miami relatives committing what amounts to child abuse right under our noses. Enough of being held hostage by a group of disaffected ex-Cubans. Enough of Janet Reno hemming and hawing her way ineffectually through what should be an extraordinarily simple process. Go in and get the kid, we'd cry, suddenly outraged. Send him home. And we'd turn off our televisions and go back to our lives.

But in order for all that to happen, we'd have to do something brave, which we've never quite been able to do before. We'd have to decide that no matter how sharp our withdrawal pains threatened to become, no matter how much we loved rehashing the story on our coffee breaks, no matter how conveniently Elian's saga distracted us from the substantive issues facing our country, we'd release our obsessive Bay of Pigs-era grip on the boy and send him back to his father. Because hasn't Elian suffered enough?