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Back to the "Peaceable" Paradise: Media Soldiers for the Seizure of Elian

3.The media justified Attorney General Janet Reno’s actions and arguments, and lamented any resistance or delay in sending Elian back to Cuba.

The INS raid may have struck civil libertarians as illegal, unconstitutional, and terrifying to young Elian, but national reporters felt the raid was more than justifiable. It was overdue. The media’s sympathy for a Castro-pleasing resolution to the Elian story was apparent before the INS raid:

  • ABC’s Peter Jennings began the March 28 World News Tonight by implying that returning Elian to Cuba was the best, most civilized ending: "Good evening. In Miami today, immigration officials met with the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez again and once again the government has failed to get the kind of cooperation from the relatives that might allow the case of this young boy to end in a civilized manner that is best for him."

  • Dan Rather lamented on the April 6 CBS Evening News that a free society had ruined the reunion of father and son: "[G]rown-ups near and far cooked his simple, tragic story into a thick stew of politics, legalities, ideology and raw emotion. Today’s irony is that to get close to his son, this boy’s father had to travel more than a thousand miles to a foreign capital and even then, even now, he must wait for the long-sought reunion. Such are the ways of politics and the law in a free society."

  • ABC weekend anchor Carole Simpson defended Attorney General Janet Reno in an April 16 commentary for ABCNews.com: "While I feel compassion for all parties involved, my deepest sympathies are with Janet Reno....It’s hard to come up with the name of any cabinet secretary in history who has been more vilified than Reno. To some on the right, her actions against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, have made her forever a murderer, a child-killer even." 

img8Simpson continued that comedians should stop joking about Reno since "the Attorney General is now battling an incurable illness...In Reno’s recent television appearances the tremors in her hands and arms seem to have worsened. Doctors say stress is a factor. But she has stood strongly before the lights and cameras, talking about Elian with tears in her eyes, her body all a tremor, and promising to operate under the rule of law and in the child’s best interest. It is difficult to watch her visibly suffer emotional and physical distress."

These attitudes blossomed into full-throated support for the Clinton administration after the raid commenced.

  • Dan Rather declared just hours after the raid that Janet Reno shouldn’t be criticized: "It’s hard to see how she gets criticized for the way the operation was carried out. Yes, you can say, well, the marshals should not have been...armed that heavily. Put all that in quotation marks. But in the end it worked. The child was gotten out safely." 

That same morning, Rather made it sound like the Associated Press photographer was more frightening to the boy than the INS gunmen, or at least the boy should be frightened in private: "If the photographer was in the house legally, which knowing the Associated Press would be very surprising if he wasn’t, there is the question of the privacy, beginning with the privacy of the child. No one can look at these photographs and not think what this child is going through."

  • CBS reporter Jim Stewart also worked to soften criticism of the administration, adding during that morning that focusing just on this raid and the Waco raid would be unfair to Reno, who truly loves children: "[R]est assured that [AP photo with a gun pointed at Elian] will be the bookend on Janet Reno’s tenure as Attorney General, that and Waco on the other end. It is appalling from her perspective because of the true compassion she has for children. If you’ve ever seen her around children, you know how much she truly cares for them, and this has got to be tearing at her."

  • Newsweek Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas announced that night on the talk show Inside Washington that he found Reno’s raid to be principled and apolitical: "I think that Reno really comes through this as somebody who may have made mistakes, but was principled about it, and unlike most people in Washington, who are trying to figure out the political aspect of it, seemed quite apolitical about it." 

img9Almost exactly 12 years before, in the April 11, 1988 issue of Newsweek, reporter Evan Thomas presented Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General in a much different light. While independent counsel James McKay had found no offenses to indict Edwin Meese, Thomas concluded: "But many in Washington believe that Meese’s career is in serious jeopardy. The appearance of impropriety and the reality of his department’s embarrassment are both powerful arguments against him—and though Ronald Reagan is still standing by the A.G., Meese may yet be forced to resign."

Thomas added with hopefulness: "New and damaging disclosures or further resignations at Justice could be the last straw; or Meese could be seen as an ever-larger political liability during the fall campaign....The outlook for No Problems Ed, in short, is very problematic, indeed." The cover read: "The Meese Mess: Struggling to Hang On—Again." The article’s title reflected Thomas’s hope: "Is This Finally It for Meese?"

  • New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who began the Clinton years as a White House correspondent, provocatively proclaimed on April 25: "Yup, I gotta confess, that now-famous picture of a U.S. marshal in Miami pointing an automatic weapon toward Donato Dalrymple and ordering him in the name of the U.S. government to turn over Elian Gonzalez warmed my heart. They should put that picture up in every visa line in every U.S. consulate around the world, with a caption that reads: ‘America is a country where the rule of law rules. This picture illustrates what happens to those who defy the rule of law and how far our government and people will go to preserve it. Come all ye who understand that.’" 

Three days later, on PBS’s Washington Week in Review, Friedman boasted: "You know, I just came from a trip from Venezuela to Bogota, Colombia to Moscow. I got to tell you, what people in Bogota, Colombia would give for five minutes of Janet Reno. What people in Russia today in these lawless, no rule of law societies, would give for five minutes of Janet Reno."

  • Newsweek’s "Conventional Wisdom Watch" box in the May 1 issue gave Reno a sideways arrow with the quip: "Better late than never. Waco. Ruby Ridge. The third time’s the charm."

  • Time’s "Winners and Losers" box called Reno a winner in the May 15 issue: "A.G. clears Puerto Rican protesters without a shot. Now just get the kid back to Cuba."