Contextual Analysis of ABC’s Good Morning America Exclusive Interview with Elian Gonzalez

Cuban protested for the return of Elian Gonzalez from Havana.

by Duc Nguyen

Regarded as an unethical piece of television journalism during the Elian Gonzalez case, ABC’s Good Morning America interview with the six-year-old Cuban boy by Diane Sawyer ventures deeply into shaping news as entertainment. By doing so, the show brings much criticism. Despite the outcries from Fidel Castro and other network executives, the broadcast still draw big rating. ABC breaks not only the integrity of all journalistic standards, they constructs the show into a framework which push forward the American-liberal capitalist ideology.

The news report, displayed in front of millions home, mainly aims to persuade the American public to compel for the boy’s stay in United States. Its intention is to inflame the anti-communism sentiment and enforces the dominant American ideology as the heaven of the world. ABC insinuates that United States is the refuge that Elian ought to be in. Portraying themselves as a righteous savior interfering against the action of the American government to protect the boy from returning him to the oppressive regime of Fidel Castro, Sawyer and the producers of the show wear the role of hero journalist intervening on the behalf of a helpless child. The show uses an adage notion of good doer helping vulnerable victim from the impending harm, a theme that is common in the discourse embedded in Disney’s products.

By refusing to acknowledge the political issues surrounding the relationship between the United States and Cuba, the show avoids the complexity of the case. Rather, it uses episodic framing to target the emotional sphere of the audience. In effect, the show tends toward myth-forming rather informing. Myth is a central theme of the show. Using myth to entice audience attention and reassuring audience psyche, the show turns the interview into a dramatic narrative of good versus evil.

This paper points out the hegemonic tendency hinted by the show producers through the examination of semiotics and camera techniques. The dramatic structure in this news report also indicates the mythmaking notion to force an emotional appeal on the audience. The overall effect of such tendency creates a sense ritual consumption by the audience to affirm their relations to the world and a sense of belonging in society. Thus, Good Morning America aims to satisfy rather than informing. And for the audience, the lack of didactic information not only create a false sense of understanding, it devoid the critical thinking process and rational view development on the issue. On the other hand, Disney, the parent company, by reinforcing myth in the show, seeks to increase its sales by feeding the consuming culture the familiar tunes that proliferated in its products. The motivation of such work therefore is an economic one.

Elian Gonzalez was found adrift on the coast of South Florida on Thanksgiving day 1999. His mother and other the trip takers drowned. Only Elian and two other survivors were alive. The custody of Elian became an international debate as Fidel Castro rallied his people to stage protests demanding the return of the boy. On the other side, the Cuban American community turned Elian to a poster boy condemning the Castro regime of human rights violation. The case grabbed the American public attention as the media propagated it into international headlines and attracted the attention of the Federal Court and the Congress. Opinions on whether the boy should be returned to Cuba or stay in the United States rose but remained divided. The Immigration and Naturalization Services asked the relatives in Miami to file an appeal or the boy could return to Cuba.

Amidst the intense development of the controversy, ABC decided to send Diane Sawyer and its crew to Miami for a close-up and personal chat with the Cuban boy, the only one of its kind. Their reason was to put politics aside and raise a question on how to handle the case in “the most gentle consideration to a child that had suffered so much.” The Elian Gonzalez custody case was moving to a critical stage when Good Morning America aired the show. On March 27, 2000, the day after the broadcast of the Academy Awards show, ABC decided to feature Diane Sawyer’s interview with Elian Gonzalez in a school in Little Havana in Miami to a national audience. The aim, Sawyer said, was to hear the child’s first hand account reasoning that “not one of us has sat down and looked into his eyes.”

The show was aired in two parts, broadcast over two consecutive days. The first installment of the interview portrayed the story as a “remarkable” tale of a survivor. The first day was spent to get to know Elian. Sawyer portrayed Elian as a lively and lovable child. At the same time Sawyer transformed herself into a casual and approachable person. She dressed in light pastel color, simply donned a playful, easy going attitude and even being submissive to a six-year-old child. Beside the fact that the move was to gain trust from a young child by appearing less threatening, the subtle plot here is to prove to the audience that Sawyer is capable of letting her guards down and adapting herself to a situation which is more familiar to the subject. In doing so, not only can she win the trust of Elian, Sawyer simply transmits a message to the audience that there is a gentle side to her. The tough, determine journalist also is capable of being sensitive and caring, a trait that normally attributed to the journalist hero who is willing to strip her ideal self to present a morally sound report. Sarah Stein, in her textual analysis of 60 Minutes, uses the work of Richard Campbell to decode the “myth of individualism” that is central in the television journalist’s appeal.

They are the journalist-heroes, portrayed as rugged, intrepid individuals, valiantly confronting danger and deception, and representing solutions, or at least interpretations, that stimulate closure…What remains resolutely behind the public eye are that they are of an elite class, are highly paid employees of a transnational conglomerate, and are served by scores of staff members who actually produce and construct each story.(Stein, 254)

On another level, Sawyer uses her own judgment and delivers her version of the boy’s characteristics to the audience as an authority. Elian’s behavior is interpreted by Sawyer as “well-manner and thoughtful.” The boy, suggested by Sawyer, is one who is raised properly in a middle-class value, with lots of attention and love. This point is further confirmed by Dr. Gunther Perdigao, a hand-picked child psychiatrist by ABC, in the report. By representing Elian as a good child in the perspective of a middle-class preferences, ABC and Sawyer indicates the subject as an acceptable person, a keeper. This kind of representation fits well within the dominant class paradigm. A good child is the one who comes from a good home.

On the technical aspect of the show, the narrative strategy Sawyer employed demonstrates that hegemonic messages are used in the report. Voice-over of the reporter is used throughout the story for depiction of the child instead of the subject’s own voice. At one point, Sawyer indicates that Elian expressed his desire to stay in the United States. Though, due to the sensitivity of the case, she rather not broadcast the child’s own word. Even though we know that a six-year-old child is not capable to articulate his own thought and feeling, the interpretation of the boy characteristics can hardly justify his personality or background. Without careful and considerate observation of the child’ psychological condition , Sawyer’s descriptions of Elian exemplify the hegemonic code implanted in the show messages. By using the voice-over narration as the voice of reason, Sawyer places herself in the position of an authority. Hegemony, as John Fisk explained, is “a process by which the dominant class wins the willing consent of the subordinate classes to a system that ensure their subordination.”(Fiske, 291) Sawyer’s engagement in the authoritarian voice in ways is an example of the reinforcement of the dominant class values to the audience.

Further more, the camera techniques used in this report prove this point. As Sawyer interviews the female cousin of Elian who is viewed as a surrogate mother, the camera framing put the subject into a position that is less powerful than the star reporter. When the camera fixes on Marileysis Gonzalez, her face is framed in an extreme close-up shot. She is placed in a tighter space with little room to breath while part of her head is cut off. Meanwhile, Sawyer is seen in a more generous surrounding. Her chest can be viewed as the environment around her is more define. One tactical use here is to enhance the subject’s emotional state as tears can be clearly seen running down her face. Subliminally, this is a technique Campbell demonstrates that television news shows normally employed to establish the interviewer’s power over the subject. “The extreme closeup framing of the subject, he suggests, conveys the sense of the subject being out of control of his or her environment and, consequently, his or her narrative.” Meanwhile, the medium shot of the reporter from the chest up put her in the position of “overarching perspective and complete control” over the environment. Thus it “reinforces the sense that the reporter as the seeker of truth-who controls the camera-holds the power.”(Stein, 254)

While the reinforcement of dominant ideology evidently is transmitted by ABC and its corporate control, the real underlying issue here is the dissemination of myth. One of the way to construct myth is the deployment of episodic framing instead of thematic framing of the piece. Episode framing as a methodology was used in this news report to remove the topic from entering a complicate and contradicting debate. Buckingham discusses about this phenomenon in television news using Shanto Iyengar’s definition. “Episodic frames are oriented around specific events or individual case studies, often of a topical nature…this episodic approach leads viewers to make individualistic rather than societal attributions of responsibility for social problems.” (Buckingham, 43–44)

The interview is framed as a personal story of a little boy who is lost in a storm of controversy. By avoiding the complex social, historical, and political issues surrounding the case, the producers aim to present the case in a narrow, directive storyline that appeal mainly to the emotional perspective of the audience. When Sawyer confronts the lawyer who represented Elian’s father, her questions target only the human interest aspect of the story. She relentlessly ushers the question as to why the father hasn’t get on the plane and come to the United States to be with his son. Even though Greg Craig, the attorney replies with explanations of political implications, Sawyer insists that the father should come just to hold his son’s hand. In ways, this type of drilling questions into the respondent with disregard to proper rationality is an attempt to force the issue into a corner that favor the reporter.

By ignoring the political and historical aspects involving the case, the show suspends the critical issues that remain the backbone of this case. Contrary the thought that the show appears to suggest, the intense political relationships of the United States and Cuba through historical events are the reasons that Elian Gonzalez became news. This news report fails to inform viewers about the background information and critical issues of the case and therefore appeal not to the intellectual perspective of the audience. Rather it promotes the emotional potency of the case. The show’s intention is to persuade the viewers to emotionally submit to the pathos that conveyed through the structure of the story-line. The idea here is to frame a dire situation where the boy is being pursued by the evil force of the Castro regime and the closely bonded connection Elian has made with his cousin is about to be supplanted by the US government who try to take the boy away.

This type of plot line is similar to the myth that Disney regularly structures in its products. Myth, a central tenet in the creation of the beliefs and value system in America, is a remedy that construct the plot line of Good Morning America’s interview with Elian. A large part of the story in the interview involves myth. A child lost his mother at high sea then saved by dolphins is a perfect story line that captures the imagination of an entertainment craved audience. This is the same myth that we see in Disney products such as Tarzan, The Jungle Book or Bambi.

In The Jungle Book, the plot tells the story of little Mowgli, an orphan raised by wolves, who must leave his jungle home and journey to the Man Village, before Shere Khan, the man-eating tiger, finds him. In Elian’s case, the danger imposed upon him is symbolized by the US government who is about to capture and return him to his father in Cuba, ABC told the audience. While in the United States, he is supported by his cousin Marileysis. The way this story being shaped as myth has to with the successful formula that Disney continues to use as a mythmaker over the years.

The impact of myth in audience’s psyche is an important part of daily lives. “As the record of our common identity as human beings, real myth-as opposed to mere ideology-provides us with a means of communications that transcends languages, cultures, traditions, histories, and religions.” (Leeming, 74) As we can see, a large part of notion of why one wants Elian to stay in United States has to do with the entrenched belief that person has in the American myth. Elian should stay, many including the President candidate George Bush have said, because this country provides him a place where he can grow up in freedom. The notion that America is the land of freedom and opportunities is the central idea pushed forth in the GMA broadcast of the interview. And for those who bought it, they only exercise what seem to be a logical practice of finding their relations to society. In United States, to confirm one’s identity as an American is to assume the role of a citizen who believe in freedom regardless of race, creed or religion. The U. S. cultural studies, according to Fiske, different from the British culture studies in term of class struggle. It seems to delve into national unity or consensus among groups of people.

The U.S. cultural studies, then, tended toward liberal pluralist theories in which different social groups were seen to live together in relative harmony and stability…Drawing on notions of ritual and mythology, they stressed what different social groups had in common, which was a form of communitas produced by a shared language and culture into which all entered freely and from which all derived equal benefits. The dominant ideology thesis, of course, differs diametrically while still stressing what people have in common: in it case, what is common to all is the dominant ideology, which is far from equal .(Fiske, 320)

In conclusion, the real intention of ABC and its parent company is not only to push forth the dominant ideology of American-liberal pluralist. Rather, the real motivation behind the construction of the discourse as a myth is an economic one. Disney, by deciding to shape the news report into a mythological tale, is layering the shared belief of American ideology into the audience’s consciousness. In doing so they make sure the tenet of their commerce is well recognized and continues to be consumed by the audience. Like a person who regularly attends church every Sunday, watching program like Good Morning America is a ritual act. Equipped with proper elements of a classic Greek drama, the content of news report on these show delivers the formula that is endowed in audience’s psyche. The main goal for the producers here is to provide entertainment rather than to inform. They feed the audience same old thematic assertion about how society function instead of providing various views and information on the topic. Certainly this concept of mass media effects is applied to the ritual view theory. Whereas, “new is not information but drama. It does not describe the world but portrays an arena of dramatic forces and action; it exists solely in historical time; and it invites our participation on the basis of our assuming, often vicariously, social role within it.”(Carey, 21) And for that, the impact of such effects can be substantial in a diverse society that rest on the struggle of different social groups.

Watch Duc Nguyen’s short documentary Mediated Reality here.

Buckingham, David. “The Making of Citizens: Young People News and Politics.” New York: Routledge, 2000

Carey, James. “A Cultural Approach to Communications.” Communication As Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989

Fiske, John. “British Cultural Studies and Television.” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled. 2nd ed. Robert C. Allen, ed. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Leeming, David “Mythology.” New York: Newsweek Book, 1971.

Rutenberg Jim, “Elian Interview Brings Criticism.” New York Times. Mar 29, 2000: E9

Sarah R Stein, “Legitimating TV journalism in 60 Minutes: The Ramifications of Subordinating the Visual to the Primacy of the Word.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, Sep 2001; 249–270.

Emmy Award Winning director, filmmaker, writer, artist.

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