Your friendly media have distinguished themselves once again by providing a fountain of misinformation during two days of almost nonstop coverage of the raid on the Miami home of Lazaro Gonzalez and the transfer of Elian Gonzalez to the custody of his father.

The frenzy has now surpassed even the Dead Diana and JFK Jr. Missing cases, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

The frequent misstatements of fact, both by TV newspeople and the people whom they interviewed, constitutes compelling evidence for the case that TV news must find a way to correct factual errors.

Many of these errors occurred during "analysis," "commentary" or "discussion," but they are still errors -- and misinformation poisons the well of public debate.

Perhaps the most astonishing was the consistent reporting of rumors -- clearly identified as such: "There is a rumor that ..." -- with no apparent effort to follow up as to the truth of the rumor.

Among the rumors or allegations that made it onto the air were that (a) the picture of Elian happily reunited with his father was fake; (b) government agents gave the boy anti-anxiety drugs while he was on the plane; and (c) Cuban officials have already started drugging and brainwashing the boy.

There was no evidence for these claims, so why were they reported?

Perhaps because the media had already reported allegations made by the boy's Miami relatives without noting that there was no evidence for them. The sensational charges that Juan Miguel Gonzalez was an abusive husband and father were widely disseminated before the media bothered to report that there was no evidence for such charges.

Among the more astonishing statements during the media orgy:

  • There are "millions of people whose bones have been left on the bottom of the ocean" between Florida and Cuba. Lord help us, it may be as high as hundreds (the same could be said of the Texas-Mexican border and the bones of people from all over Central America) but "millions"? That statement was from New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on CNN.
  • Information "damaging" to the Miami relatives is part of a "Clinton spin control" operation. Actually, great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez's two convictions for drunken driving, his brother Delfin's two convictions for drunken driving (this was also misreported as four convictions for Lazaro), the two cousins' criminal records (multiple felony arrests) and Marisleysis Gonzalez's record of repeated hospitalization for "stress" or "anxiety" (eight times since Elian's arrival and three times before his arrival starting when she was 17, leading to some question as to whether these collapses are the result of her worry over Elian) were documented out of Miami by The New York Times, The Miami Herald and the Miami New Times from public records. They are not a result of "spin control" by the administration. Actually, I never heard any of this reported on television, but I could well have missed it.
  • The media were "grossly unfair" in their coverage of the family and the Cuban community in Miami (George Will on ABC): The Miami Herald referred to Lazaro's "mercurial" temperament and Newsweek to "Lazaro's happy hour." I have no way of judging the basis for these words -- nor does Will.

As for unfair coverage of the Cuban community, certainly. The preponderance of TV attention given to right-wing extremists and people who are either nut cases (I have heard from some of the nut cases personally) or simply frantic past the point of reason was out of all proportion to their presence in the community, judging from every sober (nontabloid) print account I have read.

A far truer picture of the community was also presented during the town hall meeting between the community and Janet Reno by Ted Koppel on "Nightline."

Although the Cuban community is certainly united against Fidel Castro, TV could have sought out many moderate voices. There is no way of telling whether the overcoverage of people vowing violent resistance influenced the attorney general's decision to go in with a heavily armed force, but it cannot be ruled out.

  • Repeated references to the government's not having a warrant. It had a warrant.
  • Scathing reference to the National Council of Churches by George Will. The NCC has a distinguished record on human rights and has worked for human rights in Cuba and to reunite other Cuban families when the problem is reversed (parent here, child in Cuba). I might add that those who accuse "the left" of being "soft on Castro" ignore years of work documenting Castro's human-rights abuses by organizations such as AmericasWatch and Human Rights Watch. How do you think people know about Castro's violations?
  • Coolest head during weekend reporting: Dan Rather of CBS, looking hard for both sides. Worst performance: Brian Williams of MSNBC.
  • Worst all-round performance was, naturally, by the politicians. I can't wait for the congressional hearings when they indignantly demand to know why the INS was enforcing a law they wrote, against all advice from civil libertarians.

    Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.