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Published on Thursday, April 6, 2000
From The News Media To Elián, With Love
by Norman Solomon
Oh Elian, we love you! We're the News Media. And you're incredibly special.

Many politicians, legal experts, psychologists, celebrities and pundits have wanted the world to know that they fervently desire what's best for you. We've been glad to put you on national television -- live if possible -- playing on a backyard swing set or holding your pet rabbit named "Esperanza." Hope for your future has become very important to us all.

Frankly, kids your age usually aren't interesting to those of us in the media profession. They may suffer from danger and deprivation, but the chances are slim that a spotlight will fall on their unimportant little lives. What afflicts their daily existence is apt to be too downbeat and humdrum for prime time. There's no tragic shipwreck or high-profile legal battle to recount, just ongoing social conditions. Kind of boring.

But your story is wonderfully dramatic and extraordinary -- far afield from what matters for millions of children. Medical neglect, malnutrition, crummy housing, under-funded schools and other ills are tedious facts of life that lack glamorous momentum. Sure, we do stories on poor kids once in a while, mostly told with a few numbers and fleeting images, but there's no drumbeat in the national media echo chamber.

We might mention that the United States has the highest rate of child poverty among all the industrialized nations, with one in five American kids living below the poverty line. We could note that the U.S. Department of Agriculture now says 36 million Americans -- 14 million of them children -- do not have adequate access to food.

The infant mortality rate in the U.S. -- 7.2 infant deaths per 1,000 births -- is currently worse than in 21 other industrialized countries. Meanwhile, the United States "has failed to reduce the disparities in rates among different racial and ethnic groups," the Children's Defense Fund reports. "Black infants continue to die at twice the rate of white infants. The latest data show that the cause of death for black infants is four times more likely to be related to low birthweight than for white infants, strongly suggesting unequal access to prenatal care."

This deadly situation could be called -- quite accurately -- institutionalized racism. But we don't have to call it anything if we rarely even mention it.

One way or another, poverty is killing a lot of children in the United States every day. And it's making life miserable for millions of others. But hey, that's a real downer.

Anyway, dwelling on that kind of stuff might raise unsettling questions about social priorities in the USA. Since we're the News Media, we can be judicious about what's newsworthy. We've preferred to broadcast dramatic TV footage from Miami and feature Cold-War-relic arguments about Cuba.

Elian, so far this spring, we've made sure that many millions of Americans keep thinking about you. Your story is big. So, count your blessings. Any number of 6-year-olds, unfilmed and unextraordinary, can only dream of a day when America's magic media alchemy will turn their suffering into infotainment.

You're not one of those run-of-the-mill children. For instance, if immigrant kids are "undocumented," their access to social services is likely to be quite limited (no matter how many tax dollars get withheld from their parents' paychecks). Even the kids of legal immigrants are often denied assistance: If they arrived on these shores after the 1996 welfare reform law took effect, those families don't have access to food stamps, Medicaid and other basic federal programs.

The media limelight does not have much room to spare for America's poor children. They aren't talked about hour after hour on "Larry King Live" or discussed in breathless reports on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News Channel. Those cable networks routinely adorn the bottom of the screen with the latest stock-market numbers. But as far as top producers are concerned, the latest vital statistics about poor kids are just media bummers.

Not like you, Elian. You're so special! Your ordeal is a mesmerizing tragedy, a riveting psychodrama.

Oh Elian, how we love you!

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."


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