ABC defends Elian interview from Castro, other critics

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NEW YORK -- ABC defended its three-part interview with Elian Gonzalez as "very tasteful" despite criticism about questioning a 6-year-old boy. In today's installment, ABC said the boy indicated he doesn't want to return to Cuba, but the network decided not to show him saying it because of the "inflamed climate."

Good Morning America broadcast the second part of Diane Sawyer's talk with the youngster today. He was made available by his Miami relatives as they run short of legal options to avoid sending him back to his father in Cuba.

The child has been the subject of an international custody dispute between Cuba and the boy's U.S. relatives since November, when he was rescued by fishermen who found him lashed to an inner tube off the Florida coast. His mother and 10 other people died when their boat sank during the journey from Cuba to the United States.

The boy's Cuban father, who was divorced from the mother, is seeking his return and the U.S. government has backed his parental rights.

In today's installment, ABC said the boy told Sawyer he doesn't want to return, but because of the "inflamed climate on this inflamed subject, we thought it best not to broadcast the exact words of a 6-year-old child."

Sawyer brought along a child psychiatrist who speaks Spanish, and Elian's cousin also translated. In Monday's installment, Elian told Sawyer he doesn't really believe that his mother died.

Elian drew crayon pictures of the voyage, including the waves and a leaping dolphin -- he has told people that dolphins protected him from sharks. He drew himself as a stick figure on the inner tube, and then sketched a boat with people inside. He told of the boat having engine trouble and slowly sinking after "Water came in."

But Elian suggested his mother survived.

"My mother is not in heaven, not lost," he said in Spanish through his cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez. "She must have been picked up here in Miami somewhere. She must have lost her memory, and just doesn't know I'm here."

Sawyer said ABC thought long and hard about how to do the interview. She said by ABC's calculation, there have been 11,984 articles written about the case and "not one of us has sat down and looked into his eyes."

Sawyer did that, leaning next to Elian as he made his drawings and allowing him to shoot Silly String into her hair. She called him bubbly, very bright and ``infinitely curious.''

In today's installment, Sawyer asked Marisleysis Gonzalez, who has become a mother figure to the boy, if she would take Elian back to Cuba to help him adjust.

``That would be the worst thing that could happen to this kid,'' she said. ``The person that he is so close to him, the person he most loves ... I feel I would betray him if I do that, and I will not betray him.''

She told Sawyer that she has told the boy he should return to Cuba and that his father loves him, doing so to lessen the trauma if he is forced back.

Not all journalists believe it is proper to interview young children. Jeff Zucker, executive producer of NBC's ``Today'' show, said it would not air an interview with Gonzalez because ``we think it's inappropriate to interview a 6-year-old boy.''

Zucker acknowledged, however, that a ``Today'' show booker sent a letter requesting an interview when approached on Friday by the Gonzalez family. He said the employee was acting without his authority and that the interview would not have taken place.

The family ``wanted to do it right'' and have a child psychologist present for the interview, said Armando Gutierrez, spokesman for Elian's Miami relatives.

``Every channel wanted him,'' he said, ``so we didn't see anything wrong with it.''

Sawyer was chosen because the family believed she had ``the right temperament ... to interview a 6-year-old,'' Gutierrez told The Miami Herald.

Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education center, said he believed Elian should not have been interviewed on TV, given his age and the recent experiences of losing his mother and becoming a subject of a political battle.

``I don't think it's fair to him to once more shine the bright light of scrutiny on him with this type of interview,'' Steele said. ``I don't think what he might offer, given his age, given his vulnerability, given his trauma, has enough benefit to outweigh the potential significant harm in revictimization.''

ABC News President David Westin said the network understood the need to handle the interview with sensitivity. ``What we put on the air was very tasteful, very appropriate, very low-key, nonintrusive to Elian,'' Westin said.

In a speech Sunday in Havana, Cuban President Fidel Castro said subjecting Elian to the interview without the father's permission was ``monstrous and sickening.''

The network received a Cuban protest letter late Monday. Spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said the network may address the complaint on the air.

On today's ``Good Morning America'' broadcast, Sawyer denied the Cuban accusation that ABC was taking sides in the dispute by interviewing Elian. The American attorney for Elian's father was also interviewed on the program.

Murphy said Sawyer's meeting with Elian wasn't an interview. ``It was a supervised visit,'' Murphy said. ``We did have the permission of his custodial guardian and his attorney, which is what we thought was necessary.''

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