LIKE WINSTON SMITH, Elian Gonzalez has learned to love Big Brother. CBS News loves him, too. Elian's excuse is that he is 11 years old and has been brainwashed by a totalitarian police state. What excuse is there for CBS?
Last week, ''60 Minutes" aired an interview with Elian, the Cuban boat child who survived a desperate escape from Fidel Castro's island dictatorship in November 1999 only to be forcibly turned over to the Cubans by the Clinton administration the following April. The story was a shameless piece of agitprop. From correspondent Bob Simon's opening description of the Elian affair as a conflict on the order of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the 1962 missile crisis to his fawning speculation at the end that Elian ''may have a future in Cuban politics," virtually the entire segment had the oily feel of Cuban government propaganda. Which it may literally have been: Simon disclosed that ''Castro's personal cameraman" had ''helped" put the story together.
Anyone who watched ''60 Minutes" knows that Elian now has ''carefully gelled hair." That he is the president of his seventh-grade class. That he likes math and wants to be a computer scientist. That he thought the best part about being interviewed was getting ''a bottle of really cold water and a gizmo in his ear for simultaneous translation." And don't forget that hair.
''What's also changed about you is your hair," Simon cooed. ''Your hair looked very different then. You didn't have hair like that."
Ever since his forced return to Cuba in April 2000, Elian has been exploited endlessly by the communist government's disinformation apparatus. ''60 Minutes" showed him being welcomed as a ''conquering hero" and delivering a ''patriotic speech in front of the cameras and Castro." (An extended excerpt of that speech, complete with servile ''Viva Fidel," is posted on the CBS website.) ''Che Guevara was yesterday," Simon intoned, ''Elian Gonzalez is today, and that's precisely how the regime is playing him."
But Elian was not the only one being played by the regime. ''60 Minutes" made much of the fact that Castro came to Elian's elementary school graduation and pronounced himself Elian's friend. ''That's quite something, isn't it," Simon gushed, ''for the president of a country to say he's honored to have a kid as a friend?"
Elian: Yes, and it's also very moving to me. And I also believe I am his friend.
Simon: Do you think of him as a friend?
Elian: Not only as a friend, but also as a father.
Simon: If you had a problem, would you call him up and tell him about it?
Elian: I could.
Well, it is good to know that Elian thinks so highly of Castro. And one must admire the restraint shown by ''60 Minutes," which somehow managed to avoid mentioning that Elian's friend and surrogate ''father" is also the world's longest-ruling tyrant, a sadist who has killed or imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents, and, not incidentally, the Stalinist thug who drove Elizabet Brotons -- Elian's mother -- to her death in the Florida Straits.
Come to think of it, why did Brotons want so desperately to leave Cuba? Why was she willing to risk her and her son's life on such a dangerous -- in her case, fatal -- attempt to cross the 90 miles that separate Cuba from freedom? Was it was the grinding poverty, the ubiquitous rationing, the constant shortages? Was it the lack of the free speech? The suppression of religion? The inability to criticize the government without risking years behind bars? Was it the informers on every block? The political dossier maintained on every student's ''political attitude and social conduct?" Was it the knowledge that once Elian turned 11, he would be subject to mandatory labor for six to eight weeks every year? Was it the sheer, soul-crushing misery of living in a country routinely ranked as one of the most unfree places in the world?
''60 Minutes" had nothing to say about any of that.
On the other hand, it did show Elian saying -- when prodded by Simon -- that he had no good memories of his stay in Miami, that the relatives who cared for him ''tormented" him by speaking of his mother, and that when he was seized at gunpoint by a federal SWAT team, he ''felt joy that I could get out of that house."
It bears repeating: Elian is only 11, and was just 5 when these events took place. He cannot be blamed for spouting the Communist Party line. But CBS has no such excuse. ''Helped" by ''Castro's personal cameraman," indeed. Edward R. Murrow must be spinning in his grave.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.