MediaWatch: May 1989

Vol. Three No. 5

The ABC's of Rights Reporting

The ABC's of Rights Reporting. Out of 37 stories it did on Cuba during Gorbachev's visit, ABC devoted only one story by John Quinones (on Good Morning America) to the human rights violations of a nation classified as "fundamentally repressive" by the U.S. State Department. A few pieces made reference to Cuba's continuing rights 'problems,' but these were limited to vague generalities.

But clearly there was news of human rights violations in Cuba. On April 4, CBS This Morning and Evening News reported the Stalin- style pre-dawn arrest of activist Samuel Martinez-Lara. CBS cited seven more arrests on April 5. On April 11, This Morning anchor Harry Smith said 20 human rights activists were arrested during the Gorbachev visit. They have since been tried, without counsel, and are being held incommunicado.

Where was ABC? Their Cuban coverage had a different focus: six stories praising Cuba's health care system. On April 3, for instance, ABC's Paula Zahn declared: "Today even the poorest Cubans have found food to eat, their children are educated and even critics of the regime say Cubans have better health care than most Latin Americans."

No Threat to Thelkeld. ABC's Richard Threlkeld envisions a kinder, gentler Cuba. "These days Cuba doesn't count for nearly as much in the Soviet military scheme of things," Threlkeld explained during the April 3 World News Tonight report from Cuba. "Much of the equipment," Threlkeld asserted, "is old and obsolete." The camera panned scenes of tanks and MiG fighters as Threlkeld explained, "This Soviet weaponry is years behind the times." Threlkeld concluded, "On the list of Moscow's military priorities, Cuba's only an 'also ran.'"

But CBS Moscow correspondent Barry Petersen reported just the opposite during the same day's Evening News. "The Soviets have spent billions of dollars keeping Fidel Castro supplied," he found. "The equipment [is] the best the Soviet Union can supply ...Fidel Castro still believes in the Mao adage that power comes from the barrel of a gun...Cuba per capita has more men and women under arms than any country in the world."

Rather Naive. Dan Rather made a special appearance on CBS This Morning from Cuba on April 4. He told viewers to closely watch Gorbachev's upcoming speech on Central America, which would be "a big number." Thrilled to be a reporter in Havana, Dan gushed: "For Castro, this is a kind of palm tree glasnost already."

That night, after Castro had bashed the U.S. so hard that our representative left the hall, and after the two dictators had signed their predictable "friendship" accord, Rather still couldn't be disappointed. Despite Gorbachev's failure to promise any changes in Soviet policy toward Central America, Rather cheered Gorbachev's pledge that "he and Castro will work for improved East-West relations." It was left to reporter Barry Petersen to exercise damage control after the newsless speech: "I think we were a heartbeat away, just a heartbeat away, from Gorbachev about to say something dramatic. You know, you could see it in his face: it was almost there."