Megaphone for a Dictator

CNN's Coverage of Fidel Castro's Cuba, 1997-2002

Recommendations for Improved Coverage

Most of the coverage described in this report was broadcast before Walter Isaacson took over as Chairman of CNN last summer. He and his leadership team have a chance to transform CNN and improve the network’s performance. The following recommendations would improve CNN’s future coverage of communist Cuba:

CNN Should Broadcast More Cuba Stories:
Coverage of Cuba has waned considerably in the past two years, as CNN’s prime time news programs have carried only about one story each month. This low level of coverage cannot possibly provide Americans with enough basic information about Cuba, and it suggests that the issue of Castro’s dictatorship is a “back burner” issue at CNN. With its full-time Havana bureau, CNN is perfectly positioned to keep an independent media spotlight on the hemisphere’s only totalitarian state. It should do so.

Commit to Doing Real Investigative Journalism:
As the only U.S.-based television news organization with a full time presence, only CNN has the ability to do the sort of intensive investigative journalism required to independently document the real story of Cuba’s labor practices (especially at tourist hotels), allegations of child prostitution, and efforts by the communist regime to develop offensive biological weapons. ABC, CBS, NBC and the Fox News Channel cannot investigate these matters because they lack a full-time news bureau on the island. CNN alone has the resources to dig out the truth, and they should use them.

Increase Coverage of Peaceful Dissidents:
Castro has imprisoned activists who are guilty of nothing more than opposing communism and seeking a peaceful transition to democracy. The stories by Lucia Newman and Susan Candiotti cited earlier in this report were excellent examples of how CNN can draw attention to the actions of the Cuban dictatorship without becoming advocates themselves. These stories should include regular reports on the status and welfare of Castro’s prisoners of conscience, and human rights should be a much more consistent component of CNN’s Cuba coverage.

CNN should also draw attention to Cuba’s holding of political prisoners by regularly reporting on the findings of international groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and by following up on individual cases by interviewing family members and questioning Cuban authorities at every chance. If the dictatorship chooses to flout international human rights standards by imprisoning its peaceful opponents, CNN can at least use its Havana bureau to ensure the rest of the world knows about it.

Promote the Reporting of Dissident Journalists:
There are a number of independent journalists working to keep the outside world informed about the real situation inside Cuba. CNN could aid their cause by promoting their work and independently verifying their findings. CNN should also make viewers aware of the reports of independent journalist groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has placed Castro on its “Worst Enemies of the Press” list for the past seven years in a row.

If CNN Officials Cannot Commit to Improved Cuban Coverage, They Should Close Their Havana Bureau:
If CNN cannot or will not aggressively report the truth about Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the network should close down its bureau rather than perpetuate the idea that it is fully and fairly documenting the situation in Cuba. As it now stands, human rights violations in Cuba are rarely covered, everyday Cubans are presented as overwhelmingly supportive of the regime, and spokesmen for the communist government use CNN to transmit their largely unchallenged spin to the world. If CNN’s reporters cannot be as adversarial with Castro as there are with the world’s democratically elected leaders, they should end the fiction that its Havana bureau is making Americans more informed about the realities of Cuba under Castro.


  1. Mike McCurry, White House briefing, February 12, 1997.
  2. Quoted by Peter Baker, "10 U.S. News Operations May Open Cuba Bureaus," The Washington Post, February 12, 1997.
  3. Quoted by Steven Lee Myers, "Clinton Clears U.S. Media To Set Up Cuba Bureaus," The New York Times, February 13, 1997.
  4. USA Today, March 18, 1997.
  5. CNN’s PrimeNews, March 17, 1997.
  6. The MRC study reviewed all 212 news items about Cuba on CNN news programs during prime time (8pm to 11 pm Eastern time) for five years after the network’s Havana bureau opened, a span lasting from March 17, 1997 through March 17, 2002. Stories included in the study were drawn from the following newscasts, all of which were contained in the MRC’s videotape archive: PrimeNews, The World Today, Impact, CNN & Time, Newsstand, Wolf Blitzer Reports, CNN Tonight, Live From..., NewsNight with Aaron Brown, and a small number of news specials and breaking news events which contained relevant stories. (Larry King Live, an interview program shown at 9pm, was not included in the study.) This sampling strategy ensured that CNN’s main nightly newscast would be represented throughout each year of the study, even as the network’s programmers have changed the evening line_up. Nexis transcripts were used whenever they were available, but all quotations in this report were checked against the actual tape of the newscast.
  7. CNN’s The World Today, September 2, 1997.
  8. CNN’s The World Today, January 11, 1998.
  9. Reporters Without Borders, 2001 Annual Report, Introduction to the Americas section.
  10. "Castro attacks foreign press over objectivity," The Associated Press, January 18, 2001.
  11. CNN’s The World Today, December 25, 1997.
  12. CNN’s The World Today, January 20, 1998.
  13. CNN’s The World Today, June 8, 1998.
  14. CNN’s The World Today, July 17, 1997.
  15. CNN’s The World Today, December 13, 1998.
  16. CNN’s The World Today, July 19, 1998.
  17. CNN’s The World Today, August 29, 1998.
  18. CNN’s The World Today, October 25, 1999.
  19. CNN’s The World Today, May 7, 1998.
  20. CNN’s NewsNight with Aaron Brown, March 7, 2002.
  21. CNN’s NewsNight with Aaron Brown, March 7, 2002.
  22. CNN Saturday, January 23, 1998.
  23. CNN Special Report, January 22, 1998.
  24. CNN’s WorldView, October 28, 2000.
  25. CNN’s PrimeNews, October 11, 1997
  26. CNN’s Cold War Postscript, November 29, 1998.
  27. CNN’s The World Today, April 7, 2000.
  28. CNN’s The World Today May 26, 2000.
  29. CNN’s Newsstand, February 4, 2000.
  30. CNN's The World Today, August 13, 1999
  31. CNN's The World Today, June 2, 2000