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MediaWatch: May 1989

Vol. Three No. 5

Janet Cooke Award: ABC News: Commending Cuba

You could say it was a long overdue report card for Cuba. After 20 years, ABC's Peter Jennings finally returned to Fidel Castro's Cuba and his overall assessment was nothing short of an 'A.' "Castro has delivered the most to those who had the least," declared Jennings on the April 3 World News Tonight, "And for much of the Third World, Cuba is actually a model of development."

In December, CBS This Morning co-host Kathleen Sullivan called Cuba a society with "a model health care program" and told viewers "Cubans are most proud of their schools -- almost everyone can read here." We pointed out that Sullivan relied on government sources and statistics to further her Cuban success story.

It's a success story that does not exist, but Jennings just a few months later furthered that picture once again. For this, he earns the May Janet Cooke Award.

Relying on official government statistics on literacy, he reported: "Education was once available to the rich and the well connected, it is now free to all. On January the first, 1959, when the Cuban dictator Battista left the country for good, only a third of the population could read and write. Today the literacy rate is 97 percent."

But Jennings' facts -- past and present -- are wrong. As Poverty of Communism author Nick Eberstadt points out, at the time of the last pre-revolutionary census (1953), the literacy rate for those fifteen and older was already 76 percent, one of the highest rates for a non-industrialized country at the time. As Eberstadt notes, Cuba's actual literacy rate is between 90 and 93 percent. Many of its neighbors had lower literacy rates in the 1940s and 1950s than Cuba, but today have higher rates than the communist country.

The communist government has a long history of glossing over or rigging poor health statistics and manufacturing good ones. But as he did with the education statistics, Jennings fell for the state's line on health care: "Medical care was once for the privileged few. Today it is available to every Cuban and it is free. Some of Cuba's health care is world class. In heart disease, for example, in brain surgery. Health and education are the revolution's great success stories."

Jennings neglected to mention the 1987 Communist Party survey which concluded that 87.6 percent of the inhabitants of one province were clearly dissatisfied with their health care. While official Cuban government statistics claim the infant mortality rate is steadily declining, National Academy of Sciences demographer Kenneth Hill has proved through Cuba's own life tables that it is constant and may in fact be on the rise. If Hill is right, says Eberstadt, Cuba's progress against infant mortality would not be the most rapid, but the slowest in the region.

He admitted that there is no freedom of speech, press, and that only a few dissidents are tolerated. Religion is suppressed and openly criticized by Castro, but Jennings simply labeled freedom of religion as "more complicated."

Amazingly, Jennings still felt the "Cuban record on human rights is not as bad as it once was" even though he noted "there are still several hundred political prisoners." Ricardo Bofill, former head of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, informed MediaWatch, that neither he in the U.S. nor any member of his organization in Cuba were ever contacted by ABC News at the time of their trip.

In his conclusion, Jennings gave a favorable impression of the revolution's impact: "When the visitor looks at the 1950 vintage American cars teetering along, there is an easy temptation to compare what is happening here with what Cubans have in America. In so many ways it is an unfavorable comparison. But many Cubans compare themselves instead with some of their other neighbors: Haiti, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico....And whatever the mistakes of this revolution, Cubans tend to blame the Communist Party or the bureaucracy. Rarely do they blame Castro."

Reached by MediaWatch, World News Tonight Press Representative Scott Richardson would not comment on the specifics of the program: "I'm not going to answer those questions because I don't have any editorial control. Jennings is Senior Editor of the show. He has a reputation for extremely fair and balanced reporting."

Richardson did say that the report and its statistics were gathered from the Europa Yearbook for 1988 and were substantiated by several consultants from Harvard and "a well-known, anti- Castro defector." Richardson refused to reveal either the name of the defector or other consultants.

What could explain Jennings' pro-Castro spin? Gullibility, sloppy research, ignorance, bias? Whatever the reason, it's a sad indictment of all the press says it stands for.