Statement of L. Brent Bozell III
President, Media Research Center
On “Megaphone for a Dictator, CNN’s coverage of Castro’s Cuba, 1997-2002"
May 9, 2002
National Press Club, Washington, DC
The MRC’s newest Special Report, “Megaphone for a Dictator, CNN’s coverage of Castro’s Cuba, 1997-2002,” covers the five-year period during which CNN has been the only American television news organization with a full-time bureau in communist Cuba. In 1997, American officials from both sides of the aisle, from Clinton administration White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry to Republican North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, expressed sincere hope that a little freedom of the press would go a long way in exposing the hard truths about life under a communist dictatorship.
This is what CNN Havana bureau chief Lucia Newman promised from Cuba on her first day (run video): “The Cuban government has told us that while they will be keeping close tabs on what we say and what we broadcast, we will however be given total freedom to do what we want and to work without any prior censorship. And that’s what we’re certainly looking forward to.”
Castro didn’t need to “censor” CNN. CNN censored itself.
Media Research Center analysts reviewed all 212 stories about the Cuban government or Cuban life presented on CNN’s prime time news programs from March 17, 1997, the date the Havana bureau was established, through March 17, 2002. MRC’s analysis found that instead of reporting on the excesses of the totalitarian regime that runs Cuba, CNN has allowed itself to become a component of Fidel Castro’s propaganda machine. No one should read into that an accusation that CNN is openly promoting Castro’s communist agenda. But it has squandered a remarkable opportunity to tell the world about it.
The study’s time frame is significant. It includes six months of coverage of the Elian Gonzalez case. Since our study was limited to reports on the Cuban government or life in Cuba, when Elian news stories did not touch on these topics they were excluded.
The MRC study has three components: analysis of CNN’s coverage of Cuba’s human rights record, analysis of the news makers and talking heads CNN selected for air, and recommendations for improving coverage in the future.
On human rights, I think we can all stipulate that Castro has a horrific record, as amply documented by every human rights organization on the planet. Yet over five years, CNN saw fit to report on political prisoners and dissidents in only seven stories. Only seven stories in five years. That’s fewer than half as many stories as CNN produced in just the first three months of 2002 about phony claims of human rights abuses by the United States against prisoners held at its base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
What about the lack of a free press and Castro’s imprisonment of journalists? CNN presented only two stories on this topic. The Committee to Protect Journalists has named Castro one of its “Worst Enemies of the Press” for seven out of the past seven years, but you would never know it by watching CNN.
CNN broadcast 20 stories about Castro’s denial of religious freedoms to Cuban citizens. But fully 18 of those reports aired immediately before, during, or after Pope John Paul II’s historic visit in 1998. From April 1998 through March 2002, CNN aired only two reports on religious freedom.
When CNN did cover religion in Cuba, some reports — without the slightest hint of irony — gave Castro credit for lifting some of the oppression his regime imposed years earlier. On December 25, 1997, CNN’s Lucia Newman reported: “President Fidel Castro’s decision to restore Christmas has been overwhelmingly applauded by Christians as well as Marxists,” she stated, never mentioning any public dissatisfaction with Castro for outlawing the holiday in the first place.
That’s CNN’s vision of Castro: the Santa who brought Christmas back, not the Grinch who stole it in the first place.
CNN also ignored Cuba’s lack of democracy. Despite the presumed advantages CNN enjoyed by reporting from the island itself, CNN ran only four stories on lack of democracy. One of those reports, in January 1998, consisted of Lucia Newman trumpeting Cuba’s one-candidate “elections” as superior to those in the U.S. because they have “no dubious campaign spending” and “no mud slinging.”
Just this past Tuesday, The New York Times ran an explosive story by Judith Miller, “Washington Accuses Cuba of Germ Warfare.”
The New York Times often sets the agenda for TV newscasts, but CNN’s much-vaunted
NewsNight with Aaron Brown has yet to say a word about this Cuba story.
So if not human rights, what topics did CNN report on from its privileged Havana perch? In the past five years, much of CNN’s Cuba coverage focused on the thinnest slices of everyday life, which created the sense that Cuba was basically a normal country rather than one in the grip of a dictator. CNN showed Cubans waiting in line for ice cream cones, profiled a promising young ballerina, and interviewed a 94-year-old guitar player. There were annual stories on fine Cuban cigars. And who could forget the February 2000 “Cool Digs” segment of CNN’s
Newsstand that featured the dictator’s office?
In addition to analyzing what topics CNN covered, the MRC Special Report looked at who CNN chose to cover and quote.
MRC’s analysis found CNN gave spokesmen for the communist regime a major advantage, broadcasting sound bites from Fidel Castro and his spokesmen six times more frequently than non-communist groups such as Catholic church leaders and peaceful dissidents.
As for everyday Cubans, CNN’s stories included six times as many sound bites from everyday Cubans who voiced agreement with Castro than quotes from Cuban citizens disagreeing with the government. This left American audiences with the impression that Castro’s communist government is overwhelmingly popular among the Cuban public, an impression that is sorely misleading.
So where does CNN go from here?
Most of the coverage described in our report pre-dates Walter Isaacson becoming CNN Chairman last summer. Isaacson’s team has a chance to improve the CNN’s Cuba coverage dramatically. Here are four recommendations to help them do just that.
1. Increase quantity as well as quality. Over the past two years, CNN’s prime time news programs have carried only about one Cuba story a month. 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.
2. Do investigative journalism. Only CNN is positioned to independently document the real story of Cuba’s labor practices, allegations of child prostitution, and efforts by the communist regime to develop offensive biological weapons.
3. Make regular reporting on the status and welfare of political prisoners and dissidents an integral component of Cuba coverage.
4. Assist independent journalists working in Cuba by authenticating their reporting and giving it worldwide exposure.
If CNN believes it is too dangerous for its Havana-based reporters to be as adversarial with the Castro regime as they are with democratically elected world leaders, it should close the bureau. To do otherwise is to perpetuate the fiction that CNN is making Americans more informed about the realities of Castro’s Cuba, and that does more harm than good.
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