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From the December 1988 MediaWatch

Janet Cooke Award

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Favoring Fidel: CBS This Morning

The earthquake in Soviet Armenia led Mikhail Gorbachev to cancel his planned trip to communist Cuba. It also left CBS This Morning on their own for two days of reporting from the island nation. How did co-host Kathleen Sullivan and the This Morning crew fill the time? By giving an excessively glowing and romantic view of life in Fidel Castro's Cuba. For their coverage from Havana on December 8 and 9, CBS This Morning receives the December Janet Cooke Award.

The morning show all but ignored the totalitarian nature of the Cuban regime, only alluding in passing to the human rights violations, the lack of civil liberties, and the disastrous economic condition brought on by the communist system. What did Sullivan prefer to highlight? Take, for example, her opening on December 9: "Meanwhile here in Cuba, it has been life under Castro for 30 years. It is a country with a struggling economy, but also with a model health care program and a lively arts scene. All morning we're going to have a taste of Cuba."

A half hour later, she again dismissed the violations, emphasizing two supposed accomplishments of the communist regime: "Going around Havana, it's easy to see buildings in disrepair, the food rationing, and limited freedom of dissent, but Cubans are most proud of their schools -- almost everyone can read here -- and they are most proud of their medical care -- free for everyone." Her most incredible claim was that the youth of the nation "all have benefitted from Castro's Cuba."

Echoing the rhetoric of the regime on health care she declared: "[This] is a clinic, and it is the heart of a health care system which has been called a 'revolution within a revolution.' Of all the promises made by Fidel Castro in 1959, perhaps the boldest was to provide quality health care free for every citizen." Did Castro accomplishment that? Yes, according to Sullivan, who gave statistics on the rise in life expectancy and the plunge in infant mortality all since Castro came to power. She went on to inform viewers that Cubans are provided "high-tech medicine," "multiple organ transplants, and "primary care...in the neighborhood." In addition, "the elderly get checkups at their home once a year just to see if anything's wrong."

Sounds like a veritable paradise! Sullivan obviously thought so, gushing: "Enough people expect such good medical care here that Cubans are offering packaged surgery tours to other Latin Americans. The price includes air fare, hospital stays, and even some free site-seeing." But Sullivan neglected to mention that all her statistics were official government ones which are suspect -- at best. Independent sources, such as National Academy of Sciences demographer Kenneth Hill and Poverty of Communism author Nick Eberstadt have shown that: that the Cuban government may indeed be glossing over poor health statistics; that infant mortality is not decreasing and may even be on the rise; and Cuban health conditions are no better, perhaps worse, than in other Latin American countries.

And how do Cubans really feel about their medical care? According to a confidential report by the Cuban Communist Party, obtained by the Cuban American National Foundation, of 10,756 respondents to a 1987 survey in one province, 87.6 percent are disappointed with their health care. Complaints revealed accounts of women dying during childbirth due to incompetent doctors, infections from surgery, and shortages of vital medical instruments.

Over the two day period, everyone interviewed by Sullivan was a friend of the Castro regime. On the first day, Sandra Levinson, of the left-wing Center for Cuban Studies, complained: "I think there are a lot of young people who simply cannot appreciate... what the revolution has given them. They take for granted free health care, free education."

On Day Two, Sullivan interviewed the Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister, Ricardo Alarcon, but she wasn't interested in Cuba's continued engagement in Angola, asking instead "Why didn't [South Africa] want to sign [the withdrawal agreement]?" She did ask why Cuba continues to send troops around the world, but never challenged Alarcon when he preposterously claimed Cuba only sent doctors and teachers to Nicaragua and that Cuba came to the aid of the Angolan government only after South Africa invaded.

Sullivan devoted another segment to the arts, declaring: "Well we should point out that there is really no state censor here in Cuba." Who better to back her up than a communist writer, Pablo Antonio Hernandez, who concluded: "There is not. There is not. There is not." She didn't mention his Castro connection. Were any political dissidents or human rights activists brought on to counter the communist officials? Not one. Sullivan tried to explain why: "The Cubans wouldn't allow us to see their prisons where many human rights violations have been reported. In fact, we contacted some prominent human rights activists to appear with us, government officials heard about it, they weren't very happy, and pretty soon the activists stopped returning our telephone calls."

But what about prominent Cuban dissidents who now reside in the United States, such as Ricardo Bofill who was forced to leave Cuba in October. He was leader of the Cuban Human Rights Committee, a group which counted up to 15,000 imprisoned in Cuba for political reasons. Certainly, Cuban authorities couldn't have stopped that interview.

Why would CBS News give in to demands to show only what made Castro look good? Would CBS This Morning have ventured to Chile if Pinochet denied them access to his opponents, allowing them only to air the views of his admirers?

No CBS News employee was willing to defend the segments. Numerous calls to Kathleen Sullivan went unreturned. Calls to Senior Producer Gail Steinberg were also ignored. Producers Bebe Crouse and Gordon Rothman accompanied Sullivan to Cuba, but refused to discuss the show, as did press spokesman Tina Wynn. They referred MediaWatch to CBS News Vice President Ted Savaglio and Executive Producer David Corvo, both of whom were, coincidentally, on vacation.

It seems CBS treated the trip as a holiday vacation, not as a serious, investigative endeavor. "There is something that is really special about this place," Sullivan marveled at one point, "and it's a fever and a life that is all of what the samba is about and all that the Latin beat that you do feel very much coming about."


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