MediaWatch: June 1991

Vol. Five No. 6

Janet Cooke Award: CBS: Quotable Quint

Poland's people struggled during the '80s to resist an oppressive communist regime. Its mostly Catholic people looked for inspiration to Pope John Paul II. Now that the struggle against communism is largely over, the people and the Church are working to establish a new society.

In early June, the Pope visited Poland for the fourth time. Instead of delivering an even-handed account of the new tensions in Poland, CBS reporter Bert Quint ended his June 1 Evening News report by suggesting the new society in some respects may be inferior to the old: "But most of his fellow countrymen do not share John Paul's concept of morality....many here expect John Paul to use his authority to support Church efforts to ban abortion, perhaps the country's principal means of birth control. And this, they say, could deprive them of a freedom of choice the communists never tried to take away from them." For his imbalanced accounts, Quint earned the June Janet Cooke Award.

On the June 3 CBS This Morning, Quint began: "The Pope today attacked one principle communism brought to Poland that most of his fellow countrymen want to keep: separation of church and state." Obviously, many Poles are troubled with the Church's opposition to separation of church and state. But the "principle" the communists brought was not separation of church and state, but suppression of the church by the state. Catholic priests and believers were imprisoned and killed by the communists, not granted freedom of worship.

Reached by MediaWatch at the CBS Warsaw bureau, Quint acknowledged that the communists did not intend to protect both church and state, as the Western model does. "Obviously, they were communists. It was meant to protect the state, not the Church." If he recognized the difference, why didn't he stress that difference to the viewers?

Quint painted a picture of a Polish people threatened by Catholic doctrine. On the June 3 CBS Evening News, he began: "John Paul finally tackled the issue that obsesses the Polish Church and frightens millions of Poles. He didn't mention the word, but when the Pope said that the Church should become more involved in the affairs of state and every child, born or unborn, is a gift from God, it sounded like a call for the Polish parliament to declare abortion a crime....They're trying to push through a tough anti- abortion bill with little regard for economic or emotional circumstances." Quint concluded: "Already, it's more difficult to obtain abortions in state hospitals and most people can't afford private ones...The Polish Pope is determined to lead his people in a crusade of Catholic morality that, like the battle against communism, won't stop at Poland's borders."

While Quint interviewed average Poles who supported his view-point, his three stories included no one who was inspired by the Pope's visit or who opposed abortion, and perhaps more importantly, no Poles who shared the Pope's morality but opposed its imposition by government. When asked why viewers heard only one side of the story, Quint told MediaWatch "We are not an opinion-sampling organization. When we went out and interviewed people at random, [most] made comments like the one we put on the air." A "random" sampling of the hundreds of thousands who attended the Pope's rallies could have shown just the opposite.

This isn't the first time Quint compared post-communist Poland unfavorably to the old regime. On February 24, 1990, Quint reported: "It's the new Polish capitalism, replacing the old communist system where people couldn't lose their jobs." Quint found a textile factory employing mostly blind people, deaf- mutes, and mentally retarded girls, where half the work force had been laid off by the government, and ended with a twist: "But Poland is learning what survival of the fittest means and there are those who begin to wonder if capitalism is really better than what they had."

On April 11 of last year, Quint reported: "This is Marlboro country, southeastern Poland, a place where the transition from communism to capitalism is making more people more miserable every day....No lines at the shops now, but plenty of some of the first unemployment centers where socialism used to guarantee everybody a job." Nearly a month later, on May 9, Quint added: "Communism is being swept away, but so too is the social safety net it provided...Factories, previously kept alive only by edicts from Warsaw, are closing their doors, while institutions new to the East, soup kitchens and unemployment centers, are opening theirs."

Quint, who knew he had received the Media Research Center's 1990 "Bring Back the Iron Curtain Award" for his creative reporting, complained he had been wrongly pigeonholed: "I'm really tired of just hearing that communism sucks. When there is one aspect where the people were better off before, and I report that, I'm accused of promoting communism. I'm not here to be a spokesman for capitalism or communism. If you want my personal opinion, I think they both suck."