PBS News Hour Responds to WSJ Criticism of its Cuba Coverage

About two weeks ago, the PBS Newshour aired a three-part series on Cuba: its economic conditions and prospects for changes, its medical care and philosophy, and its medical diplomacy around the world. I have to admit, I only got around to reading the transcript from the first installment, before the holiday madness took over.

When Mary Anastasia O'Grady, from the Wall Street Journal's Editorial Board, blasted the series, calling it a "fairy tale," I paid little heed. O'Grady's polemical attacks on anyone with whom she disagrees are as predictable as they are uninteresting. But then, I came across this piqued response from PBS's Ray Suarez, the correspondent who filed the stories, and decided it was time to watch and read everything I'd missed:

"Cuba -- its past, present and future -- sits comfortably in a category, along with abortion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and now global climate change, of difficult stories to tell. No matter what the reporter writes, he or she is going to make somebody mad.

In her op-ed critique of my recent series of reports from Cuba, Mary Anastasia O'Grady writes, "it was hard to recognize the country Mr. Suarez claimed to be describing."

In reality, it was hard to recognize my series of reports from Ms. O'Grady's description."

Suarez then details the various interviews he conducted on the island which presented views critical of the Cuban government, or in contrast to the "official" view, from a frustrated local barber to a well known former political prisoner, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who had this to say:

"The Revolution is going backwards . . . . our dreams have become a nightmare."

After watching the full series, I found the piece to be pretty well balanced, and importantly, informative.

Cuba is a country of contradictions. It's difficult to experience from your armchair the layers and shifting nature of Cuban reality, and the PBS piece does a good job of conveying that. An uninitiated watcher should have come away with the impression that Cuba's approach to the social safety net created some safety that Americans just don't have, but that it's not sustainable, and that it comes with a heavy price.

But what about a watcher like O'Grady? Suarez thinks he knows what happens:

"It's an old newsroom truism that if you're making both sides angry you probably got it about right. I have always found that old saw less than satisfying. What I've found over long years of reporting is that people with a strong set of beliefs about a long-standing controversy dismiss all interview subjects and facts they agree with as self-evident. All somebody who has taken a side is looking for is the stuff they don't agree with. The thinking goes: if people I don't agree with are included in the reporting, then everything else the reporter writes must be wrong, too.

That kind of intellectual laziness is problem enough from anyone. Coming from a member of an editorial board of one of the best-read newspapers in the country, it's horrifying."

I was frankly surprised by the criticisms I found in the comment section of Suarez's response (posted at PBS's blog The Rundown). Certainly many readers appreciated his points, but numerous commenters insisted that Suarez wasn't reporting the real Cuba and wanted their money back. (Actually, the coverage that stirred up so much anger, about Cuba's medical system and its medical diplomacy, appears to have been funded not by the taxpayers, but by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.)

To me, the salience of the PBS piece, and thus our focus, is not which side you take in this never-ending ideological conflict. Rather, it should be on the changes currently underway on the island. Rafael Hernandez, editor of the noted Cuban magazine Temas, believes that the changes are inevitable, but he's not convinced that full blown capitalism is the answer. Carlos Saladrigas, based in Miami, hopes Cuba's leaders will do more than tinker with the system, otherwise he fears the economy is in "freefall". No matter how far the changes will eventually go, CUNY professor Katrin Hansing believes the gradual elimination of some of Cuba's longtime social safety net guarantees spell a big psychologicial adjustment for the population. Isn't that adjustment and Cuba's immediate future - rather than who was right and who was wrong in the past - where we should really put our focus?

A version of this post appears at The Havana Note.

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