As host of “What Would You Do?,” ABC news correspondent John Quiñones challenges society’s morals. Whether it’s watching to see whether bystanders will step in to rescue a woman being berated by her boyfriend or whether people come to the aid of a homeless man being bullied by a bartender, Quiñones, through his television program, challenges people with ethical situations. He admits the results are a mixed bag.
“It’s a kind of candid camera of moral ethics, this show I do. Progress has been made, but when we do this show, we’re reminded that not enough progress has been made,” he told about 150 people at the Forum on Faith and Work, hosted by Cardinal Stritch University and your Catholic Herald at the Italian Community Center on Friday, Oct. 25.
“Sometimes we encounter wonderful things which warm the heart, but there are also others who turn the other way or agree with the antagonist,” he said, noting he’s constantly surprised at how people react.
In filming the shows, Quiñones’ crew sets up a scenario involving actors. Using hidden cameras, they record the situation and then watch to see how unsuspecting bystanders react to the situation. Quiñones remains hidden as the drama unfolds, only later talking to the players involved, to ask why they did what they did or did not do.
“Often you cringe, watching on this those hidden cameras, the monitors. Often you are heartbroken by the fact that people are not willing to help someone who is being ridiculed or bullied or chastised,” he admitted in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “But then you are also inspired in virtually every one of the scenarios. We have people step in at the end of the day and do something remarkable when they help someone they thought was in need, sometimes involving a measure of risk to themselves. That’s what makes it so inspiring that people will step in even when they might be worried about themselves becoming a target.”
Quiñones said he’s found faith-filled people are more likely to step in to assist someone in need.
“If they are brought up in a religious family or if (they) can connect with the victim, or if they are held and loved by a family, if they grew up in a tight, closeknit family where they were taught to be compassionate about the world, if they were raised that way, they are more likely to step in to help. I think religion does come into play,” he said.
Quiñones, 61, winner of seven national Emmy awards for work on “Primetime Live,” “Burning Questions” and “20/20,” said his own Catholic upbringing strongly influences his own sense of right and wrong.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Quiñones, a seventh-generation American in a family of Mexican descent, grew up speaking Spanish, and, in fact, did not learn English until he began school at age 6. He lived in a tough neighborhood that he described as gang infested, but noted that St. Timothy Church kept him on the straight and narrow.
“I was an altar boy, my mother would go to church every morning, we went to catechism classes, our lives revolved around St. Timothy Catholic Church in San Antonio,” he said, adding that his mom, Maria Quiñones, was a member of the Guadalupanas. “Not only did we serve the church and the poor with fundraising events and dinners, but it also became the center of our athletic time. Anytime we had spare time, we played baseball, football for teams at church.”
The neighborhood around was rough, he admitted, crediting St. Timothy with saving them from “venturing into troublesome areas of life in that neighborhood.”
Along with strong family values, Quiñones said St. Timothy also helped form his own sense of morality.
Throughout his professional career, Quiñones has jumped at the chance to report on stories with a moral slant.
For example, he followed a group of would-be Mexican immigrants as they attempted to cross into the U.S. via the treacherous route knows as “The Devil’s Highway.” He reported on homeless children in Bogota and he’s won awards for “Modern Slavery – Children Sugar Cane Cutters in the Dominican Republic.”
“We get a chance to do stories with such a moral bent, either to help your fellow man or be compassionate or not, I think your upbringing, or whatever it is, forms attitudes you have as an adult,” he said. “Absolutely, the way I was raised, the compassion my mother taught me, even if you removed the church from it, has made me the man I am. And in this case, she was so Catholic, so involved in the church, obviously I was always taught to help people in need, people in trouble and to be honest and to tell the truth. That’s what journalism is all about – to tell the truth.”
As a reporter, Quiñones noted he’s supposed to remain unbiased and not influenced by what he is covering.
“You are supposed to remain removed from a situation and we’re supposed to just report on victims of war or poverty, and as a human being, your heart goes out to people, you always have that dilemma…. In many ways, I am using them for my story, but I wonder if there is something I can do to help them personally. That’s always a dilemma I face when covering stories in Central America, for example, or victims of earthquakes and hurricanes. You are torn as I want to help them personally, as a human being, as my Catholic upbringing teaches me I should,” he said, explaining that on numerous occasions, after his story has been filed, he’s offered advice or guided people to help them get help they need. His visits to Nicaragua and El Salvador, where he covered wars, were especially heart wrenching for him, he said, adding he often tried to guide them toward places that could ease their pain.
Quiñones, a resident of New York, said he attends Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral in New York, but whenever he returns to San Antonio, he attends St. Timothy or nearby St. James Parish. He noted that the youngest of his three children, a daughter, is a sophomore at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York.
While family and faith are strong influences in the journalist’s life, Quiñones said he has also been influenced greatly by his life experiences. For example, when he was growing up, the Quiñones family headed to Michigan to pick cherries or to Ohio to pick tomatoes as migrant farmers.
“People would shun us and not allow us to come in certain restaurants in Traverse City, Michigan, because we were dirty and clearly spoke Spanish,” he said, describing how the migrant families were ostracized. “I was a victim of a lot of that ugliness,” he said, adding that those experiences influenced his desire to help others.
He also noted that without the help of an advocacy group that demanded that broadcasters hire more Hispanic reporters, he likely would not have entered the world of broadcast journalism.
“When I was growing up, there were very few Hispanics in television,” he said, noting he used to look up to Geraldo Rivera on ‘20/20’ as one of the only role models who looked like him on television. “I had a dream of doing what he was doing. He used to uncover all kinds of injustices and corruption and he was the only one on national TV with a Hispanic last name. There were very few people in San Antonio, a city that is 60 percent Hispanic; there was no one who looked like me on television and radio.”
But Quiñones said he was determined to break that barrier and after receiving his Bachelor of Arts in speech communications from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, he received a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
He began his career in radio in Houston and also worked in Chicago with WBBM-TV, before joining ABC News in June 1982.
One of his earliest lessons in broadcasting came from Peter Jennings, who Quiñones described as “the James Bond of network news.”
Quiñones had been on assignment in Nicaragua and as one of the only Spanish-speaking reporters at the time, was hoping to get an exclusive interview with President Daniel Ortega. But at the last minute, Ortega changed his mind.
Realizing the interview would not happen, Quiñones had to convey this to Jennings.
Much to his surprise, however, instead of being angry, Jennings told him words he has carried throughout his career.
“Remember this, young man, this will happen to you again. Don’t worry so much about talking to the movers and shakers of the world; talk to the moved and the shaken. In other words, talk to real people.”
It’s advice Quiñones said he has taken to heart, as he’s made a career out of telling the stories of campesinos and migrant workers; victims of war and Chilean miners trapped below the surface in 2010.
“It’s hard not to be influenced by how you were raised,” admitted Quiñones. “But we try to make this a better world. In the end, that’s what journalists do. They are not liberal or conservative, they are reformists, someone who wants to make the world a better place and you can do that by exposing corruption or injustice or the goodness in people by spreading the news.
“It’s still trying to make the planet a better place. I was raised that way and carry that with me wherever I go.” Maryangela Layman Román