For over five decades, ABC news veteran John Quiñones has shared stories of those who have experienced abuse, injustice or hardship at the hands of the powerful people or institutions whose actions disproportionately impact the lives of others.
As a reporter for “World News Tonight” and “20/20,” anchor on “Primetime” and host of the wildly popular “What Would You Do?” (now in its 17th season), his diverse breadth of work for ABC News has exposed corporate and government atrocities, amplified unheard voices and celebrated the everyday heroes who selflessly “do the right thing” in service to others.
Quiñones was ABC’s first Latino news correspondent. His career has netted multiple journalism awards, including seven Emmys for national and international reporting. In addition to hosting “What Would You Do?” he is currently contributing to “Uvalde: 365,” a year-long project led by ABC’s investigative unit that focuses on how mass shootings — like the one at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas — affect a community long after the headlines fade.
You’ve often said you prefer to cover the “moved and shaken” rather than the “movers and shakers.” Why is that?
I grew up in San Antonio’s barrio neighborhood. My mom was a cleaning lady; my father was a janitor. Even though our family had lots of love, we had very little money. I remember what it was like to be told that I wasn’t good enough, or was “too Mexican,” or spoke funny, or didn’t wear nice-enough clothes, or didn’t come from the right family. So I have a special connection to the “moved and shaken” because I was one of them. I’ve been able to talk to folks who find themselves in pretty ugly conditions — the poor, the abused, the victims of injustice — because I can relate. That empathy and connection have given me an edge as a journalist; I wear it as a badge of honor. Some of the best stories I’ve done have involved giving a voice to the moved and shaken. In fact, that’s what “What Would You Do?” does. It poses the questions: Who will raise their voice? Who will come to the rescue when they witness injustice? I love shining the light on the heroes who step in, not away, because I saw some of that in the world that I grew up in. Not enough, but there were heroes.
Does amplifying unheard voices feel vindicating? Do you ever look back and think, “Oh my gosh, look how far I’ve come?”
[chuckles] Well, I’m never happy enough with the stories I do. I always think I can make them better. You know, “I could have done this instead, or asked that question.” But when people stop me in public and say, “You know, I saw that story and thank you for doing it,” I get the sense that maybe I’m doing some good. Because when I was growing up, I didn’t have a voice. I wanted to be in broadcasting; I listened to the radio all the time. And I would go to these radio stations and wait for the disc jockeys or news anchors to come out and give me some advice. I was 12 or 13 years old, and they would ignore me — they wouldn’t give me the time of day. So what a difference, now, that I get to tell stories that are heard nationally.
You cut your teeth in television news during the ’80s. What was that era like for you?
It was truly a golden age. There was Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Ted Koppel, and — back in Chicago, where I worked before New York — Bill Curtis, the big anchorman. They were all tremendous, just fabulous role models, and I think they helped shape me into the guy that I am now.
Some of your most wrenching early work exposed the world to the lives of kids trapped in unspeakable
situations. How did you process the misery of what you were seeing?
I’ve done many stories where I was in tears, witnessing the horror. But as a reporter, you remind yourself of the greater good that will come from exposing the wrongdoing. If you don’t tell the stories — as uncomfortable as it might be for you in the moment — the situation won’t change. Perhaps by exposing the abuse or injustice, things will change for the better. That’s what keeps you going.
Did those stories change how you thought about multimillion-dollar corporations whose operations
unfold at a great distance from consumers?
I think when you discover the ways that some of the more unscrupulous corporations conduct their business, it can’t help but affect the way you see them. With some of these companies, it’s all about the profit margin, the power of the almighty dollar. The sad thing is, if it weren’t for this kind of investigative journalism, consumers would never know the way that companies are doing business. That’s especially true when abusive or unjust business practices occur in faraway places. The ugliness is much easier to hide.
What is it like to see real change come about as a result of your stories?
It’s tremendously gratifying. Not because I get the credit for telling the story, but because the exposure we give to the wrongdoing usually means that those corporations will have to change. They’re embarrassed into changing the way they conduct their business, and things often change for the better. In the Dominican Republic, some of the kids that we filmed cutting sugar cane were as young as 6, 7, 8 years old. They were rescued — after our story came out — by a priest from Haiti who started bringing them back to their families. And at least partly because of the story we did on blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, the diamond industry started labeling the origin of their stones. So no longer were unsuspecting consumers buying diamonds from those so-called conflict zones. It’s gratifying and rewarding that so much good came out of that reporting.
Being backed by a big news network helps, of course.
We’re incredibly fortunate to have the resources to report from faraway places and in helicopters and jets, because that’s the only way to do the work safely. It would have been impossible for me to work on some of the atrocities I’ve reported on without ABC’s support. Not just financial resources but resources of time — to be able to spend weeks and months on a story to make sure we get everything we need to cover it. Now, ABC has made a commitment to cover the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, for a full year. We plan to be in that Texas town for at least the next year, making sure we report on every aspect of that important story. We’d never be able to provide that kind of blanket coverage without the strong support and commitment from ABC.
Your career has had stunning moments of kismet. You were on-site when the NASA Challenger exploded. You and your crew were reporting on the Cuban refugee boat crisis when a nearby boat filled with refugees was about to capsize — and you rescued them all. You just happened to be in India when word came that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated, and you were told to go live with the news even though you were not totally familiar with the politics of the situation….
…and don’t forget, I was stationed in Miami but just happened to be in New York on 9/11 when the Twin Towers were hit. So it’s no wonder my friends don’t want to go on vacation with me!
What is it like to unexpectedly have to go live on big stories for which you had no advance preparation? What’s your advice for broadcast reporters who find themselves in a similar situation?
First, just stick to the facts, even if very few are available when you’re “crashing a story” — that’s what we call it when we’re thrown into the middle of it and going live within minutes. You’ve got to be careful not to guess, not to say anything you haven’t confirmed, which is easy to do when the information is all over the place and you don’t know what’s true and what’s not. Take a moment to breathe, to get a hold of yourself, try not to be too emotional, and get the facts right, as limited as they might be.
Do you mentor young journalists? What do you share with them?
They call me the OG — the old guy, the original gangster! My approach is pretty simple, and similar to what I learned from the people I worked with early on: Be fair, be honest, don’t be afraid or too intimidated, ask the tough questions, don’t get caught up in the fame and the notoriety of being on television. And above all, be a good listener. That’s the key.
Do you see any differences in on-air comportment today, among newscasters in general, compared to when you were coming up?
On some other channels, we see hosts and anchors expressing personal opinions, and it can sometimes confuse the viewers. It’s hard to tell what’s straight news and what’s biased,
personal feelings. That’s why, I think, we see a bit of a decline in the respect and trust for some journalists.
In your memoir, you wrote of how, growing up, society kept expecting the worst from you and your family. Do you think that society, as a whole, needs scapegoats?
Yeah, I get that sense. Many people can feel good about themselves only if they put someone else down. I think it’s borne of deep-seated insecurity, and is the kind of behavior that starts in the home. I don’t think children are born racist, or as bullies, or are capable of discriminating. They learn it at home, when they’re very young. That’s why I love the lyrics of “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific,” about how children have to be taught how to hate and fear others. Conversely, you can be taught to be accepting and compassionate.
As an intern at a radio station in Texas, one of your jobs was to feed and clean up after the horses that were ridden by on-air celebrities in public appearances. You’ve said, “It was a start, and that is how it should be.” Do you think that the instant fame available via social media has changed people’s ideas about the kind of work it should take for them to get a start in the news business?
At that station, I would do whatever I was assigned because I just wanted to be in the business so badly. And I think it built humility and character. At that time, I was also taking journalism classes and learning the business slowly, step by step. Today, social media gives a person their own little radio or TV station, right? Obviously, they don’t usually have a big audience — but some of them do. And I think we should worry about the impact of what these folks are writing and saying, because there really is no oversight. The messages they send out could be wrong, damaging or hurtful. I consider myself very lucky to have started in that little radio station in San Antonio, without any social media — even if it meant also cleaning up after the horses — and to have my work vetted by professionals as I learned.
What was it like for you to shift from reporting the news to hosting a program as planned and deliberate as “What Would You Do?”
I don’t think it was that much of a shift. I like to think of “What Would You Do?” as an edgier type of reporting. Hidden cameras have been used in TV news for decades. And I still get to shine a light on issues like race discrimination, bullying, gay bashing, spousal abuse and so on. Yes, we use actors to prompt responses, and the setting is more controlled; but we tell that to the viewer right from the start. And the reactions we get are very real, and often very raw. Nothing about how people react on the hidden camera is fake. My background in news reporting gives me a chance to ask questions afterwards about why people behaved in a certain way, what prompted them to get involved or not. I try not to judge, but to simply ask, “Why?” I think it’s a wonderful way to gauge how people view things like race and religion, abortion, online bullying and the like — all the issues that seem to trouble this nation now more than ever.
How do different wiretapping laws impact where you can work, geographically, on “What Would You Do?”
We’re not legally allowed to film in “two-party-consent states.” Also, we film only in public spaces where there is no expectation of privacy. We have a team that searches for ideas — we also monitor what’s on social media and what’s in the news — and then we run them past ABC’s legal and ethics departments for approval.
How has “What Would You Do?” impacted your thoughts about things like compassion, forgiveness, and extending the benefit of the doubt?
It has totally restored my faith in humanity. Yes, there are those who judge by appearances or who hold certain biases against a person’s race, religion or sexuality; it’s a painful reminder that we still have a lot of work to do in this country. But I tell you, after filming about 1,000 scenarios all over the country, I am just blown away by people’s kindness and compassion. In every single one, without fail, there is at least one person (and very often there are many) who steps up, raises their voice, lends a helping hand and teaches us all a lesson in acceptance, in empathy. I’ll be sitting behind the scenes watching somebody do something beautiful, and I look around and all of these veteran camera-people are in tears because they’re so touched. And often it’s from someone you would least expect. You know, the big guy with the tattoos and the shaved head who rides a motorcycle — the one who looks like a white supremacist. He’s the guy who embraces the victim of racism and banishes the bad person away. Conversely, you know, there’ll be some little old lady who looks just wonderful — she has a flower in her hair and is wearing a yellow dress and we think she’s going to be the sweetest person — and she turns out to be the meanest! You just never know. It’s very normal, when we meet someone, to sort of size them up based on the way they look, the way they dress, their voice. The key is to stop yourself for a moment. Ask yourself, “Why am I presuming the worst of that person simply because of the way they look?” And if you do that, the experts say, you’ll be less likely to be judgmental. You may see them as having the same wants, dreams and wishes for their family as you do; their core values may be very much like yours. And you may be less likely to judge them negatively. In the end, it’s all about empathy. I think if you put yourself in the shoes of a victim of abuse or injustice, you will know exactly what to do.
Ronnie Polaneczky is an award-winning journalist, public speaker, certified positive-psychology practitioner and enthusiastic student of compassionate listening in all its forms. She is based in Philadelphia.
Feature photo by Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC