Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, John Quiñones’ teachers never saw much for him beyond high school, but that never deterred him from seeking a college education and, beyond that, a career in journalism.
“My school saw me as another Mexican kid with no likelihood of making it in college,” Quiñones told a packed Union ballroom on Wednesday evening.
Now, Quiñones has a master’s, seven Emmys, and has covered stories around the world.
Quiñones, 61, who spoke at the University Wednesday in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, framed his talk with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
University President Mary Ellen Mazey introduced Quiñones’ talk, “What Would You Do? A 20/20 Vision of America,” and said some words on King’s vision for America.
“I still get cold chills down my spine when I read or hear the words of Dr. King’s ‘I have a dream speech,’” Mazey told the ballroom. “We all know the living words that speak to us today.”
These days, Quiñones is a co-anchor of ABC news magazine “Primetime” and host of the series “What Would You Do?,” a hidden-camera show in which actors stage public scenes of illegal or contentious activity to see if and how bystanders react.
But Quiñones was “born in poverty;” his father was a janitor and his mother cleaned houses. In San Antonio, a place that was 60 percent Hispanic, his family spoke not a word of English.
Quiñones earned money as a kid by shining shoes. Eventually, his family joined a caravan of migrant farm workers.
After traveling all the way to Swanton, Ohio, he eventually returned to his hometown to pursue a journalism career.
“The only stories coming out [of San Antonio] were about drugs and gangs and illegal immigrants,” he said. “I knew there were some inspiring stories.”
He started writing for his high school newspaper at the age of 14. He went to St. Mary’s University in Texas for his bachelor’s and eventually the Columbia School of Journalism for his master’s.
His first job after Columbia was at a local CBS affiliate in Chicago, WBBM-TV.
One of his first stories was one he’d wanted to do his whole life— it was also the one that got him his first Emmy. He posed as a migrant trying to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. He found a smuggler who sold him a fake passport and birth certificate before floating him across the Rio Grande on an inner tube.
To localize the story to Chicago, he exposed a restaurant owner in the area who employed undocumented workers but refused to pay them, leading to the government shutting the business down and providing the workers with a path to citizenship.
“I knew those were the kind of stories I wanted to tell,” he said.
Telling the audience to imagine the room was pitch black, he said “[Journalists] can illuminate the darkest corner of the room ... it’s a powerful light to have.”
After that, he got his job at ABC, where he has been for 30 years.
In that time, he’s covered blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, war in Iraq and suicide bombers in Israel.
His career in journalism has always been bound to the words his boss at ABC gave him: “Don’t talk to the movers and shakers; talk to the moved and shaken.”
“I love asking questions and telling stories,” Quiñones told The BG News.
And Quiñones’ interest has always been in a specific kind of journalism: broadcast, and for a simple reason.
“The power of the camera, the power of the images,” he told The BG News. “There’s nothing like seeing it with your own eyes.”
To underscore this point, he related a story he tracked while in Bogota, Colombia, a story he also told to the audience in the ballroom.
While in Bogota, a city of 20 million, in 1991 with his crew, Quiñones learned of approximately 300 orphans living in the sewer. They were “runaways,” “castaways,” “thieves,” he said.
The police force didn’t want to go down to the sewers, so they poured gasoline in the sewers and lit a match to “burn them out,” Quiñones said.
For one week, Quiñones went into the sewer with his camera crew, talked to the children, lived with them, learned their stories. He witnessed an infant who had been born to a 16-year-old.
When the story aired on ABC, people were so moved, they sent $1 million in donations, which funded an orphanage for the children.
“That exemplified to me the power of this medium,” Quiñones told The BG News.
The conversation was not all serious, though, as a sense of humor pervaded much of Quiñones’ talk. One of the first things he said when he walked to the podium was a joke related to his hidden-camera show, “What Would You Do?”
“If you’ve seen the show, you know we can put [hidden cameras] everywhere,” he told the audience. “So if the person sitting next to you passes out and you step over them to get a drink, you’ll have me to speak to afterwards.”
Quiñones showed one recent clip from “What Would You Do?” that has gotten 15 million hits on YouTube. The scene is set in a barbershop in Harlem. In the scenario, a black female barber voices her prejudice when she learns her black customer is dating a white woman. Some bystanders defended the white woman, some stayed out of it and one urged the black woman to apologize to the white woman.
These reactions encapsulate the meaning of the show, Quiñones said. Will people intervene and stand up for justice, or keep their head down?
“I think those of us who don’t, and don’t consider the consequences, have a lot to learn about how to love one another,” Quiñones told The BG News. “Let’s get involved in the world; let’s make this a better place; let’s give a damn.”
After his talk, the audience had the chance to ask questions. Then, Quiñones signed copies of his book, “Heroes Among Us: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Choices.”
Christina Hilliard, a junior, had the chance to ask Quiñones what, throughout his career, he wished he had the chance to cover.
“I was tired of hearing all those questions about ‘What Would You Do?,’” Hilliard said of her desire to ask him that question.
As a broadcast journalism major, Hilliard took a lot away from Quiñones’ talk.
“It’s something I needed to hear,” she said. “My mom always said ‘when you finally make it somewhere, give back to someone.’”
This article was originally
published online on Jan. 29