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‘What Would You Do?’ Host John Quiñones Talks Upbringing, Journalism At Penn State Lecture

John Quiñones, a notable ABC journalist and host of the TV show “What Would You Do?”, spoke Monday night at the annual Mark Luchinsky lecture hosted by the Schreyer Honors College. The lecture at downtown State College’s The State Theatre was well attended and livestreamed for folks at home.

In his 43-minute lecture, Quiñones spoke at length about topics ranging from his upbringing, his rise out of poverty, and some anecdotes from the successful position he’s in today. The conversation included humorous stories and serious topics alike.

Quiñones was born and raised in the San Antonio area in an impoverished family. Although his parents didn’t receive a proper education, his mother valued the opportunity for her son to get one.

“At 10 in the morning, the school bell rings and it’s recess time, right? So, the kids all go to the playground. Where does little Juanito Quiñones go? I walked home,” recalled a chuckling Quiñones, sending the crowd into laughter. Laughing some more, the lecture’s host recalled his mother grabbing him by the ear and bringing him right back to school. 

Life at school was not easy for Quiñones because speaking Spanish was not allowed. That cultural barrier proved challenging for up-and-coming students.

“They used to punish us in school for speaking Spanish…The coach had a big wooden paddle and would spank us three times each,” recalled the veteran journalist. 

Outside of school, Quiñones needed to work hard to make ends meet for his family. Quiñones and his cousin had a stint in shoe shining to earn some money in hopes of helping his family on the side when he was as young as 8 years old.

“We used to go to all the bars because the drunk guys didn’t realize how much they were tipping you,” he said. “We made a killing until one night. We were coming home and were jumped by a gang…they stole my shoe-shining box, and that was the end of my shoe-shining career.” 

When Quiñones was 13, his father was laid off from work, which led to the family becoming migrant farmers. The family went up to Michigan to pick cherries and down to Ohio for tomatoes. It was in Ohio, though, that Quiñones realized he needed to pursue an education.

“I’ll never forget being on my knees on the cold, hard ground at 6 in the morning looking at a row of tomato plants, and for a 13-year old boy’s eyes, that seemed to go on for miles and miles,” he recalled. “My father Bruno asked me, ‘Juanito, do you want to do this for the rest of your life or do you want to get a college education?’ And to me, it was a no-brainer.”

When he arrived back in San Antonio, Quiñones took school more seriously and began studying for the SATs and the ACTs. Impressed by storytelling in his essays, one of his teachers introduced him to the school newspaper director, and Quiñones got started right away.

After some time, Quiñones began working at a local radio station while in college. He barely got any money and he could not find a job for television, which almost made him quit journalism. “I was gonna give up on journalism and I met someone that said, ‘well if you go back to school why don’t you go to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism…I’ll write you a letter,’” she told Quiñones. 

Quiñones not only got accepted into Columbia but received a fellowship from CBS News that paid for his entire college education. He graduated with a master’s degree in journalism and took a reporting job in Chicago covering stories about undocumented immigrants. 

Perhaps the most significant story of Quinones’ career came during that job in the Windy City. Using a hidden camera, he disguised himself as an illegal immigrant and snuck across the United States-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas. He ventured back to a Chicago restaurant where the owner would not pay the seven undocumented immigrants working there. After the story aired on CBS, the owner got arrested, and the United States government paid the workers what they had earned and gave them temporary visas so they could make permanent living arrangements in the U.S.

“I knew then that those were the kinds of stories, as a Latin-American reporter in particular, that I was destined to tell,” said Quinones. 

The effects of this story were also significant for Quiñones’ career, too.

“That story won my first Emmy…and because of that story, I got hired by ABC to cover Latin America,” he said.

ABC was the starting point of “What Would You Do?”, the show that Quiñones is likely most known for. The experimental show features actors hired to conduct an investigation, such as one bullying the other for sensitive topics such as sexual orientation, for example, and seeing how bystanders, who have no idea they’re on camera, react. The experiment is conducted a few different times throughout an episode, and at the end of each experiment, Quiñones and the camera crew would then come out and interview one of the bystanders about what they witnessed, usually much to their surprise. 

In his lecture, Quiñones mentioned two episodes where the actors’ demographics determined how most bystanders responded. He alluded that when it came to stealing a bicycle, most people did not care if a white actor stole it but would instantly call 911 if the actor playing the thief was black.

In the second example, most bystanders got involved if the actor who pretended to collapse was playing a white business lady, but not if it was a black homeless man. These examples highlight a stark contrast in how some people respond to situations based on how different the victim is from them, which is exactly the point that Quiñones wanted to get across.

“It’s about what we do when the cameras aren’t watching,” Quiñones said.

“What Would You Do?” has been filming for 15 years. Production has halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Quiñones provided some good news for fans Monday night.

“ABC tells me they want it back…This country needs ‘What Would You Do?’ now more than ever,” said Quiñones, who also mentioned that he hopes to begin work on the new season this summer. 

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About the Author

Nolan Wick

Nolan is a freshman majoring in journalism. From the Maryland side of the D.C. suburbs, Nolan likes using Old Bay and is a diehard Washington sports fan, which can be both difficult and rewarding. If you want to debate anything about sports with him, follow him on Instagram @_nolanwick or on Twitter @nolan_wick.

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