The Wall Street Journal – Page One
October 3, 2000
Jorge Ramos is Hispanic TV’s No 1 correspondent and key to a huge voting bloc, making him a player in the presidential campaign.
Univision TV’s Ramos Emerges As Key to a Burgeoning Group
By DENNIS FARNEY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
MIAMI — When television correspondent Jorge Ramos attended the Republican National Convention in early August, few people recognized him — with the notable exception of George W. Bush.
The presidential nominee knew Mr. Ramos well enough to choose him for his first televised interview after the convention. Al Gore has given him a one-on-one interview, too. And both parties’ campaign staffs are energetically wooing him.
Mr. Ramos, 42 years old, is the Miami-based co-anchorman for the main evening news program of Univision Communications Inc., the dominant Spanish-language network in the U.S. He says Anglos “don’t even know how to pronounce my name,” but he has an Emmy award for his journalism and a salary in the high six figures. When he and co-anchor Maria Elena Salinas deliver the 6:30 evening newscast, they reach an average audience of 1,057,000 viewers in the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers prize. This is almost 10 times the audience of CNN’s “Moneyline Newshour” in the same time slot, according to Nielsen Media Research.
After Tuesday night’s presidential debate in Boston, Univision will be an important place to find out how the candidates performed in the Hispanic community. The explosively growing population — nearly one in eight U.S. residents is Hispanic — is easily big enough to be a major factor in some key states, notably Florida, in this close presidential election. This is true even though Hispanics still lag other ethnic groups in voting power. An analysis of 1996 election turnout by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials found that of every 100 Hispanics, 36 were too young to vote, 25 weren’t U.S. citizens and 16 weren’t registered. That left 23 registered, of whom 17 voted.
Both the Bush and Gore campaigns have staffers whose sole responsibility is the care and feeding of Hispanic journalists. The party machines bombard them with Spanish-language news releases, with video feeds and radio sound bites. They set up interviews with lightning speed. Says former Democratic campaign consultant Sergio Bendixen: “Jorge has access, he has a liaison and he can get an interview in a day.”
“It’s the Christopher Columbus syndrome,” jokes Mr. Ramos at Univision’s studios here. “Every four years, we are rediscovered.”
He’s a journalist who views the interview as “war,” and its objective “to make the powerful tremble.” He says he practices “journalistic justice, giving each what they deserve.” He got death threats after asking former Colombian President Ernesto Samper how much drug money was flowing into his political machine. Fidel Castro’s bodyguard knocked him down after Mr. Ramos surprised the Cuban leader in a hotel lobby and challenged him, with the camera running, to hold a democratic plebiscite. But he has also made a specialty of interviewing powerless people, like the mother who hid behind an apple tree, listening as Salvadoran soldiers killed her four children.
“I become the voice of those who don’t have a voice,” he says. As late as a generation ago, that “voiceless” description could have fit U.S. Hispanics, then a smaller minority with political power confined to isolated enclaves. All that is changing now.
In five years, Hispanics are expected to supplant African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority. In 50 years, Hispanics and other minorities combined will probably outnumber whites. The 1998 elections found 4.1 million Hispanics voting, up sharply from 3.5 million four years earlier. More significant, for both candidates and for Univision: The whole composition of the Hispanic population has been transformed. In 1970, only one in five of U.S. Hispanics was foreign-born. Today, due to a surge in immigration, it’s one in two. The same percentage, half the Hispanic population of 32.4 million, gets its news solely from the Spanish-language media.
What this means for the candidates is that courting the Hispanic vote largely through English-language media no longer works. Many of the first-generation immigrants speak only Spanish. What it has meant for Univision is an audience bonanza. Today, Univision has roughly 85% of the Spanish-language audience, with rival Telemundo Network, the Spanish-language TV company owned by Sony Corp. and AT&T Corp.’s Liberty Media Group, a distant second. Although the total number of households reached by Univision’s evening newscast is roughly one-fifth that of ABC’s “World News Tonight,” the leader, the number of Hispanic households reached by Univision is about six times that of ABC.
“The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Univision are the two most influential centers of political power in Hispanic America,” says Mr. Bendixen, who now heads Hispanic Trends Inc., a polling concern.
‘An Unprecedented Effort’
Both campaigns have spokespeople dedicated to Hispanic voters. Sonia Colin, a former Univision and Telemundo correspondent who set up the Bush interview, sends out Spanish-language video feeds, radio spots and news releases. She and her staff translate Bush policy papers into Spanish, and she does Spanish voice-over translations of Bush speeches. She also was the Bush aide who encouraged him to speak more Spanish in his interviews with the Hispanic press.
Gore spokesman Dagoberto Vega courts TV news producers with three calls a week, e-mails press releases and speeches to more than 100 Spanish-language print reporters, and makes liberal campaign use of Karenna Gore Schiff, Mr. Gore’s Spanish-speaking daughter. Mr. Vega, who set up the Gore interview, also arranged for a yet-to-be-telecast Gore appearance on “Sabado Gigante,” Univision’s popular variety show. He calls Mr. Ramos a “pivotal” factor in the campaign.
Both candidates drop Spanish into interviews now. Mr. Bush is better at it, but neither goes beyond simple phrases and sentences. Journalistically, this leaves something to be desired.
“Many times, it comes across like a five-year-old trying to speak Spanish,” says Henrik Rehbinder, the national news editor of La Opinion, the country’s largest Spanish-language newspaper. “It’s hard to pursue complex subjects with them in Spanish. The reality is that while it engenders some audience appeal, it also lets the candidates off the hook.”
The Candidates’ Spanish
Mr. Ramos ran into this problem in his interview with Mr. Bush. At the GOP convention, Mr. Ramos had interviewed the candidate’s Hispanic nephew, George P. Bush, who volunteered that even he has been called “wetback” and “tar baby.” But when he followed this up in his interview with George W. Bush, Mr. Bush said only “Que lástima” — which means, “What a shame” — and then moved on, in English, to tangential matters.
In the Gore interview, the candidate limited himself pretty much to a single Spanish phrase: “Me gusta practicar el español.” (“I like to practice my Spanish.”)
Mr. Ramos came away from the interviews with the impression that Gov. Bush had tried to make him feel comfortable, while Mr. Gore “doesn’t want to make you comfortable. He wants to inform you.” Nevertheless, Mr. Gore hit a home run — with both his interviewer and the audience — when Mr. Ramos explained that Nicolas, the 2 1/2-year-old son of he and his wife Lisa, is of mixed Mexican and Puerto Rican blood, and asked what Mr. Gore would call him. “An American,” Mr. Gore replied.
The question of national identity is one that haunts Mr. Ramos. “After 17 years in the U.S., I still feel like an immigrant,” he bursts out over dinner here. Like many expatriates, he lives in a limbo between two cultures. Born in Mexico, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1983. His first job was as a Los Angeles waiter — a “terrible” one, he says. His got $15 a day plus tips and free dinners.
He joined a Los Angeles affiliate of Univision (then known as Spanish International Network) in 1984. He has never become a naturalized U.S. citizen — yet he no longer feels completely Mexican either. Sadly and a little bitterly, he invokes a Spanish phrase: “Ni soy de aquí, ni soy de allá” — “I am not from here, I am not from there.”
Immigration, in all its facets, remains a major journalistic focus — and a crusade. He took pains while reporting from the GOP convention to point out that, notwithstanding the mariachi bands and other symbols of inclusion, few actual delegates were Hispanic. He also noted that it was the GOP, under former California Gov. Pete Wilson, that pushed the anti-immigration Proposition 187.
He’s still galled by a 1996 interview he had with candidate Patrick Buchanan, then a Republican but now a Reform Party standard-bearer whose call for a sharp reduction in immigration is a centerpiece of his campaign. “He asked me where I was from, and when I said Mexico, he started laughing,” Mr. Ramos says.
A Larger Frustration
The Buchanan incident illustrates a larger frustration for Mr. Ramos. He has always viewed journalism as “a mission, an instrument of change.” But as his friend Mr. Bendixen notes: “In the other world, that almost 90% of America that isn’t Hispanic, nobody knows who he is, nobody cares what he thinks.”
Mr. Ramos dismisses out of hand the idea of going to an English-language network where, as he puts it, he’d rank “about 15th” in the correspondents’ pecking order. At Univision, he’s No. 1. It’s a demanding job, and he attributes the failure of his first marriage in part to his workaholic style. He has a 13-year-old daughter, Paola, from that marriage.
His job has some unusual political complications that Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw don’t encounter. Mr. Ramos says it took him years to fully gain acceptance by Miami’s viscerally anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, because his native Mexico strives for normal relations with the Cuban dictator. He still must walk a tightrope of political correctness. “We survived the Elian Gonzalez story, thank God,” he says.
Just reading the news in Spanish presents some unique challenges. One is the accent to use. Just as the typical non-Hispanic U.S. anchor usually has a neutral Midwestern accent, he and his longtime co-anchor, Ms. Salinas, have perfected a Spanish accent that won’t sound jarring to an audience that includes listeners of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and assorted other Latin American origins.
Write to Dennis Farney at email@example.com