Opinion

LESSONS FROM 35 YEARS ON TV: BE A SURFER, NOT AN ANCHOR

On November 3rd, I will mark 35 years as the anchorman for the Spanish-language Univision network’s daily newscast (Noticiero Univision) in the United States. That was never my plan.

But I could not imagine a career – and a life – more intense and so satisfying. If happiness is being yourself and not wanting to be someone else, this marvelous career as a journalist has made me happy. And grateful.

And here are some of the things I learned during some 7,000 news programs, live in front of a television camera.

I have been a news anchor for so long that it’s sometimes easier for me to speak to a television camera or a screen than to a group of people. It is, I admit, a terrible professional deformity that comes together with the practice of suppressing my feelings every time I report on a death, an accident, a terrorist attack or something that would naturally shatter anyone’s heart. Yes, the body keeps the tally, and it does collect on the debt.

I was named anchor when I was 28 years old. And not because I was the best or the worst. The network – once sinfully named the Spanish International Network, or SIN – faced a labor crisis in 1986 that almost emptied the newsroom. And I was the only male news presenter left. Since I could not read the teleprompter very well – it’s harder than it seems – the great Teresa Rodríguez, who was co-presenter of the news program, used her perfect red fingernails to point to my lines on the script so I would not get lost. I learned. I got the job for a few days, which turned into months and later decades. Now I co-anchor the newscast with another incredible and brave journalist, Ilia Calderón.

I started at a time when the big network’s TV anchors – Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Tom Brokaw, Barbara Walters, Dan Rather, Connie Chung, Katie Couric and others – dominated the news. No politicians could be elected if they were not on television. It was the medium with the most impact. Not anymore.

The Internet changed everything. The younger generations handle the new technologies much better than those of us who were raised without cell phones or laptop. Today, eight out of 10 U.S. residents get their news on their phones, tablets or computers. A giant wave is sweeping traditional TV audiences toward social networks and digital pages. It’s like extraterrestrials had kidnapped them.

A short while back, for example, I interviewed Mario Kreutzberger, whose character Don Francisco hosted the popular program Sábado Gigante for more than half a century. The ratings for the interview were not very high. I estimate we did not have more than 500,000 TV viewers. But the same interview has been seen on Facebook by more than 8 million people – and climbing. The lesson is very clear.

Be a surfer, not an anchor.

Content, no matter what it is, is still king and queen. But people don’t look for it in only one place and at one specific time. When I speak at schools, I usually ask the students, “Take a good look at me. I am a dinosaur.” It’s true. It’s already very few people who tune in to television anchors in their perfectly illuminated sets at 6:30 pm. Anchors like me are in danger of extinction.

That’s why we have to stop being anchors and become surfers. Move from platform to platform, surfing the social networks to deliver content to the places where the audiences have moved. That is the present, and the future. Those who don’t understand that -the media dinosaurs- will disappear from the new digital universe. I doubt I could hold on to my job today if I did not have a strong presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. To survive in this industry, I have had to reinvent myself.

But there are still some things unchanged in TV journalism.

If people don’t believe you, your work is wasted. Credibility and trust are the only things that count in journalism. And they are earned based on simple repetition – saying things that are later proven to be true. If people let you into their homes every night, the least you could do is tell them the truth. That millions continue to watch you, to listen to you and to read you after so much time is a privilege and a daily challenge – even if they criticize us on social networks and remind us every day that they don’t agree with us.

Today, I know that our most basic task is to report reality as it is, not as we would want it to be. That’s how I covered five wars and innumerable natural disasters, and interviewed dozens of presidents, dictators and others like them.

But I also understand that our main social responsibility is to challenge those in power. Journalists must counter-balance power -contrapoder is a much more beautiful word in Spanish. That’s how journalism serves a society. And the more authoritarian the country, the more important and transcendental our labor.

We cannot be neutral in the face of a dictator or people who abuse their authority. We must ask questions, short and to the heart. What really hurts in an interview with someone powerful is when you don’t dare to ask the crucial question – the hard one, the one that makes your hands sweat, the one that makes your heart race – and you let the person off the hook.

The bad guys, I have to admit, almost always make for better interviews. And lately, when I have an important interview coming up, I usually think about two things: that if I don’t ask the hard question, no one else will; and that I will never see that person again. That always helps me to dare ask the question.

I confess that I have traveled. A lot. That was one of the reasons I became a journalist. After a radio station sent me to Washington in 1981 to cover the attempt against President Ronald Reagan – and they paid for the ticket – I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life as an eyewitness to history, and meeting the people who made it. There’s nothing like reporting from New York about the 9/11 attacks, or from Berlin about the fall of the wall. It is history before your eyes. In journalism, like in paternity, half the work is just being present.

Delivering the news is, however, something very ephemeral. I have dedicated my life to things that disappear the next day, and sometimes the next hour. In that way, journalism is like life. It prepares you to die many times – and be reborn – every 24 hours.

I have circled the globe several times and flown more than 3 million miles, according to my airline cards. And the personal price paid has been very high. This is a profession with many break-ups and frustrations. Journalism is very jealous. I lost track of how many times I had to ask for forgiveness for missing an anniversary, a birthday, a party or school event. And all just to cover the news of the day or the hour. Now, at the age of 63, I feel I needed more time to experiment, to make more mistakes.

“What was the worst mistake of your career,” I was asked recently on zoom by Eduardo, a student at the Universidad Vasco de Quiroga in Morelia, México. I had to stop to come up with an answer. It threw me off balance. I had never been asked that question. But I now have an answer.

This job has given me so much. But because of it, I failed to do many other things. I needed about 20 extra years to live for awhile in Tokyo, Bali, Venice, Tibet and India. So much world, so little time. I missed time to return to live in Mexico City, go back to the places where I grew up and recover at least a few of the friendships cut off when I left suddenly at the age of 24.

That idea of returning – so mariachi! – is a burden for those of us who become immigrants without meaning to. But to be an immigrant defined my career as a journalist. I do try to make sure that those who came after me have a voice and the same opportunities that I had. And, in a way, I became a translator; between languages, between cultures, and between Latinos and non-Latinos. As my friend, the writer Sandra Cisneros, says: I am an amphibian, living in two worlds.

When I began my career as a TV-journalist I didn’t have a grey hair. Now all my hair is white and the joke in the newsroom is that each grey hair has a name or is linked to a news story. I don’t know how many years I have left as an anchor. And like everyone else, I have my bucket list. But a journalist never stops being a journalist. It is the only profession that forces you to be young and rebellious your entire life. It is a blessed addiction that I am not ready to drop – 35 years later.

By Jorge Ramos Ávalos

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”

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