Forget Rachel, Bill, Anderson, and Sean. The broadcaster who will most determine the 2012 elections is Jorge Ramos.
It was only after the 2000 census, which showed that the Hispanic population had topped 35 million, that it really became clear to American politicos that Latinos would be a key voting block going forward. It was around this time that politicians began courting Univision. Presidential candidate George W. Bush was one of the first to recognize its reach. His first interview after the Republican National Convention that year was with Ramos, and he made an effort to speak Spanish as much as he could on the campaign trail. The strategy paid off. Bush carried about 34 percent of the Latino vote in 2000—reversing a downward trend for Republicans. Strong Hispanic support for the GOP in Florida, especially among the Cuban community, helped to keep the vote tally close, leading to a recount and ultimately the Supreme Court decision that landed Bush in the White House. Bush and Karl Rove, his senior political adv isor, recognized that securing a sizable percentage of the Hispanic vote would be necessary if they wanted to remain in power. They were inspired by Ronald Reagan, who believed that most Latinos were conservative even if they didn’t know it. Hispanics were mostly Catholic, after all, and their views on social issues like abortion often aligned with conservative talking points. But Reagan did not rely solely on cultural affinities; he also legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants in 1986. Bush knew that he would have to make a similar overture. On the English-speaking national stage, the issue of immigration stayed on the back burner during his first term, but on Univision and other Spanish-language media outlets, the president relentlessly emphasized his support for comprehensive reform. In 2004, he won more than 40 percent of the Latino vote, a GOP record.
On the whole, Bush enjoyed a relatively good relationship with the Spanish-language press at the time. Conservatives certainly thought Univision presented a center-left version of the news, but the Bush administration was far better at outreach than Republicans are today. Each cabinet department had a Spanish-speaking media contact dedicated to forming relationships with Hispanic outlets. And the president was skilled at connecting with Latino reporters on a personal level. “George W. Bush, and his father George Bush, are the kind of people who make you feel very comfortable in their presence,” Ramos wrote in his 2002 autobiography. “They repeat your name, look you in the eye and ask about your family.”
The goodwill began to evaporate in 2005. Instead of using his victory to push for immigration reform, Bush spent his political capital on privatizing the Social Security system and lost. At the same time, the Minuteman movement was gaining steam. Lionized by right-wing talk radio, it tapped into the growing fear of terrorism and made border security an issue of national security. Republicans in Congress, led by Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, began talking about deporting millions of undocumented immigrants. Tancredo vilified the idea of legalizing those who were already in the U.S. by calling it “amnesty” and saying it rewarded lawbreakers. Two years later, Bush’s final attempt to provide a pathway to citizenship while increasing security at the border imploded when the Senate failed to pass the measure. By the time Republicans took back the House in 2010, illegal immigration was being called a “slow-motion holocaust,” and Hispanic immigrants were being compared to livestock.
Ramos’s corner office is sparse, his wooden desk decorated with pictures of his two children and a handful of books. (He keeps a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States close by his computer.) The walls are bare except for a framed map of the world. One of his Emmys sits on top of a cabinet in the corner, almost out of view. The minimalism seems fitting for a man who arrived in this country with everything he owned packed in two bags and a guitar case.
Ramos acknowledges that his own immigrant experience informs his news judgment, but he stops short of saying that he is an advocate for Hispanic issues. His job, as he sees it, is both to report on and represent the needs of Latinos. “The reality is that the Hispanic community is underrepresented,” he says. “We are 17 percent of the population and we should have at least seventeen senators, but we only have two. We only have twenty-four members of Congress when we should have more than sixty, so there is a vacuum. There is not a Hispanic leader as Martin Luther King used to be for the African American community, so Univision is filling up that vacuum when it comes to participating in elections, when it comes to education, when it comes to relevant issues like immigration.”
That outlook, by definition, means that Univision is in conflict with the majority of today’s Republican Party. The conservative activists and politicians who understand Univision’s importance complain that they can’t get a fair shake with the network—or with Ramos. They point to the Romney interview. They point to an even tougher interview with Gingrich, where the flustered candidate told Ramos, “I’m not going to let you define what immigration reform is,” and Ramos replied, “It’s very simple. To legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants.”
Their suspicions were also raised when a consortium led by the Saban Capital Group bought Univision in 2007. The firm’s founder, Haim Saban, is a major Democratic donor who contributed more than $12 million in soft money to Democratic committees between 1998 and 2002. He and his wife gave $9,200—the maximum allowed at the time—to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and they have already given $10,000 to Obama’s reelection effort. He is also said to be considering dropping serious amounts of cash on the left-leaning Super PACs this election cycle. Network executives say Saban has never attempted to influence news coverage, and even if he tried, they wouldn’t listen. But Republicans remain unconvinced. “Univision is headed and owned by some sophisticated equity-fund guys, and they have turned it into a corporate institution of great power with a left-leaning message,” says Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “It’s fair to state that we’re greatly handicapped by the Hispanic media that mostly favors a liberal agenda.” Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, puts it a bit more succinctly. “We do see a bias,” he says. “Univision is tougher on Republicans.”
After three decades of living in America, Ramos remains extremely sensitive to the plight of those who have come to this country searching for a better life. “You never stop being an immigrant, and that affects everything that you do,” he says. “Probably you work harder. Since we lost everything at least once in our life, there is always that very uncomfortable sensation that it could happen again.” In 2008, he became a U.S. citizen so he could vote in the historic election, but he remains adamant that he is not truly American. (He wouldn’t reveal for whom he voted, saying he’s a political independent.)
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