Forget Rachel, Bill, Anderson, and Sean. The broadcaster who will most determine the 2012 elections is Jorge Ramos.
Ramos denies that his reporting is in any way colored by ideology or partisanship. He says he is neither liberal nor conservative, just pro-immigrant. Indeed, that stance almost rises to the level of a calling. “When was the last time you saw an undocumented immigrant talking to ABC News, or NBC, or CBS, or CNN?” Ramos asks rhetorically. “It’s very rare. So it is true that we do a lot of reports about immigration and undocumented immigrants, but that’s part of our audience. If we don’t do it, who is going to?”
Univision executives say they don’t explicitly go after Republicans for their position on immigration reform. If it seems like the network targets the GOP, they add, it’s because conservatives give them more material to cover. “We don’t get into politics,” says Isaac Lee, the head of news at Univision. “We do not forget who our audience is, what their needs are, and what our responsibility is to them as a community, but that doesn’t mean we advocate for particular things.” Most of those I talked to at Univision insist they aren’t advocating for Latino issues, but say they are instead “empowering” the community to make choices. The majority of Hispanics, for example, support the DREAM Act, legislation that would grant legal resident status to undocumented immigrants brought here as children, provided they enroll in college or join the military. In 2010, Congress failed to pass the measure despite broad support from Democrats, because nearly all Republicans—even those who supported it a few years ago—voted against the bill. Univision has covered every twist and turn of the debate, highlighting the Democrats’ support of the bill and the Republican opposition. While much of their coverage of the issue fits the normal definition of straight news, Ramos openly endorsed the DREAM Act, calling it an acceptable plan B until Congress can agree on comprehensive immigration reform.
Lee and Cesar Conde, the president of Univision Networks, are quick to point out that the company has criticized Democrats, too. Univision did much to advance the story about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ botched undercover gun-running operation to track down weapon smugglers in Mexico. The episode has been a running embarrassment to the Justice Department and a gift to GOP lawmakers, who have conducted countless investigative hearings into the matter in hopes (so far unrealized) of ensnaring senior administration officials. Ramos and the network have also harshly condemned President Obama for not following through on a campaign promise to deliver an immigration bill to Congress during his first year in office. In addition, Univision has reported on the record number of deportations—more than 1.2 million—that have taken place under the Obama administration and has done a number of reports about families torn apart because of this policy.
None of this, however, has kept conservatives from trying to claim that Univision is targeting them unfairly. Last July, reporters with the network’s new investigative unit uncovered evidence that Marco Rubio’s sister is married to a convicted drug smuggler. The senator’s staff tried to kill the story during a phone call with Univision executives that included Isaac Lee, calling it “tabloid journalism.” But Univision aired the piece anyway. A few months later, on a tip from Rubio’s camp, the Miami Herald reported that Lee had offered to soften the story if Rubio agreed to go on Ramos’s Sunday-morning interview show, Al Punto. Lee and Univision firmly deny that they tried to shake down the senator, and the New Yorker later ran an investigative piece that cast doubt on the Herald’s story. Back in October, five of the Republican presidential candidates used the Herald’s reporting to justify boycotting an upcoming Univision debate. Rubio has since been on Univision a handful of times, but he still has never been interviewed by Ramos.
By trying to call the network’s ethics into question, and thus undermine confidence in its news coverage, Republicans were working from a well-worn playbook. It’s a tactic conservatives have used to devastating effect to take down big-name journalists like Dan Rather, who was ousted from CBS after some of the documents he relied on for a piece about George W. Bush’s national guard service turned out to be forgeries. But with Univision, they didn’t succeed. “It’s hard to criticize Univision,” says Jennifer Korn, executive director of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Network. “Where are you going to have the outlet to reach those same people in Spanish and tell them that it’s slanted? You try to get your message out there, but I don’t think it would do us any good anyway to tell the community it’s watching a biased network. It’s so trusted that it’s better to go positive.”
The mainstream media often provides a convenient foil for Republicans who say there is an unfair liberal bias in the press that muddies their message. To get around this perceived problem, conservatives have built alternative news outlets like Fox News and much of talk radio to directly get their point across to voters. But in a testament to its general indifference or hostility to Latinos, the right hasn’t bothered to develop Hispanic stations more sympathetic to their cause—though some in the movement are belatedly trying. “Conservatives are becoming more and more receptive to the idea that they need to get their message out to the Latino community, and they have to go around traditional Spanish-language media to do it,” Aguilar says. In January, he began broadcasting a weekly hour-long radio program from Washington, D.C. And this fall, Fox will debut MundoFox, a Spanish-language channel, to compete with Univision and Telemundo, though executives have said that its news department will be independent.
Neither of these nascent efforts, however, is likely to reach many Hispanic voters between now and November. That leaves the Republicans with only a few possible means of solving their Latino problem in 2012.
One is to attempt to suppress the Latino vote. This is already under way. A number of Republican-controlled state governments have imposed new measures, like photo ID requirements and strict new voter-registration laws, that could keep countless eligible Latinos from the polls. Florida’s new rules, for instance, are so onerous that the League of Women Voters, which has been running registration drives for decades, has declared a moratorium on its work in the state.
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