Diverse Concerns

The unfortunate messages sent by Telemundo's debate treatment

Among the stranger moments of the MSNBC-Politico debate last night was the brief cameo of a Spanish-language journalist—the “Brian Williams of Telemundo”—Jose Diaz-Balart. Balart, a Cuban-American, was given the floor—not a chair, as a number of pundits have pointed out—to ask the candidates a few questions about immigration. He left the floor and fellow journalists Politico’s John Harris and the real Brian Williams a few minutes later, after the candidates had said their two cents about securing our borders.

The gimmick gave rise to instant heckling in the Twitterverse, with many seizing upon it as a blatant act tokenism. Pundits and others mused whether a Jewish reporter would soon be brought out to ask about Israel, or a gay journalist to ask about gay marriage. Others commented on Diaz-Balart’s lack of camera time.

The National Review rated the outsourcing of the immigration issue to Telemundo as the debate’s “weak media moment,” while the Los Angeles Times said it provided the event’s “biggest unanswered question:
What in the world did Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart do to be denied a chair on stage like Williams and Harris had?”

It was strange. Telemundo, a property of NBC Universal, was one of the three channels—with MSNBC and CNBC—that broadcast the debate. In June, Adweek reported that NBC audiences could expect “cross-pollination” of its English and Spanish-speaking outfits this political season.

NBC Universal executive Lauren Zalaznick told the magazine:

“In a big election cycle… national issues like immigration, healthcare, and education, there’s a strong through-line of Hispanic voters and news-watchers being very engaged in those national subjects,” she said. “So as appropriate, I would foresee tapping our great news talent at Telemundo to serve NBC News general audiences who have a similar interest.”

But the execution of this attempt was clumsy and carried a whiff of tokenism. Why not give Diaz-Balart a seat at the table and opportunity to ask about issues like health care and education, like Zalaznick suggested, and not just immigration? Why not have Williams and Harris contribute questions on immigration?

Though it might not have been what MSNBC and Politico were going for, the effect of Dias-Balart’s cameo was to suggest immigration as a Latino-only issue, and to help define Latinos as a single-minded voting block caring only about that one issue. Immigration may be of particular interest to Latinos, but certainly they care about candidates’ policy views on the economy, health care and the environment just as non-Latino Americans care about immigration.

It’s great to represent a diverse range of issues and interests at these events, but in future debates, sponsors would do well to remember that diverse demographic groups are themselves diverse in interests and concerns.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.