Darts and Laurels

Univision, The Miami Herald, and Marco Rubio, the GOP's rising star

In July 2011, Univision, the nation’s leading Spanish-language network, reported that Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s brother-in-law, Orlando Cicilia, had been arrested in 1987 in Miami’s biggest drug bust of the year, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison (he served twelve). Rubio was a sixteen-year-old high school student at the time, and had no connection to Cicilia’s drug crimes.

Rubio is the GOP’s fast-rising star, on a very short list for vice president. Perhaps it was inevitable that his fortunes would eventually collide with Univision’s, Miami’s other fast-rising star. While Rubio was once a paid commentator for Univision’s Miami affiliate, and in May granted one of its anchors an exclusive interview, the senator has less established relations with the network itself, and has declined multiple invitations to appear on its flagship programs. In fact, when network executives learned of the Miami affiliate’s exclusive interview, they attempted to have Jorge Ramos, the network’s most prominent anchor, conduct the interview. Rubio said no.

The Cicilia investigation was led by Gerardo Reyes, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reporter who had joined Univision in March after twenty-two years at The Miami Herald. Reyes says he wanted to explore how the event had shaped Rubio’s life and politics, particularly since his family’s story has been central to his public narrative.

Rubio’s staff tried to kill the story, and in early July set up a conference call with Univision. On the call were two Rubio staffers, two Univision lawyers, and four members of its editorial staff—Reyes; Isaac Lee, the president of news; Maria Martinez-Henao, the managing editor of network news; and Daniel Coronell, the vice president of news.

While Rubio’s people would not comment for this article, the four Univision journalists said the forty-five-minute call was a back and forth in which Rubio’s staff tried to stop the story, and Univision tried to convince them to participate in it. Lee, who did most of the talking, invited the senator to respond to the questions about Cicilia on whatever Univision platform he wished, which included Al Punto, a public-affairs show hosted by Ramos, or AquĆ­ y Ahora, its newsmagazine.

Rubio’s staff and Univision exchanged letters in the days after the phone call that reflect the debate that the Univision journalists separately described. Lee says his message was clear: “What we want is for him to answer these questions. Format doesn’t matter.” No deal was made, and the story aired on July 11.

Three months later, The Miami Herald produced an investigation of its own: “The Inside Story: Univision’s War With Rubio Over Immigration and Drug Story.” The page-one article was by Marc Caputo, a political reporter, and Manny Garcia, the executive editor of El Nuevo Herald, the Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper. (Garcia, it should be noted, had worked closely as Reyes’s editor at the Herald, and says he respects his work.)

Their story alleged that in the July phone call, Lee had offered to soften or spike the Cicilia story if Rubio would appear on Al Punto. As evidence, the Herald reported that the offer is allegedly in Rubio’s staff’s notes (Caputo says he saw these notes, but Rubio’s staff would not share them with CJR), and that “Univision insiders” spoke of their embarrassment about the incident. The Herald story led to a boycott by five of the GOP presidential candidates of a January 29 debate Univision was slated to host.

Some things about the story don’t add up. Aside from Lee, none of the Univision journalists who were on the call were interviewed by the Herald or asked to corroborate the quid pro quo allegation. (All strongly deny it.) Caputo and Garcia said they didn’t interview Reyes because they didn’t want the story to be about him. As for the others, Garcia says there were “access issues” created by Univision corporate.

The Herald story also suggested that the fact that correspondence between Univision and Rubio’s staff after the phone call mentioned Al Punto is evidence of a quid pro quo. But what is more striking about the letters is that there is no mention of a quid pro quo. The offer to appear on Al Punto appears to be a long-standing one.

What to make of all this? It’s impossible to know for sure what happened on that conference call, and if Univision is guilty as charged, of course, it deserves many darts. But the Herald didn’t make its case. To accuse four journalists of conspiring in such a serious ethical breach demands more than the assertions of a few anonymous sources—especially ones without firsthand knowledge of the alleged breach—and Rubio’s staff. Garcia’s assessment of Univision’s Cicilia investigation is that it wasn’t “soup yet.” But the Herald’s story wasn’t fully cooked either.

Univision’s news judgment also deserves scrutiny. The relevance of a twenty-four-year-old story about the drug conviction of a relative with no connection to Rubio’s career or candidacy is debatable.

The public, particularly American Latinos, are the real losers. The presidential debate presumably would have addressed issues important to them. Instead, they got the kind of political journalism—myopic, insidery—that fuels the sense that the press and politicians are bound up in a feckless soap opera when they should be addressing the challenges we all face. At a time when the nation confronts a host of daunting problems, from a struggling economy to debilitating foreclosure rates, there surely were better uses of the journalistic talent in these two newsrooms.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.