Lee said his team debated the investigation’s news value, and ultimately decided that even though the story was old and not directly related to Rubio, it involved information about a prominent politician that should be put on the record. “How important this is and if it matters or not, that’s for people to decide,” Lee said in an interview.
The story aired on July 11, and, in lieu of a comment from Rubio or his people, quoted generously from a letter sent by the senator’s staff that called Univision’s pursuit of the story “outrageous.” “This is not news,” the letter read. “This is tabloid journalism.”
At the time, Reuters’s Felix Salmon (whose work also appears on CJR.org) gave a nod to Univision’s investigative efforts while Matthew Hendley, a columnist at the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, criticized the story as irrelevant. Univision’s local Miami affiliate also did a reaction story for which it interviewed a handful of local citizens, all of whom said the story had no effect on their opinion of Rubio. From the wider media, though, outside the Florida bubble and even within it, there was silence.
Three months later, The Miami Herald reacted to the story with 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 also currently serves as the President of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and worked closely with Reyes as an editor at the Herald for many years. In an interview, Garcia described Reyes as an excellent reporter.
The Herald’s story opened with allegations by Rubio’s staff and unnamed “Univision insiders” that during the July phone call, Lee had offered to soften or spike the story about Rubio’s brother-in-law if Rubio would appear on Al Punto, which is hosted by Jorge Ramos.
While the story reports Lee’s denial of having offered a quid pro quo, the rest of the piece attempts to build the case that he did. Here is the evidence, according to the Herald: 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); letters from Rubio’s office to Univision mention Al Punto; “Univision insiders” speak of their embarrassment about the incident. The story goes on to suggest demoralization and a lack of professionalism in Univision’s newsroom.
Garcia says the story came to him in September by happenstance in a conversation with “folks at Univision” who mentioned the internal “brouhaha” surrounding the incident. Garcia ran the story by some of Rubio’s staff members, who confirmed it.
Caputo separately said he heard claims from “friends of Rubio” that Univision’s Cicilia investigation was an effort to get back at Rubio for snubbing the network. At some point, he said, he also heard about the quid pro quo, but months later told me he does not recall when. (He assured me that this recall problem doesn’t affect “our original reports in style, substance, or quality.”)
The Herald story got a lot of attention, largely due to the reaction of three Florida Republicans who called for GOP presidential candidates to boycott the January 29 debate that Univision was slated to host, and for Univision to apologize to Rubio and fire Lee. Univision stood by its story, while six of the GOP candidates stood by Rubio, announcing their intention to boycott the debate.
There was little pushback to the Herald’s story, other than a press release from the Inter-American Press Association that condemned the Republican boycott, calling it “damaging” to the democratic process. While Univision issued an independent denial of the story on their website, the prevailing narrative was that the network had committed the journalistic sin of which it was accused.