On the night before the story was slated to run, Reyes called Aminda Marques Gonzalez, the Herald’s executive editor, at home, to tell her the story was untrue. Marques listened to Reyes’s concerns, but said in an interview that his call came as the story was going to press, and that his comments added nothing new; they merely echoed the official statement from Univision that was already on record.
She defends her reporters’ decision not to approach Reyes for comment, saying it would have put Reyes in a “prickly position” and been inappropriate given his past relationship with the Herald and the fact that his story was at the center of these allegations: “With all due respect to Gerardo, he was really not in a position to be a neutral arbiter in the story,” she said.
As for the others on the call, Garcia said there were access issues created by corporate Univision. (I encountered no such access issues when I requested interviews with the journalists on the call, and it makes me wonder if Caputo and Garcia even knew exactly who was on the call.) Marques noted that Lee was given two days to respond; he did not agree to speak with the Herald, but sent a prepared statement.
Despite this, Garcia said he was comfortable with the story’s sourcing, having made efforts to confirm those he had spoken to at Univision were not “in an echo chamber,” and just repeating what they’d heard from one another. Caputo and Marques also strongly defend their story’s sourcing. All three noted the Herald’s history of critical reporting on Rubio—one of their political reporters was once banned from his press bus—and argued that their story was not done out of loyalty to the senator.
But there are other weaknesses in the Herald’s piece that leave the impression the reporters were trying to fit the facts to a pre-existing narrative.
The story suggests, for instance, that the mention of Al Punto in correspondence between Univision and Rubio’s staff after the phone call is evidence of a quid pro quo. The logic of that claim is inherently flawed, but the more striking thing about that letters is that they make no mention of a quid pro quo—the invitation to Al Punto and Aqui y Ahora seems to be a long-standing one.
The Herald story also hints at unprofessionalism and roguishness in the Univision newsroom that it never proves. For instance, the Herald story mentions more than once that the Cicilia investigation was the network’s first ever piece of investigative journalism, which made it particularly “dispiriting.” In fact, it was the sixth piece by Univision’s investigative team. It also quotes letters from Rubio’s staff, which called Univision’s investigation “outrageous” and “tabloid journalism,” suggesting that Univision had failed to give the other side its say in its Cicilia piece. But, as noted above, Univision did in fact report those statements in its original story.
This sort of downplaying or overstating of facts for narrative convenience is a problem throughout the Herald piece. The story describes the high-profile résumé of Rubio staffer Todd Harris, for instance, who says of Univision: “This new team doesn’t follow the Geneva Convention.” But it makes no mention that Reyes, the respected former Herald reporter, is part of this investigative team, or that Lee and the other journalists on the call have years of experience.
What to make of all this?
There are seasoned and accomplished journalists on both sides. 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 who apparently don’t have 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.
But the public, particularly American Latinos, are the real losers. The January 29 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.