In December 1987, federal police in Miami made their biggest drug bust of the year. Dubbed “Operation Cobra,” agents arrested six men who ran a $75-million marijuana and cocaine business under the cover of the exotic animal trade. The ring’s kingpin, who had helped hack a federal informant to death in 1980, was sentenced to a hundred years in prison. He was released in 2000 after serving twelve years and doing some informing to the feds himself.

Also released in 2000, after serving twelve years of a twenty-five-year sentence, was a second-tier associate named Orlando Cicilia. At the time of his arrest, Cicilia’s brother-in-law was a high-school student named Marco Rubio.

Twenty-four years later, Rubio is a prominent Florida senator and the Republican party’s fastest-rising star, a Tea-Party darling and the handsome son of hardscrabble Cuban exiles—er, immigrants—who is on a very short list to be the GOP’s candidate for vice president this year.

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the senator’s fortunes would eventually collide with those of Univision, the nation’s leading Spanish-language network and Miami’s other fast-rising star.

While Rubio was once a paid commentator for Univision’s local affiliate in Miami, and in May 2011 granted one of the affiliate’s anchors access for a day-in-the-life interview, his relationship with the network itself is less established. He has declined multiple invitations to appear on the network’s flagship programs Al Punto and Aqui y Ahora, and in May refused the network’s request to have Jorge Ramos—Univision’s star reporter—replace the affiliate’s anchor in the day-in-the-life piece. The network’s news executives wanted the piece to air across the network, and ultimately forbid the local anchor to do the interview, saying they would not allow a politician to dictate editorial decisions.

Then, in July, Univision exposed Cicilia’s drug bust in a report broadcast in English and Spanish. The investigation was led by Gerardo Reyes, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist who had joined Univision in March, as director of its new investigative team, after twenty-two years at The Miami Herald.

Reyes came across the information of the past conviction while checking the background of Cicilia’s son, Orlando Cicilia Jr, who, according to reporting by the Herald in 2010, was one of several of Rubio’s relatives to have received payment from his political committee that was incorrectly reported to the IRS.

Reyes also learned that Cicilia now co-owns Rubio’s mother’s home, which is where he lives with his wife, Barbara. Reyes says he wanted to explore how Cicilia’s arrest had shaped Rubio’s life and politics, particularly since his family’s story has been central to his public narrative.

Shortly after Reyes first attempted to contact Cicilia, Rubio’s camp began its efforts to kill the story, saying it was an unfair intrusion into the lives of private citizens. Among their efforts was a letter addressed to Univision’s CEO of two weeks, Randy Falco. Falco forwarded the letter to Univision’s news division.

A phone call between Univision journalists and Rubio’s staff was set up to discuss the senator’s concerns. On the call were two Rubio staffers, two Univision lawyers, and four members of the network’s 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. According to Lee, Rubio’s staff demanded that the call be off the record.

While Rubio’s staffers would not comment for this article, the four Univision journalists said the forty-five-minute call involved Rubio’s staff trying to kill the story, and Univision’s team trying to convince Rubio to participate in it. Lee, who did most of the talking, invited the senator to respond to questions about Cicilia on whatever Univision platform he wished, including Al Punto or Aqui y Ahora.

Lee says his message was clear: “What we wanted is for him to answer these questions. Format doesn’t matter, substance does.” No deal was made.

Rubio’s staff and Univision exchanged follow-up letters in the days following the phone call that appear to reflect the discussion and positions that the Univision journalists separately described. Univision provided these documents to CJR, though the Rubio camp’s letter to Univision is also available online.

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.

But there are some things about the Herald’s story that don’t add up. It’s sources, for instance. Beyond Rubio’s people, the story hinges on anonymous “Univision insiders” who are at an ambiguous distance from the quid-pro-quo allegation. One is described as a “Univision executive”; others are said to “have knowledge of the discussion.” It is not clear—and Caputo and Garcia would not say—whether these “insiders” work for the network or the Miami affiliate, a question that has relevance given that the two entities have very different relationships with Rubio’s camp. Most problematic, though, is the fact that none of the “insiders” are said to have been on the phone call in which the quid pro quo was allegedly made.

In fact, aside from Lee, none of the Univision journalists who were on the phone call—even Reyes, the former Herald reporter—were approached for comment or to corroborate the quid pro quo claim. (All strongly denied to me that a quid pro quo was offered.)

Asked why they did not contact Reyes, Caputo and Garcia said they did not want the story to be about him, but instead about the discussion Lee had with Rubio’s staff.

Yet Reyes, as a participant in that discussion, is part of the story, and he bristles at the implication that he would have traded away his story simply to ensure a politician appeared on another journalist’s talk show.

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.

* * *

Since this story was written for CJR’s January/February 2012 issue, the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta has published a story on the matter, which can be read here. The Herald’s Marc Caputo responds to Auletta’s story on the paper’s Naked Politics blog here.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.