Univision Report Features Bo—And, Oh, Barack, Too

Interview segment embraces White House’s light-touch frame

NEVADA — While President Obama works to win the minds of Hispanic voters in America, his pet pooch, Bo, may have already won their hearts. Or, at least, their momentary attention.

“Bo, the President’s dog, steals the show from reporter” read yesterday’s headline on the homepage of UnivisionNoticias.com, the online news service of Univision/Entravision, the Spanish-language broadcasting conglomerate with dozens of TV and radio stations from coast to coast.

As anchor Adriana Arevalo—from the Univision’s Las Vegas affiliate, KINC-TV—recorded a stand-up on Monday to accompany her report about her eight-minute, one-on-one interview with the president, Bo, the Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog, pranced playfully into Arevalo’s shot and across the South Lawn of “la Casa Blanca.” The clip of Bo, as Univision noted, quickly went “viral.”

Arevalo’s interview was one of a several back-to-back presidential one-on-ones hosted by the White House Monday. Other invited anchors hailed from vote-rich swing states including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and California. While such interviews are touted as “exclusives” by these stations, for the White House, they represent—as I wrote last month when another Las Vegas anchor was among a group of strategically selected local TV anchors invited to the White House—a chance for the president to reach a targeted audience with a chosen message.

Monday’s message? To “tout energy policy wins,” as USA Today’s headline had it—specifically, highlights of a White House energy progress report. And the Univision interview was clearly a way to reach the Latino voters could play a vital role in important swing states, Nevada included, this November. (Although, as Public Radio International reported from Las Vegas on Tuesday, getting Latinos energized—and, more importantly, registered—to vote continues to be a challenge.)

In Arevalo, the president was dealing with an intelligent, experienced journalist who has hosted the evening news on KINC-TV here in Las Vegas for several years. And Monday’s encounter wasn’t her first interview with Obama. In January 2008—on the same morning of the Nevada Democratic caucus—her station staged a real coup by getting live, back-to-back, in-studio and in-depth interviews with both Obama and his then-rival, Hillary Clinton.

Unfortunately, Monday’s report—aired on Univision stations nationwide—was heavy on the light stuff. Arevalo began with an account of Bo’s rambunctiousness before launching into a brief tour of the White House, with a poignant pause in the Red Room, redecorated by Jackie Kennedy during the administration of the nation’s only Roman Catholic president. The report concluded with, as Arevalo narrated, “images of the garden created by the First Lady, Michelle Obama.”

That itinerary might sound familiar. Back in November, when CJR’s Erika Fry looked at a previous set of local TV visits, she wrote that the schedule “brought to mind a class trip: filming privileges on the South Lawn…a visit to the White House vegetable garden … a much-remarked-upon meeting with Bo, the first pet.” It’s an itinerary designed to encourage light-leaning reports.

Arevalo’s complete report on KINC-TV ran less than four minutes, and, in between tours of the Red Room and the veggie garden, came two sound bites from her interview with the president, as well as sound bites from Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar (in Spanish) and Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Richard Cordray, the other administration officials made available Monday by the White House. (Arevalo’s full, eight-minute interview with Obama aired Tuesday on some of the network’s radio stations.)

In the broadcast segment, Obama had a chance to tout progress under his administration in broad terms, noting that increased fuel efficiency in automobiles is helping to reduce oil consumption.

He also, somewhat oddly, had an easy opportunity to take a swipe at his opposition—created when Arevalo asked Obama to assess how the likely GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, might stack up from a Hispanic perspective.

“If they have seen the Republican debates, they see there are problems,” the president replied, using the air time to criticize those, like Romney, who oppose the Dream Act, the path to citizenship favored by many Democrats. It’s useful to give candidates opportunities to draw contrasts with their opponents, but a better question would have pressed Obama to explain what his administration is doing, rather than offering an easy chance for a dig at rival campaigns.

Arevalo’s next question, while on a topic of likely interest to plenty of KINC viewers, also put Obama in the role of political commentator, and its vagueness set the president up for a bland and unenlightening response:

AREVALO: Mexico is also choosing a president at this time. With Mexico being one of the three most important countries in trade with the United States, what do you expect to happen with this election?

OBAMA: No matter what party is in charge in Mexico or what party is in charge in the U.S., Americans and Mexicans know that we have a good relationship and I think it will be strong, no matter who wins the election.

It would be unrealistic to expect that these limited, stage-managed encounters with the president will produce hard-hitting journalism. Indeed, the way to maximize their journalistic value is probably to use the interviews, and the public attention they attract, as springboards for larger, more probing reports that take a closer look at the administration’s message of the moment.

But that process begins with asking the right questions. In addition to pressing its energy initiatives, the White House took full advantage of its opportunity to speak to potential voters on Univision’s airwaves on Monday. It’s too bad that Arevalo didn’t use her—yes, limited and highly stage-managed—time with the president to ask sharper questions on behalf of her audience.

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Jay Jones is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who has covered political campaigns for various media outlets in the U.S. and for the BBC in the U.K.