behind the news

Brother’s Keeper

Spanish-language Philly paper gets libelous, Anglo media don’t notice
June 15, 2009

Personal rivalries have spiraled into defamation at a Spanish-language newspaper in Philadelphia. In April, Al Día, the area’s largest-circulation Latino community paper, paid out $210,000 after losing a libel suit to former city solicitor Kenneth Trujillo. It’s a big story with implications for Philly’s media community—but you wouldn’t know it if you relied on the English-language press.

Trujillo sued Al Día and its publisher, Hernan Guaracao, after the paper ran a series of articles in 2006 alleging improprieties in Trujillo’s election as chairman of the city’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The March 12, 2006 cover story, for example, ran with the headline “Broken Trust”—in English—and a photograph of Trujillo shattered like a windowpane. The English-language title was perceived to be an effort to damage Trujillo’s reputation amongst his non-Latino colleagues, people who would normally be unable or disinclined to read a Spanish-language newspaper. Al Día habitually translates a few articles and editorials into English inside each issue of the tabloid-style paper, but translating a cover headline was a rare if not unheard-of move.

Al Día is generally considered the area’s most reputable Spanish-language paper, with broad coverage of Latin American politics, immigration, and other issues important to Latino readers. The paper also covers local politics, allowing non-Anglophone residents to keep up on the budget crisis, school funding, and elections. Articles dealing with practical concerns, such as how to plan a funeral in the United States, greatly outnumber sensationalist fare, which made the series attacking Trujillo all the more remarkable. What has also been remarkable is that most of the other Spanish- and English-language press has avoided covering what amounts to an abuse of publisher power.

The offending articles read like editorials, ominously suggesting that various sources had knowledge of a “guiding hand” behind the “supposed election.” Among other things, the paper alleged that Trujillo’s allies on the board hatched a conspiracy in December 2005 to attack then-chairwoman Carmen Adames and pressure her to resign (which Adames has denied). The articles also chronicled what was represented as Al Día’s struggle to get the board to release meeting minutes, which the articles falsely claimed to be public documents. One even made the circuitous argument that because there were questions raised over Trujillo’s election (primarily by Al Día) he was “by definition…not acting in good faith” and thus had breached his fiduciary responsibility.

The jury found that Al Día’s suggestion that Trujillo was elected improperly was untrue.

The articles, most of them penned by Guaracao himself, relied almost exclusively on information provided by two sources, former city councilman Angel Ortiz and former state representative Ben Ramos. Both Ortiz and Ramos recently left elected office tainted by scandal: Ortiz because of a revelation that he had been driving for years without a license and Ramos because he was found to be regularly delinquent in filing his campaign finance reports.

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Both also had a vested interest in the Chamber, with Ortiz, one of those said to be expecting a seat on the board, decrying Trujillo’s election as a “coup d’etat, as if we were in Latin America.” Ramos, as the shunned outgoing executive director (according to board minutes submitted at the trial, he was asked to resign because of inappropriate business dealings while in his position), arguably had personal reasons for attacking the board.

Pablo Mansilla, who worked as a reporter at Al Día from 2005 to 2007, said that he and two other reporters were initially assigned to the story following Trujillo’s election. But Mansilla, who was a witness for the plaintiff, said that he was reassigned after insisting that he could not independently confirm the accusations that his publisher was feeding him. Referring to Ortiz and Ramos, Mansilla noted, “These were people who were not trustworthy ethically speaking, and this is where Hernan got his info.”

Additionally, Mansilla said, there was a long-standing enmity between Guaracao and Trujillo, and the former, angry over his rival’s election. wanted to publicly flex his muscle with the articles. According to Trujillo’s lawyer, Clifford E. Haines, the Al Día publisher developed a vendetta against Trujillo after the then-city solicitor declined to help him get business from the city.

Mansilla said that Guaracao had never been involved on the paper’s editorial side prior to pushing the series of articles on Trujillo. At the time, Al Día had no editor; writers like Mansilla came up with story ideas and edited their own articles. The paper’s content is driven by a number of young, committed Latino journalists who report on issues like police brutality and community organizing.

Mansilla was initially reluctant to testify, because, he said, he had no interest in getting involved in a “power play between two rich guys.” But he felt that it was important to go public with Guaracao’s abuse of power.

What’s newsworthy here is not the gossip of a rivalry amongst the wealthy and powerful, but the abuse of a community institution that at least 56,253 (Al Día’s circulation) Latinos depend on each week—and the fact that most of the English- and Spanish-language press ignored the story from the moment the articles were published all the way up to the jury decision.

Al Día itself didn’t cover the story. Guaracao referred me to Al Día’s official statement, published as an editorial in both English and Spanish in the paper’s print edition, and declined to answer questions on the matter.

The enigmatic missive reiterates the paper’s innocence, and neglects to mention Trujillo’s name or his allegations against the paper: “By definition, the truth is not defamatory. As a matter of principal, the truth is not subject to retraction.” The statement also omits the size of the judgment rendered against the paper, and the fact that Al Día has satisfied the judgment (i.e., paid the $210,000 to Trujillo), foreclosing the possibility of an appeal.

About not covering the story, Guaracao told CJR, “I never felt that was our job to do; it is for the rest of the media to do if they want. But it’s not for us.”

Unfortunately, other news outlets mostly avoided writing about the story too, overlooking the clear newsworthiness of a highly charged libel case involving the area’s largest Latino community paper and one of its most prominent Latino public officials.

Ricardo Hurtado, editor of the smaller paper Sol Latino, which did run stories on the lawsuit, said that Al Día’s articles were “clearly an exaggeration.” But coverage was slim elsewhere, with The Philadelphia Inquirer publishing a cursory 130 words on the matter. The story is not common knowledge in Anglo Philadelphia. If the Inquirer and other mainstream press took such media more seriously, Guaracao’s behavior would have likely played as scandal, and the news community would have been up in arms—a more appropriate response.

The affair provides a cautionary tale on the role newspapers play within ethnic or minority-language communities: papers like Al Día offer invaluable reporting on issues undercovered in the English-language press, and build community among people navigating the complexities of life in a new and foreign country. But all media outlets, ethnic or not, have the responsibility to ensure that the news is not hijacked by the powerful for the prosecution of arcane personal vendettas.

Daniel Denvir is a reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.