This Election, Were We Treated Fairly in the Media?
BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA
Now that the wild ride of the campaign has given way to the reality of a Trump presidency, it’s time to reflect upon how Latinos – their communities, their issues and their participation in the electoral process – were treated in the media. How did the coverage leading up to the shocking result serve such a culturally, linguistically and politically diverse electorate?
From Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers,” to the vilification of Indiana-born judge Gonzalo Curiel (who Trump insisted was a biased Mexican), and the shaming of Venezuelan beauty queen Alicia Machado, as well as the supposed threat of omnipresent taco trucks and, finally, “bad hombres,” Latinos were anything but ignored in the 2016 race for the White House. But according to a group of veteran political journalists, there’s plenty of room for improvement in how mainstream media portrayed us.
“I’ve always thought that the mainstream media could do better,” said Victor Landa, editor of the English-language website NewsTaco. “It’s not for lack of trying but there is a fundamental lack of understanding. When you look at the mainstream media’s Latino coverage, it’s just not framed right. It’s always presented as the ‘Latino community’ from the point-of-view of the non-Hispanics who comprise the media. For instance, we saw a lot of headlines about Donald Trump being the reason we’re seeing an increase in voter registration and expect an increase in turnout. So instead of it being a story about the many reasons why Latinos are voting, the reason is put out there as being this white guy we’re voting against – and that point of view is troubling. Unless the composition of the newsrooms changes this will continue to occur because those news outlets could increase the number of people covering Latinos but if they don’t change the quality of the coverage, they’re just going to continue framing it wrong.”
For the record, not everyone agrees. Brandon Benavides, president of the board of directors of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), said that English language media did a good job of diversifying coverage: “ABC, CBS and NBC had correspondents in the field and on the campaign trail. Latinos aren’t the only ones who can cover our stories – many of our colleagues, no matter their race or ethnicity, are asking the important questions. Chris Wallace brought up immigration at the presidential debate so, for me, as long as people of whatever race ask questions important to all communities, I think that’s the important thing.”
However, according to nationally syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, the substantial lack of politically diverse Latino voices throughout this campaign only served to reinforce the wrongheaded notion of a monolithic Latino community – ultimately undermining the needs of Hispanic news consumers.
“It doesn’t do me any good to turn on CNN and see either Alex Castellanos talking about all the Latinos getting ready to vote for Trump or a Clinton [supporter] like Maria Cardona, or not see a Latino, period,” said Navarrette. “That erases the complexity, nuance and unpredictability of Latino voters in favor of watching Latinos get in each others’ faces...”
Navarrette goes on to say: “Of the 54 million Latinos in this country there are far-right, far left and millions of tias and comadres in this community who are more complicated than either Maria or Alex would have you believe. You put people on the ends of the spectrum on TV, though, and they’re just caricatures and cartoon figures. If you give me a Latino Trump supporter who goes on to speak up about the horrors of taco trucks on every corner then you’ve jumped the shark because he’s so out of the mainstream as to not represent anyone but his own crazy self. What’s really missing is that the people they get on these shows is there to advocate for their candidate and none of those people are advocating for the community. No one is a Latino first and a political operative second.”
One notable exception was Ana Navarro. The Nicaraguan-born, Republican strategist-turned-commentator made waves on CNN by going up against Trump surrogates and was subsequently celebrated in glowing profiles in the New York Times Magazine, on blogs, Hispanic-centric websites and, most notably, on Twitter.
Just before Election Day, Navarro appeared on The View, where a montage of her anti-Trump clips was played to applause. “We are crazy,” she complained. “We are surreal, right? We have gone through the looking glass. We are now sitting down with Alice in Wonderland. Think about this, guys. We are in an election where people are boasting about being deplorable or being nasty. That’s where we got.”
If there was another bright spot in the barren desert of Latino political commentary, it was journalist Maria Hinojosa. Through her podcast “In The Thick,” and “Latino USA,” NPR’s only national Latino news and cultural weekly radio program, she was one of the few voices amplifying the concerns of the community.
“There are many things that happened in 2016 but I never imagined I’d spend this much time as a journalist thinking about the Commission on Presidential Debates,” said Hinojosa, who appeared on Meet the Press, and whose segment schooling Trump surrogate Steve Cortes about why immigrants should not be referred to as “illegal” went viral.
“The fire that I feel, I think, in many ways, encapsulates how Latinos and Latinas have to think about what just happened,” she said. “Sadly, when they decided to not include a Latino or Latina journalist as a debate moderator what they made clear to the world is ‘We get to decide who’s in and you’re not in.’ They are supposed to guarantee the journalistic integrity of the presidential debates and how could they – if they read the newspapers from the day Trump announced his campaign – not have one Latino or Latina to question the candidates on the issues important to us? To not include us… to me that says everything about where we stand.
“There is a club of quote-unquote American journalists who make decisions and the rest of us have to fall in to line. For us to not be included in the presidential debates…those decisions are communicating to a huge electorate that somehow our perspectives, our questions, our issues and, yes, our personal connections to these issues, don’t matter because they were not brought up during the debates. It doesn’t feel good. It says: ‘We can talk about you all we want and talk about you in the third person and never refer to you even though you’re in the same room.’”
Stephen A. Nuño, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University, and NBC Latino contributor, experienced some of the same feelings of being on the outside of a conversation centered around the issues he most cared about, but put it in the context of the dying journalism and ascending tabloid media environment.
“A lot of people like to blame the media and I’m not saying the media had zero responsibility and culpability, but I think most people I work with take their job very seriously. The problem is that we have a system that basically rewards reporters for traffic and punishes them for not entertaining audiences while providing the news,” Nuño said. “You can complain about that, but how many people watch C-Span as a regular portion of their news diet? And why don’t they? Because it’s ‘boring,’ complicated, requires context and information. Most people I work with are pretty busy every day trying to create stories with context about what’s going on but presenting it as why this is exciting and entertaining and you should pay attention.
“I think the question about whether the media failed us or not goes to a much deeper problem. Our society is arranged to be entirely focused on and measure success based on how much money can be made. If you want to change that, fine, I agree it should change. But the people mostly arguing about this are not looking at Al-Jazeera America, which had really good reports, really good stories and really good investigative journalism but nobody read them because it’s ‘boring.’”
Marisa Treviño, the long-time editor of the English-language political blog “Latina Lista,” had much the same to say about the blind spots in Spanish-language media coverage. “Univision been very disappointing, it’s kind of like the Fox News for Spanish-speaking Latinos. They have a very biased agenda and I think it’s unfortunate because when I look at the Latino blogs and mainstream media English coverage I think, for the most part, they’ve done a fair job of informing the Latino voter by showing facts of what was happening without talking down to the Latino voter and saying who to vote for,” Treviño said. “But because Trump basically came out with derogatory, prejudicial and racist language, it created a kind of line in the sand that you almost can’t fault [Univision] for focusing solely on that.”
Treviño, however, pointed out that while a Hispanic-serving media organization can go overboard on the ethnic taunts angle, the reverse was often apparent in English language media coverage:
“I think this is an age old problem in journalism – it kind of underscores the reason why we need diversity in the newsroom and why when you don’t have that it’s not surprising that the mainstream media didn’t pick up on the ‘bad hombres’ comment during the last presidential debate. Also not surprising was that the Latino-centric sites picked up then seized on it, stretched it and made assumptions about why it wasn’t mentioned in the mainstream media more, whereas the mainstream media might not see it as a big deal unless there is specifically a Latino in that newsroom to find offense. They see it just as rhetoric and it gets a pass because I don’t think even Trump realizes the import of everything he says. So, yes, it was tweeted out, it was noticed, but at the newsroom someone had to ask ‘Is this big enough for a full story?’ and they opt not to make it one because their audience is not comprised of just Latinos.”
Lastly, what about the Sleeping Giant? Did it oversleep?
Even though on Election Day, the New York Times ran a breathless story (“This Time, There Really Is a Hispanic Voter Surge”), there are many people who believe that Trump’s solid win showed that there was no decisive victory for Latino voters. Though they had been promised by the Clinton campaign that if they only turned out, the Trump nightmare would be vanquished, it just didn’t materialize.
Instead, popular polling predicting that Clinton had Hispanics in the bag was taken as gospel, making the subsequent exit polling showing that she wasn’t able to capture Florida and even lost a chunk of Latinos to Trump a painful blow. And the term “Sleeping Giant” has been derided by many Latinos who think it is not only patronizing but other-izing .
“The question of ‘Will the Latino sleeping giant awaken?’ just shows that we’re not quite included yet, and not being considered a viable game changer and you don’t see those same headlines regarding the African-American community and you don’t see white voters addressed that way,” said Treviño.
And this context makes it easy to see how a mainstream media could seize on such a simplistic idea and not worry too much about whether the prevailing pre-cooked narrative of Clinton and the Democrats having Hispanics at their beck and call would eventually prove false on Election Day.
But why didn’t the mainstream, Latino-centric or Spanish-language media see this coming? Why didn’t more alarm bells go off? Following the election, many Latino journalists were stunned and there were few answers to those questions. No doubt there will be much soul-searching. Univision anchor Jorge Ramos lamented on Twitter, “As journalists we made many mistakes. We didn’t see the resentment, the polls were wrong and we should have asked tougher questions sooner.”
Maria Hinojosa tried calming her Twitter followers with a message of strength: “Many of us will be fine. But many will be scared. Find them. Give comfort and witness. We are all bearing witness. No se me agüiten.”
A few hours later, she was asked her if, after all was said and done, the media had let Latinos down. Hinojosa said: “They let us down. They have reckoning to do. But so do all of us.”
Originally published in Latino Magazine Winter edition 2016