July 7, 2020

THE TUBE WHERE IT HAPPENS:

The Essentials: How Univision has guided Latinos through a historic election cycle (Stephania Taladrid, SUMMER 2020, Columbia Journalism Review)

"People depend on us," Ramos, who is sixty-two, told me recently from his office, in Miami. "Univision is a lifeline to survive in the United States, and our audiences expect us to do much more than just deliver the news." The notion of a television network being a lifeline may seem an exaggeration, but in polls, Latinos have consistently ranked Univision as one of the most trusted institutions in the United States, second only to the Catholic Church. Its coverage, entirely in Spanish, reaches the homes of people who speak it as a first language. During its prime-time news hours, Univision has an audience of nearly two million.

Univision grew from the first Hispanic TV channel in the US, which went live in San Antonio in the summer of 1955. In the early sixties, a group of businessmen, including Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta, a Mexican communications tycoon, bought the channel and some others to create the Spanish International Network, now known as Univision. Among the group's purchases was KMEX-TV, a station based in Los Angeles, where Ramos--freshly arrived from Mexico City--began working as a reporter in the mid-eighties. KMEX, he realized, was not a typical newsroom. It hosted health and employment fairs for its audiences and offered advice on the best schools for Hispanic youth. The mission was not only to inform, but also to empower and serve Latinos--
a mandate that Univision eventually made its own.

Since then, the Hispanic community in the United States has quadrupled in size, comprising some sixty million people. This year, for the first time, Latinos are the country's largest minority voting group. Many of them see Ramos and his colleagues as the best large-scale advocates they have, and Univision as their main access point to politics. "There is an absolute leadership vacuum at the national level," Torres told me. When Julián Castro dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, in January, he delivered a blunt message: "It simply isn't our time." Congress now has the largest class of Latinos in history--totaling thirty-eight--but there are only four Latino members of the Senate. Ramos, the elder statesman of the Latino media elite, outranks them all.

Over the decades, if it's been covered at all, the Latino demographic has typically been cast in the press as a "sleeping giant"--a term meant to evoke its tremendous, yet dormant, potential. "For a long time, everyone expected the sleeping giant to wake up, without anyone setting the alarm," Stephanie Valencia, a cofounder of a research group called Equis Labs, told me. Many Latinos felt disengaged from the political process because no one was speaking directly to them. News outlets repeated the failures of candidates, who for decades saw the Latino electorate as a monolith. It didn't matter whether politicians or journalists were addressing Mexicans, Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, or Dominicans--their message remained the same. And, for the most part, it centered on immigration. As a corollary, Latino turnout has lagged compared to that of other voting groups. In 2008, the last time the country saw an economic crisis comparable to today's, participation rates among Latinos were dismal. In 2016, less than half of eligible Latino voters cast their ballots.

Only recently have campaign strategists begun to tap into Latino voters' yearning to be part of the political process. And Univision has been uniquely positioned to cover the community's political rise. During the 2016 election cycle, Ramos made headlines for being ousted from a press conference at which he grilled Trump about the wall and deportations. Ramos has been similarly tough on Democrats. "Would you take responsibility for the three million people that were deported during the Obama-Biden administration?" he asked Biden in February. "Many people are expecting you to apologize for that--to say that it was wrong."

"I think it was a big mistake," Biden responded. "It took too long to get it right."

Biden, for lack of money or will, largely failed to engage with Latinos in the primaries. He lost to Sanders among these voters in all states with a sizable Hispanic population except Florida. Now that Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee, it's unclear whether his campaign can win over the demographic in time for November. Laura Jiménez, Biden's Latino-engagement director, told me recently that it was crucial for the campaign to "meet people where they are," but she wouldn't offer any specifics on the budget allocated for doing so, the plan she would follow, or even the lessons she had learned from the primaries. Events continue to be online only.

Univision sees its responsibility to educate Latino voters--to be "the bridge between candidates and voters," as Ramos told me. But ultimately, a news channel--no matter how much trust it has earned from its audience--cannot compensate for the work of campaigns. "You can give people the information they need to go out and vote, but they will need to have an incentive to do so," Torres said. "That is where politicians have to come in and take Latinos seriously. Latinos will listen. They will know who is doing the work that needs to be done--and who isn't."

Posted by at July 7, 2020 9:33 PM

  

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