The New Yorker Magazine: The Man Who Wouldn’t Sit Down

Sep 28, 2015

How Univision’s Jorge Ramos earns his viewers’ trust.

By William Finnegan for The New Yorker

When Jorge Ramos travels in Middle America, nobody recognizes him—until somebody does. Ramos is the evening-news co-anchor on Univision, the country’s largest Spanish-language TV network, a job he has held since 1986. A few weeks ago, I was on a flight with him from Chicago to Dubuque. Ramos, who is fifty-seven, is slim, not tall, with white hair and an unassuming demeanor. Wearing jeans, a gray sports coat, and a blue open-collared shirt, he went unremarked. But then, as he disembarked, a fellow-passenger, a stranger in her thirties, drew him aside at the terminal gate, speaking rapidly in Spanish. Ramos bowed his head to listen. The woman was a teacher at a local technical college. Things in this part of Iowa were bad, she said. People were afraid to leave their houses. When they went to Walmart, they only felt comfortable going at night. Ramos nodded. Her voice was urgent. She wiped her eyes. He held her arm while she composed herself. The woman thanked him and rushed away.

“Did you hear that?” he asked, at the car-rental counter. “They only go out to Walmart at night.”

In an Italian restaurant on a sleepy corner in downtown Dubuque, a dishwasher came out from the kitchen toward the end of lunch to pay her respects. She, too, fought back tears as she thanked Ramos for his work. He asked her how long she had been in Iowa. Five years, she said. She was from Hidalgo, not far from Mexico City, Ramos’s home town. She hurried back to the kitchen.

“We have almost no political representation,” Ramos said. He meant Latinos in the United States. “Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz won’t defend the undocumented.”

“A Country for All,” Ramos’s most recent book—he has published eleven—is dedicated to “all undocumented immigrants.” He was trying to explain how a journalist finds himself in the role of advocate.

“We’re a young community,” he said. “You wouldn’t expect ABC, or any of the mainstream networks, to take a position on immigration, health care, anything. But at Univision it’s different. We are pro-immigrant. That’s our audience, and people depend on us. When we are better represented politically, that role for us will recede.”

Besides co-anchoring the nightly news, and cranking out books, Ramos hosts a Sunday-morning public-affairs show, “Al Punto” (“To the Point”), and writes a syndicated column; for the past two years, he has also hosted a weekly news-magazine show, “America with Jorge Ramos,” in English, on a fledgling network (a joint venture of Univision and ABC) called Fusion. (When Jon Stewart asked him, on “The Daily Show,” to account for his hyperactivity, Ramos said, “I’m an immigrant. So I just need to get a lot of jobs.”) His English is fluent, if strongly accented. His Spanish, particularly on-air, is carefully neutral—pan-Latino, not noticeably Mexican. Univision’s audience comes from many different countries, and the network broadcasts from Miami, where the most common form of Spanish is Cuban.

Ramos occupies a peculiar place in the American news media. He has won eight Emmys and an armload of journalism awards, covered every major story since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and interviewed every American President since George H. W. Bush. (He’s interviewed Barack Obama half a dozen times.) But his affiliation can work against him. In June, when he sent a handwritten letter to Donald Trump, who had just launched his Presidential campaign, requesting an interview, it was no dice. Univision had cut its business ties with Trump, including its telecasts of the Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe beauty pageants, after Trump accused Mexico of sending “rapists” to the United States. Trump posted Ramos’s letter on Instagram, crowing that Univision was “begging” him for interviews. The letter included Ramos’s personal cell-phone number, which Ramos was then obliged to change. In the weeks that followed, Trump produced a stream of provocative remarks and proposals about Mexicans and immigration, giving the national immigration-policy debate the hardest edge it has had in generations. Now Ramos really wanted to interview him.

Trump was planning a rally on Dubuque’s riverfront that afternoon. Ramos and Dax Tejera, a young Fusion executive producer, met up with a local cameraman in the parking lot of the Grand River Center, where a press conference was scheduled in advance of the rally. They went inside early, past some tables where Ann Coulter, who was going to introduce Trump at the rally, was setting up to sign copies of her latest book, “¡Adios, America!: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole.” Ramos, heading upstairs, said, “We had her on our show when that book came out. Trump seems to be getting his ideas from her.”

In the room designated for the press conference, Ramos and Tejera considered camera angles and lighting. They staked out a pair of front-row seats. Ramos was studying a sheaf of notes. “Normally, I’d just have a ten-second question prepared,” he said. “But this is not normal. Here I have to make a statement, as an indignant immigrant. Tell him that Latinos despise him. And then I have to ask a question, as a journalist, if he’ll let me.” The room was filling with reporters. Ramos worried that Trump would recognize him and not call on him. “It will be important to stand up,” he said. “Trump’s street-smart. If you’re sitting, he’ll use it, the visual power imbalance, and squash you.” Tejera stationed the cameraman against a wall. “TV is not reality,” Ramos said, miming a frame with his hands. “It’s a way of exaggerating a moment. Reality is what we’re living here. What we’re after is something else.”

Trump arrived, with a phalanx of aides. He walked to a waist-high lectern decorated with a Trump poster and said, “Hello, everybody, how are you? Carl?”

Carl Cameron, of Fox News, asked about a local campaign operative who was leaving Rick Perry’s campaign for Trump’s. The operative joined Trump at the lectern for a couple of questions. Then, as Trump stepped back to the microphone alone, Ramos stood up. “Mr. Trump, I have a question about immigration,” he said. Trump ignored him, scanning the room as if no one had spoken, saying, “O.K., who’s next?” He pointed at someone. “Yeah. Please.”

Ramos persisted. “Mr. Trump, I have a question.”

Trump turned and said, “Excuse me. Sit down. You weren’t called. Sit down. Sit down.”

Ramos remained standing.

“Sit down.” The sneer in Trump’s tone was startling.

“No, Mr. Trump,” Ramos said, his voice level. “I’m a reporter, an immigrant, a U.S. citizen. I have the right to ask a question.”

“No, you don’t,” Trump said, sharply. “You haven’t been called. Go back to Univision.”

Ramos: “Mr. Trump, you cannot deport eleven million people. You cannot build a nineteen-hundred-mile wall.”

Trump began scanning the room again. Reporters were raising their hands. Trump pointed at one.

“You cannot deny citizenship to children in this country,” Ramos continued.

Trump turned to his left and seemed to give a signal, a kind of duck-lipped kissing or sucking expression. A bodyguard with a buzz cut started to cross the stage. “Go ahead,” Trump muttered to him.

The bodyguard went for Ramos, who was still talking. “Those ideas—” The bodyguard, who was a foot taller than Ramos, began to push him backward, out of the room. “I’m a reporter,” Ramos said. “Don’t touch me, sir.” His voice did not rise. “You cannot touch me.” The bodyguard had him by the left arm and was now moving him swiftly toward an exit door.

While Ramos was getting the bum’s rush, Trump called on a reporter. “Yes, go ahead.”

“Thank you, Mr. Trump. Chip Reid, with CBS.”

“Hi, Chip. Yes?”

“Roger Ailes says you need to apologize to Megyn Kelly. Will you do that?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that. She actually should be apologizing to me.”

The door swung shut behind Ramos, who still held his notes.

In the hallway outside, a middle-aged white man, his face flushed with anger, approached Ramos, jabbing a finger at him. “Get out of my country,” he said. “Get out.” The man had a Trump sticker on his lapel. Ramos studied him curiously. “I’m a U.S. citizen, too,” he said, moving toward the man, as if he wanted to talk. A police officer stepped between them.

Tejera was on the phone to his boss at Fusion. Ramos, standing alone, seemed to fold into himself. His expulsion had been tense, uncomfortable, heart-pounding stuff. Everyone involved was surely agitated. But Ramos seemed calm, as if his pulse had slowed. A young woman with a news camera approached him for an interview. Perhaps later, he said. Ramos crossed his arms and stared at his shoes. He was wearing pale, low-cut boots. His feet looked very small. I later asked him what he was thinking about then. “I was trying to understand what it meant,” he said. “Trying to know if I had made mistakes. I knew it was right not to sit down. If I had sat down, Latinos would have been so disappointed.”

After about ten minutes, a Trump aide, a young woman in black, appeared and walked toward Ramos. “I’m Hope,” she said, smiling and extending a hand, which he took. She invited him to return to the press conference, assuring him that he could ask questions. He just had to wait to be called on. Ramos went back in.

While he was outside, two reporters had asked Trump about his ejection. The first, Tom Llamas, of ABC, was a young Latino correspondent from Miami. He described Ramos as “one of our country’s top journalists,” and asked Trump if he thought he had handled the situation correctly. Trump said, “I don’t know really much about him.” He only knew he hadn’t called on the guy. “He just stands up and starts screaming,” Trump said. Anyway, he said, he hadn’t thrown him out: “You’ll have to talk to security. Whoever security is escorted him out.”

Now Trump called on Ramos, who asked his questions about the wall, birthright citizenship, and mass deportation. How was Trump actually going to do these things? Did he plan to use the Army to round up eleven million people? “We’re going to do it in a very humane fashion,” Trump said. “I have a bigger heart than you do.” The two men talked over each other, with Ramos still asking for specifics. Trump now seemed to know who Ramos was. “You and I will talk,” he said. “We’re going to be talking a lot over the years.” He meant, it seemed, when he was President. “Do you know how many Hispanics work for me?” Trump asked. “They love me.”

The exaggerated TV moment, I guessed, was “Go back to Univision.” It sounded like “Go back to Mexico.” Trump, rehashing the episode on the “Today” show, called Ramos a “madman.” He told a cheering crowd in Nashville about how he had dealt with the “screaming and ranting” of “this clown, Jose Reyes, or whatever the hell his name is.” The media critic Howard Kurtz, of Fox News, said that Ramos had behaved “like a heckler,” contravening “basic civility” by not waiting to be called on. Marc Caputo, of Politico, assailed Ramos’s open support for immigration reform, tweeting, “This is bias: taking the news personally, explicitly advocating an agenda.” Many conservative commentators, at Fox and elsewhere, agreed. A Washington Post writer called Ramos a “conflict junkie”—like Trump himself. Ramos had his defenders. Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece for The Intercept with the headline “Jorge Ramos Commits Journalism, Gets Immediately Attacked by Journalists.” Greenwald and others pointed to a distinguished tradition of opinion and advocacy in American journalism, running from Thomas Paine through Edward R. Murrow. For those with little patience for the numbing rituals of the modern press conference, Ramos’s insistence on making unwelcome points had been refreshing, and it was Trump’s heavy-handed response that was worrisome. Certainly, the questions raised by Ramos had been unusually serious and substantial at a press event otherwise dominated by talk of poll numbers, campaign operatives, and personal spats.

Ramos’s problem with authority began, in Mexico, with priests. The Benedictine fathers who taught him at school, he said, were reactionary sadists. “They hit us with shoes. They were pulling us from the hair,” he told me, demonstrating with a twisting temple-area hair grab. He is anticlerical to this day. His father, an architect, was rigid and unyielding, and wanted Jorge, his oldest son, to become an architect, a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer. “It was the same in the country as a whole, with each President imposed by his predecessor, not elected,” Ramos said. “I felt like I had three huge authority figures imposing their rules on me from the time I was a child.” Ramos defied his father and majored in communications in college, working at a travel agency and a radio station. He got interested in journalism and, after graduation, switched to television, becoming a news writer and then an on-air reporter. His employer was Televisa, Mexico’s largest media conglomerate. Once, for a story about Mexican political psychology, Ramos interviewed people critical of the government. But Televisa was slavishly loyal to the Mexican government, and, Ramos said, “My boss was horrified. He told me, ‘No son de la casa’”—they are not our people. “He completely changed my story, and I resigned in protest. I wish I still had the letter I wrote.”

We were eating sushi in a crowded little Venezuelan restaurant in Doral, Florida, near Miami’s airport and Univision’s news studios. “Ask any immigrant about arriving here,” Ramos said, waving his chopsticks. “They can tell you the exact date, time, circumstances, everything they first noticed.” He arrived in 1983, shortly after quitting Televisa. He had sold his first car, a VW Beetle, to buy a plane ticket to Los Angeles. “I still have the guitar I carried through the airport. I was twenty-four, almost completely broke, with everything I owned in one bag. I had a student visa, and I remember thinking, This is freedom. You can carry everything you own.” He studied television and journalism in an extension course at U.C.L.A., working part time as a waiter and at a movie house. Then he got his first job in American journalism, as a reporter at KMEX, a Spanish-language TV station that operated out of an old house on Melrose Avenue. “We did three stories a day from the street. It was the best possible training. I did hundreds of stories there.”

KMEX was also Ramos’s introduction to the community role that the Spanish-language media fills, and is expected to fill, in the United States. The station sponsored health fairs and job fairs, and broadcast English lessons. People called the station to ask which school to send their children to, which doctor to go to. “That TV is your window into the new world you’re in, where you don’t have many friends,” a Cuban-American media consultant in Coral Gables told me. “Those stations are more than information sources. They’re certainly more than businesses. The on-air personalities become like old friends. If you get ripped off, you don’t call the cops, you call Univision or Telemundo. They have these watchdog shows—here in Miami, it’s ‘El 23 a Tu Lado’ [‘23 on Your Side’]. That’s activist journalism.”

KMEX was owned by the Spanish International Network, which later became Univision. In 1985, Ramos began hosting a morning show, in addition to his reporting, and a company executive, visiting Los Angeles, happened to see it. “Rosita Peru,” Ramos recalled. “She invited me to come to Miami to start a national morning show. I said, ‘Sure.’ I moved, and I did that show for eleven months. It was so difficult. There was no script. It was a lot of improvising on-air. Two hours a day. I wanted to be doing news. But I never even saw the people in the news operations. They would just be coming to work as I was crawling out the door.”

Univision had a Mexican flavor—it had been launched as a subsidiary of Televisa, and the bulk of its programming was, and still is, telenovelas made by Televisa. About a year after Ramos got to Miami, Televisa’s owner, Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, a formidable monopolist known as El Tigre, made a move on Univision’s news department. The plan was to install Jacobo Zabludovsky, Televisa’s main news anchor, as the director of Univision’s news operations. Zabludovsky, a reedy government mouthpiece with rectangular eyeglasses, was one of the most famous men in Mexico, although he is now remembered for having opened a newscast in October, 1968, after the police and the military had massacred scores of protesting students in the plaza at Tlatelolco, in Mexico City, by intoning, “Today was a sunny day.”

Zabludovsky came to Miami, arriving at Univision’s modest studios in a black limousine. His meeting with the news department did not go well. There was a newsroom revolt. Besides the prospect of a journalistic calamity—the imposition of Mexican-style censorship—there was, according to Ramos, the Cuba-Mexico problem. Mexico recognized Fidel Castro’s regime—indeed, the two countries enjoyed warm relations—which made the Mexican government anathema to many of South Florida’s Cuban exiles. The Miami Herald sharply questioned the Televisa takeover of Univision’s news department. To make matters worse, Zabludovsky had accompanied Castro on his march into Havana during the revolution, providing enthusiastic coverage. The misbegotten plan to install Zabludovsky was finally scuttled when most of the Univision news department simply quit. El Tigre was soon forced by federal authorities to sell his stake in Univision under a law forbidding foreign ownership of broadcast stations.

The skeleton crew that remained at Univision needed, among other things, a nightly-news anchor. “So they went and found the only on-air male still on the premises,” Ramos recalled. That was the skinny kid on the morning show, the güerito. “I didn’t even know how to read a teleprompter, which in those days was just a roll of paper that constantly jammed.” He got help from an experienced co-anchor, Teresa Rodriguez. “Teresa saved me. She had blood-red fingernails and she used to run her nail down the backup script on our desk, to help me keep my place.” Rodriguez went on maternity leave—she now co-hosts a Sunday-evening news-magazine show, “Aquí y Ahora” (“Here and Now”)—and Ramos ended up co-anchoring with María Elena Salinas, a dynamic newscaster from L.A. whom Ramos had first met at KMEX. The two of them clicked. Twenty-seven years later, they are still working side by side, and are the best-known newspeople, perhaps the best-known faces, among the fifty-five million Latinos now in the United States.

Salinas has also won a slew of journalism awards, including, in 2012, an Emmy for lifetime achievement and, earlier this year, a Peabody for a special on the exodus of Central American children to the United States.

Miami was quite different when he first arrived, Ramos said. “It wasn’t always easy to be Mexican here. Cubans ran the place. They understood how the system worked. They had the Cold War policy that said that any Cuban who made it to the U.S. was automatically legal. There were no undocumented Cubans. Local mass media focussed on Fidel, and people were suspicious of any other point of view. I had trouble just because I was Mexican. But then the city began to change, to diversify, first with Central American immigrants fleeing the civil wars there. Next came the Colombians, getting away from the cocaine wars. Then came the Venezuelans, running from Hugo Chávez.”

As a Univision co-anchor, Ramos found that he had the media weight to arrange interviews with heads of state, particularly in Latin America. It was also part of his mandate. His viewers were hungry for news from their home countries. Ramos wanted an interview with Castro, but Castro granted very few, and those were given to sympathetic journalists. So Ramos contrived to encounter him outside a hotel in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he was attending an Ibero-American summit, in 1991. With his camera rolling, Ramos, calling Castro “Comandante,” asked him if Marxism was not a museum piece. Castro slowed and put his arm around Ramos’s shoulders and said he didn’t think so. Marxism was young, while capitalism was three thousand years old. Ramos eluded Castro’s arm, acutely aware that it compromised him as a reporter and that the Cubans in Miami would never forgive him if he let it stay there—something Castro himself probably knew quite well, Ramos thought. Castro’s bodyguards moved in. Ramos quickly asked another question, about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Castro countered with a reference to the modest wall then being built by the United States along the Mexican border, and put his hand on Ramos’s shoulder. Ramos then pointed out that many people believed that it was time for Castro to hold a plebiscito in Cuba—a referendum on his rule. Castro responded politely, but Ramos had gone too far. Castro’s bodyguards edged him out of the way. Ramos lost his balance and fell down. Castro kept walking, saying nothing, and didn’t look back. The interview had lasted a minute and three seconds.

Univision now covers Cuba as a matter of course. Ramos never did get a formal interview with Fidel, but in 1998 he went to Cuba to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II. He tried to convey the country’s complexity in his dispatches, but he ignored the advice of government minders not to give too much attention to dissidents, and he has been blackballed ever since.

María Elena Salinas told me that, in his interviews with Latin-American leaders, Ramos used to routinely ask, “Is Fidel a dictator?” She laughed. “People would say, ‘Why are you always asking the same question?’ It was because he wanted these heads of state on the record.” His other standard question with Presidents, she said, is “How much money do you have?” “He likes to ask it when they first come into office, and then a second time, a few years later, if they agree to talk again, to see how much they’ve been stealing.”

Ramos’s questions often infuriate his interviewees. In Bogotá, in 1996, he demanded that the Colombian President, Ernesto Samper, explicitly state whether or not his election campaign had accepted drug money, and showed Samper a photograph in which he appeared with two alleged narco-traffickers. Samper was annoyed. Ramos and his crew had already received death threats after a prior interview with Samper, and they fled the country on the first available flight. Ramos calls Miami mi trinchera—his foxhole, into which he can jump when there is trouble. As a child of Mexico, he says, he never takes for granted the protections he enjoys as an American. (He became a citizen in 2008.)

In a 1994 interview with Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the deeply feared Mexican President, Ramos asked Salinas if he had gained office by fraud, as many Mexicans believed. Ramos pressed him on regional vote totals that were mathematically impossible. He questioned Salinas closely about the murder, a few months earlier, of his anointed successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio. (Salinas moved to Ireland after his term ended, amid persistent reports that he did so to avoid murder charges in the Colosio case.) “It was unbelievable that I could sit there and confront him with the evidence of fraud,” Ramos told me, “and then ask him about the dedazo”—“the big finger,” with which Mexican Presidents traditionally chose their successors. “In those days, and in the country where I grew up, no Mexican journalist could even speak that word, dedazo, in an interview with the President and still have a job when he got home.”

One of Ramos’s models is Oriana Fallaci, the fiery Italian journalist. “I read her book ‘Interview with History’ in college,” he said. “I loved how she took on the Shah, Qaddafi, Kissinger. She saw the interview as a little war, with a winner. For certain interviews, I see it the same way. My only weapon is the question. And, living here, it’s not risky. I can make powerful people angry, and show our audience what they really are, and then go home and live a normal life.”

Home is in Coral Gables, where Ramos lives with his girlfriend, Chiquinquirá Delgado, a Venezuelan actress, who co-hosts a Univision reality show called “Nuestra Belleza Latina” (“Our Latin Beauty”). He has two children from two marriages, and his younger child, Nicolas, a high-school junior, still lives with him. Delgado’s five-year-old daughter rounds out the household.

In the sushi place, our waiter, a tall young Venezuelan, told Ramos that he had decided to apply for U.S. citizenship. Ramos congratulated him. “I realized I have to do it,” the young man said. “If we can’t vote, then we have no way to fight back against people like Trump.”

Ramos can’t get over the fact that the most trusted voices in mainstream TV news, as far as he’s concerned, are comedians: Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert. Ramos and Oliver have joked together on-air about being immigrants, defeated by telephone voice-recognition systems that force them to adopt American accents to make themselves understood. Stewart accused Ramos of stealing his material when Ramos got big laughs on “The Daily Show” with lines about the Latino demographic boom. When Ramos urged Colbert, on “The Colbert Report,” to consider “co-responsibility” for undocumented immigration, since, as he said, “They’re here because we are hiring them, and we benefit from their work,” Colbert paused, seemed to go almost out of character, and finally said, “I don’t have a comeback for that, so we’re probably going to edit it out of the interview.” Ramos thinks that the best political comedians, with their fake news and stone-faced parody, are trusted because they offer, at bottom, “transparency” about their own views, rather than simply a straight news report that viewers have come to know is often riddled with false equivalencies in pursuit of “balance.” (“Others, however, insist the earth is flat.”)

Ramos does not have a trust problem with his audience. Freddy Balsera, a media analyst and political consultant specializing in Latino affairs, told me, “We do polls. We ask, ‘Who is the most influential Hispanic in the U.S.?’ Over and over, Jorge comes out No. 1.” Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court Justice, comes in first in other polls. Among institutions, Univision comes in second on the trust meter with Latinos, behind the Catholic Church.

“People grew up with Jorge,” Gabriela Tristán, a Univision executive producer, told me. “You watched him with your parents, your grandparents. Him and María Elena. Whatever they say, it’s the law.”

Balsera thought that Ramos’s run-in with Donald Trump in Iowa had enhanced his standing among Latinos. “But why doesn’t Marco Rubio challenge Trump?” he said. “Or Ted Cruz? Why does Jorge Ramos have to defend our culture, our community?”

Some Latino conservatives disapproved of Ramos’s dustup. Ruben Navarrette, Jr., a syndicated columnist, accused him of being “unprofessional” and “playing into every negative stereotype that Americans subscribe to about Mexicans.” Then, there are the mainstream dismissals of Ramos as a lightweight, a niche performer, a “heckler.” Ramos appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” shortly after the event in Iowa, and the segment began with Bill O’Reilly asking, “Anchorman or activist?” O’Reilly urged Ramos to stop calling himself a reporter. Ramos replied, “I don’t think you’re the right person to lecture me on advocacy and journalism.” He went on to draw a distinction between being partisan and being independent. O’Reilly is effectively a Republican Party partisan, he argued.

Alfonso Aguilar, who used to have a radio show on Univision, where he considered himself a “token conservative,” deplores the liberal bias of Univision, and thinks that “Spanish-language media is not being held to the same standards as mainstream media” when it comes to distinguishing between reporting and opinion. Ramos and María Elena Salinas are both at fault, according to Aguilar, “because you’re manipulating audiences if you don’t clarify.” Aguilar, who worked for the George W. Bush Administration and is now the executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, in Washington, D.C., still appears on Univision programs, including “Al Punto,” but he says that Univision correspondents in bureaus across the country complain to him, privately, that they get a bad rap because of editorializing by anchors in Miami.

Ramos has had combative interviews with President Obama. During the 2008 campaign, he extracted a promise from Obama that an immigration-reform bill would be pushed forward during his first year in the White House. In a 2012 interview, Ramos, although appearing live on Univision, switched to English and said, “It was a promise, Mr. President. . . . I don’t want it to get lost in translation. . . . A promise is a promise. And, with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.” Obama looked miserable; Ramos hasn’t been markedly easier on him in more recent interviews. Last December, Ramos reminded the President that he had become known among Latinos as “the Deporter-in-Chief.” Yet Obama, along with every other national politician with an interest in reaching Latino voters, knows that Ramos and Salinas are the gateway. Randy Falco, the president and chief executive of Univision, is a Republican. He told me that, during the 2012 general election, he pleaded with Mitt Romney to appear on the network, and that Romney obliged him only once. That appearance did not go well, and Romney did not come back. But he later told Falco that staying away was a mistake: had he made more appearances on Univision, he might conceivably have improved his disastrous Election Day showing among Latinos.

Ramos’s daughter, Paola, who recently earned a degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has a job on the Hillary Clinton campaign. She previously worked in the Obama White House, and for Jill Biden. Ramos insists that his daughter’s employment does not influence his work. His Republican critics don’t buy it. He did not disclose her work for the Obama Administration to his audience. He did disclose her position with the Clinton campaign. He may have to recuse himself from any Univision-sponsored campaign debates that include Hillary Clinton.

Univision, though obscure to most non-Spanish speakers, plays in the big leagues. In 2013 and 2014, for what are known as the July prime-time sweeps, its audience was larger than that of each of the four main English-language networks. Its original programming is sold throughout the Spanish-speaking world. (The U.S. now has more Spanish speakers than Spain does.) Its local stations in New York and Los Angeles are consistently near the top of the ratings in those cities. On the news side, the network is far more cosmopolitan than its English-language counterparts, starting with its employees. Patsy Loris, the senior news director, is Chilean; Sabrina Zambrano-Orr, the executive producer of “Al Punto,” is Venezuelan; Teresa Rodriguez is Cuban; Isaac Lee, the president for news and digital, is Colombian; and so on. The coverage of international news, especially in Latin America, is decidedly more thorough and energetic than what the English-language broadcast networks provide.

Fusion, which launched in October, 2013, has hired away a number of executives and journalists from the networks in New York, including Keith Summa, a longtime producer at ABC News, who, more recently, headed the investigative unit at CBS News. In the Univision newsroom, Summa told me, “It’s not uncommon for me to ask, ‘Who’s that guy?,’ and then to be told, ‘Oh, he had to flee X country.’ These folks come from a culture where journalism is a contact sport. Here we worry that we’re going to get sued, not shot.” Describing the contrast with his old workplaces, Summa said, “People would come in to us at ABC with these minute-by-minute ratings, saying, ‘Oh, when the overweight person comes in, the dial goes down, and when the good-looking person is on it’s up.’ Is this really how we’re supposed to do journalism? Also, the left-right thing that dominates mainstream political reporting isn’t that relevant here. At Univision, it’s more north-south. I find that refreshing. And, of course, Jorge just calls it as he sees it. He says, ‘When you’ve got the facts, you don’t need to balance with non-facts.’ There’s a groupthink in the Bermuda Triangle of the three big networks, but Jorge doesn’t go to those cocktail parties.”

Isaac Lee, who is also the chief executive of Fusion, asked me if I knew who Ramos’s agent and lawyer were. I didn’t. “It’s him,” he said. “Jorge. We negotiate his contracts right at this table. It takes fifteen minutes.”

When Fusion launched, Ramos was nervous about working in English. At first, he had a nightly news show, which began an hour after his Univision newscast ended. With his Sunday-morning show and his other gigs, the workload was unmanageable—he had so much script to write, and spent so many hours on set, that he could barely leave the studio to report stories. He soon cut back to the weekly show, “America with Jorge Ramos.” Fusion’s target audience was initially meant to be young, English-dominant Latinos, but such viewers didn’t want or need their own network, and the target demographic was expanded to Millennials (ages eighteen to thirty-four) of any ethnicity. The Fusion cable channel offers a mixture of news and entertainment, with heavy emphases on pop culture, the drug war, sex, and viral videos—and a small number of programs in heavy rotation. Fusion’s Web site, which launched in February, has a greater range and number of offerings, but will not soon be worrying competitors like Gawker and BuzzFeed. The digital content is available on many platforms—Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Apple TV—and the company recently hired Alexis Madrigal away from The Atlantic’s Web site to be its editor-in-chief. Fusion TV is available in forty million homes, but is not carried by Comcast or Time Warner, and it does not subscribe to the Nielsen ratings service, which is probably for the best. The company lost thirty-five million dollars in 2014, its first full year in business.

“America with Jorge Ramos” stands out from everything else on Fusion, partly because its host is decades older than anyone else at the network, but mainly because of its quality. Ramos has done specials from Israel and the West Bank (about young people and the wall there), and from Puerto Rico. He is always looking for new ways to address the immigration story. The style of his dispatches, and those of the young correspondents on “America,” is decidedly more handheld and helter-skelter, in the general vein of Vice News, than his work for Univision. In one stunt for Fusion, Ramos swam the Rio Grande, at a not-narrow point, fully clothed, gasping for air while trying to narrate. Still, the journalistic standard remains high, from what I’ve seen, and Ramos considers it a big step that clips of his work are immediately available, without translation, to the large number of Americans (and the media élites) who don’t speak Spanish. “It’s like we were just talking to ourselves before, to fellow-Latinos, in a parallel world,” he said. “This is a breakthrough.” With technical help from digital producers, he has thrown himself into social media, generating a steady stream of tweets and Facebook posts, including popular videos (millions of views) that he writes and shoots with a single camera in newsroom hallways when inspiration strikes.

In May, Ann Coulter appeared on Ramos’s Fusion show. They taped the interview in front of a live audience, and Coulter’s eagerness to give offense was breathtaking. At one point, she said, “I have a little tip. If you don’t want to be killed by ISIS, don’t go to Syria. If you don’t want to be killed by a Mexican, there’s nothing I can tell you.” Ramos likes to say that silence is death on TV, but at that moment he said nothing. The audience, too, seemed shocked into silence. After a long, awkward pause, Coulter went on, “Very easy to avoid being killed by ISIS. Don’t fly to Syria.” Ramos finally asked, “Are you really saying . . . ? We’re talking about forty million immigrants in this country.” Coulter, arguing for an end to immigration, talked about how certain “cultures” from which large numbers of people immigrate to the U.S. “are obviously deficient,” making cryptic reference to “uncles raping their nieces.” It was, in its way, good TV.

Ramos looks forward to the Latinization of the United States. “We were fifteen million when I got here,” he said. “Now we’re fifty-five million. By 2050, we’ll be more than a hundred million.” Converting those numbers to real political power is slow going. Univision and its smaller rival, Telemundo, along with many other organizations, sponsor voter-registration drives, but Latinos still punch well below their demographic weight in registration and voter turnout. Ramos is an evangelist for Latino political power. “Our turn is coming,” he told me. “And the attitude is changing, especially since Barack Obama was elected. I go out on publicity tours for my books, and, you know Latinos, they bring everybody in the family to everything, even little kids. So I always ask the kids, ‘Who wants to be the first Latino President?’ It used to be no hands went up, or maybe one or two. Now, with Obama, many of the little hands go up. It will happen in my lifetime. I hope to be able to cover the Inauguration. I don’t care if it’s a Republican or a Democrat. It could even be Rubio or Cruz.” Both have been on his show.

Ramos, and Latino voters generally, appreciated the effort that George W. Bush made to reach them, particularly his support for immigration reform, even though it proved fruitless. Bush received forty per cent of the Latino vote in 2004. Ramos strongly endorses the conventional wisdom that no party can now win the White House with less than a third of the Latino vote. There is, however, a counterargument. California and Texas, the big states with the largest Latino populations, will not be in play in next year’s election, and most of the likely swing states have few Latino voters. The exceptions are Florida, Colorado, and Nevada, which have forty-four electoral votes combined. Florida, where Cubans and Puerto Ricans greatly outnumber Mexicans, is a special case, and not all electoral-vote strategists agree that Latinos will be a decisive factor in Colorado or Nevada.

Still, Ramos and his Univision colleagues find that national politicians are finally starting to come to them. Patsy Loris, who has been producing Ramos’s programs since the nineteen-eighties, told me, “It was always difficult. Every time we would ask for a sound bite in Spanish, we would get the assistant to the assistant to the assistant.” Ramos was sometimes able to get big interviews, but only in election years. “That’s changing now, thank God,” Loris said. “I think Jorge going on Fusion helps. But people who are just discovering him, they don’t realize, he’s always been exactly like this. He was never traditional. That was why he left Mexico.”

Loris’s office is along one wall of an enormous newsroom that Univision shares with Fusion and the local station, WLTV. Ramos was three doors down, banging out introductions for segments on “Al Punto,” which was taping that afternoon. María Elena Salinas was on the far side of Ramos. Along the other walls were control rooms, editing suites, and three TV studios; the rest of the open-plan floor was filled with desks where hundreds of people worked. Each desk had at least two large monitors, and nearly every chair was draped with a shawl, a sweater, a sweatshirt, or a coat—somehow, on a ninety-five-degree day, the vast space, two stories high and a hundred and fifty thousand square feet, was kept meat-locker cold. A dozen news channels were being projected on the walls.

I camped out in Ramos’s office while he finished writing intros. There was no clutter. A little corkboard in the corner of his desk with tacked-up photographs of his kids and girlfriend. A vertical book stand in the opposite corner. A computer, before which he rolled his shoulders and clicked away. That was it. The only thing on the walls was a glass board on which a few dates and names were scribbled: “O’Reilly,” “Arpaio,” “Bill Maher,” “DC/Papa.” Those were upcoming gigs or stories. Ramos wears no jewelry, not even a watch or a ring—an uncommon presentation for a man in Miami. He keeps his hair short. He dresses simply, in jeans and an oxford shirt, tries to travel with only a carry-on bag, and hates wearing a suit—though he dons one every night for the newscast. He even somehow maintains an empty e-mail in-box. Salinas and I had been comparing overstuffed in-boxes. We both had thousands of unopened messages. Ramitos, as she calls him, had zero. Each time I e-mailed him, he answered quickly. It was unnatural.

Salinas said that, in twenty-seven years of working together, often under ferocious deadlines, she had never heard Ramos shout. “Things bother him, but he doesn’t yell and get mad,” she said. “I’ve never known anybody as disciplined as he is. Jorge can multitask like a woman. Very few men can do that. He’s flexible—he knows how to pick his battles—but he’s also incredibly stubborn.” She shook her head. “We know each other so well, we can read each other’s mind. On the air, we never interrupt each other. We know that if one of us is incapacitated—choking, forgetting something—the other will pick up.”

TV news is live performance—part journalism and part theatre. The line between journalism and entertainment is blurred in other reporting genres, but TV is the closest to pure show business. In a cynical view, news is just another entertainment product among the many that Univision sells, and Jorge Ramos is a character, a “brand,” who brings profits to the corporation. Exposing corruption, confronting bigots, championing immigrants—these performances are hugely popular. “They help to protect an enormous market,” Tomás López-Pumarejo, a professor at Brooklyn College, points out. And the topic of immigration is a proven ratings winner on Univision.

I have never heard Ramos say a cynical word. His zeal and outrage seem deeply felt, genuine. But I did notice, after the Trump press conference in Iowa, as Ramos was leaving the convention center, that he briefly crossed paths with Ann Coulter, who was preparing to introduce Trump at the rally. She seemed surprised to see Ramos, but unfazed. Not a word was said. They were two troupers, old pros, busy plowing their respective rows. They swerved toward each other and exchanged a quick fist bump in passing.

Later, I watched Ramos pacing on a levee above the Mississippi River in the twilight, talking on his cell phone, pondering his next move. Because of the Trump confrontation, he had already shot to the top of global “trending topics” on Twitter. He knew, as a newsman, that he shouldn’t step on the story. Interview requests were pouring in; he was turning down nearly all of them. He had already done a short, straightforward standup outside the convention center—in English for Fusion, in Spanish for Univision. He decided to talk the next morning, before dawn, Iowa time, to George Stephanopoulos, on “Good Morning America.” Since ABC is a co-owner of Fusion, a corporate obligation accrued there. Then, he thought, he would do Megyn Kelly’s show on Fox News. She, too, had been ill used by Trump. Other than that, he should probably let the story run on its own steam. Were these the calculations of a celebrity, a performer, or a journalist? Did those distinctions matter at that moment?

Ramos finished writing his intros, sent them to a teleprompter file, did a phone interview with a Venezuelan radio station, and announced that he was ready to leave. We took his car to a Thai place in Doral for takeout. The Univision news studios are in a light-industrial park—a huge gray featureless box among long, pastel-façaded warehouses with uninformative names slapped over doors and truck bays: Avcom Technik, Nutritional Power Center, Trans-Air Systems, Inc. “That guy I was talking to in Venezuela, Nelson Bocaranda, is amazing,” Ramos said. “A great reporter. He always has sources. He even had a source among Chávez’s doctors.” That was a hard-news reporter talking. “But all the traditional media spaces are closed there now, so they’re using the Internet to do independent journalism. It’s incredibly courageous.”

The Thai place was in a strip mall. Ramos greeted people at nearly every table, all in Spanish. “Miami has been incredibly generous to Latinos,” he told me. “As one of my first bosses here told me, ‘It’s the only city in America where we’re not treated as second-class citizens.’ ”

Over lunch, I asked Ramos to name the most edifying story he has covered. “Probably the Mexican election in 2000,” he said. “I thought I was going to die with the PRI still in power.” The Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico for seventy-one years, ending in 2000. “On Election Day, we started playing soccer in the Zócalo, the Univision crew, as a way of celebrating. We were surrounded by soldiers and cops. This was precisely the regime I had been running from. All the efforts of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans had paid off.” Unfortunately, the Mexican governments since 2000 have proved a terrible disappointment. The PRI is back in power now, and Ramos has been hammering the leadership for its corruption and incompetence. Meanwhile, he says, Mexican journalists who have exposed corruption have been rewarded by being fired, if not far worse.

Back at the studio, we ran into Chiquinquirá Delgado. She was about to go on the air, and was wearing high heels that caused her to tower over Ramos. Delgado became a celebrity as a teen-ager, when she was first runner-up in the 1990 Miss Venezuela pageant; she went on to become a model and then a soap-opera star. I asked if her life in Venezuela had required bodyguards. It had, she said. Her life here was far more relaxed. She and Ramos rode bicycles, went to the supermarket. Then it was showtime; she smiled apologetically and hurried off. Seeing Delgado with Ramos on the set—probably the best-looking couple in Florida, if not North America—reignited my print hack’s distrust of TV stardom. Later, watching him on a Fusion set, waiting for the cameras to roll, I was struck by how physically different from the rest of us he seemed. The crew scurried around, lugging heavy equipment, muttering under headsets. We were all in shadow. The lights found Ramos’s calm, chiselled features, his clear gray eyes gazing into the middle distance. Then the technical director, a young African-American woman in a scruffy T-shirt and a backward ball cap, said, “O.K., we’re ready. Jorge, please sit down.”

“For you, I will sit down,” he said.

The sheer quantity of multitasking—there is no other word for it—in Ramos’s workday is phenomenal. He is taping, writing, interviewing, making his arguments about the lineup and the order of the evening’s segments in the big three-o’clock news meeting, or going live, non-stop, back to back. That morning, he said, he had written a column about air-conditioning and climate change—the perversity of the status conferred by rendering buildings ice cold in hot places like Miami and Puerto Rico. The column, distributed by the New York Times Syndicate, would appear in more than thirty papers in the U.S. and Latin America. “But not till next week,” Ramos said, “when this Trump news cycle will have turned.”

And now the Pope was coming to America. This Pope’s first language is Spanish. Might he score an interview?

Not a chance, Ramos said. He wished. But he had burned his bridges at the Vatican with a brutal 2013 interview of a powerful Mexican cardinal. “I was asking him about how the Church protected monsters like Marcial Maciel for so many years and we argued on-air.” Maciel was a Mexican priest who, among other depredations, sexually abused schoolboys in Italy and Spain, and was personally close to Pope John Paul II. I watched the interview, and the persistence of Ramos and the utter, teeth-gnashing rage of the cardinal were riveting. “I wasn’t able to confront those priests in school,” Ramos said. “But I can do it now.” He had definitely made himself a pariah at the Vatican, though, for years to come.

The lead story on that evening’s newscast was the resignation of Guatemala’s President, Otto Pérez Molina. Univision had a team on the ground, and they gave the event full, in-depth treatment. No other U.S. network would come close to the quality of this coverage. I watched Ramos and Salinas trade parts, sitting for some segments, standing in front of a wall lit with graphics for others. When they weren’t on the air, they clattered away on laptops, or studied monitors set beneath their desks, which showed what the competition was doing. There were moments of byplay between them. But off-camera, in repose, they were very different. Salinas, with her strong features and dramatic dark eyes, is leonine. She looks as if she could take down a wildebeest with a single bite. Ramos, beside her, seems almost meek, recessive. He folds his arms, cocks his head, and looks offstage, lost in thought, his motor barely idling. Then comes a director’s countdown, and he drops his arms, clasps his hands in front of him, leans forward, and seems to grow, addressing the camera, still relaxed but at the same time intense and commanding.

Another story for tonight: Donald Trump has just scolded Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish—to wit, “I like Jeb. He’s a nice man. But he should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.” Salinas will report this item straight, near the end of the show, and Univision researchers have thrown together, on very short notice, a remarkable segment of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Marco Rubio all speaking Spanish, some more fluently than others. Bill Clinton says, in English, “I hope I’ll be the last non-Spanish-speaking President.”

The Trump news cycle will not be over soon. He has encouraged the worst instincts in white America to emerge and flail and flex. In Alabama, one of his supporters told the Times that he hoped President Trump would “make the border a vacation spot. It’s going to cost you twenty-five dollars for a permit, and then you get fifty dollars for every confirmed kill.” When did it become acceptable in America to talk about other human beings that way at a mainstream political rally? The silver lining of this nightmare is that Latinos are now more likely to organize, politically, in fear and anger, and to make their power felt more strongly at the polls in 2016.

Toward the end of that evening’s newscast, I left the set and crossed the newsroom to a control room. I like the buzz of the dark, busy cockpit, all the producers and technicians intent on screens and consoles, the countdowns, the collective waves of emotion—nervousness and relief—as switches are thrown, segments successfully delivered, commercials correctly inserted. At Univision, the three official languages—Spanish, English, and Spanglish—fly around in quick, gaudy combinations. When a correspondent starts tripping over her words, a hush descends, and, when she finally makes it out of the sentence, there’s a general sigh. “Yeah, what she said.” But tonight, before I get to the door, I catch a segment up on a wall screen about that day’s ugliness. The story seems to be from North Carolina. There are posters, painted by children. The posters say “Go Home” and “America Is for Americans” and “If We Don’t Take Out the Trash, Who Will?” Nobody in the newsroom seems to be reacting to the story. Everybody has work to do. But I find myself too ashamed to open the control-room door. ♦

Source: The New Yorker


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