SAN DIEGO — I’m mourning what has become of an old friend.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists became irrelevant as a journalism organization this week at its annual conference in Anaheim. Founded in 1982 by a small cadre of reporters and editors, the organization was intended as a support group that would arm-twist media companies into hiring Hispanic journalists and providing better coverage of the Latino community.
I’ve been a member, on and off, since 1990.
The organization found itself in the middle of a fiasco. When bullied, it surrendered.
It knows how to kneel. For years, the NAHJ has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from media companies to fund its events. When one of those companies does a story that offends Hispanics, or fires a high-profile Hispanic journalist, the NAHJ doesn’t say a word.
Recently, the organization has partnered with celebrities and cozied up to politicians. In Anaheim, a panel on Latino voters was moderated by noted political expert Eva Longoria, a co-chairwoman of the Barack Obama re-election campaign. Other panelists included Voto Latino CEO/President Maria Teresa Kumar, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., and California Assembly Speaker John Perez.
But perhaps the worst thing the organization has ever done is forget what journalism is all about: We take politicians to task. We don’t take orders from them.
Tell that to Hector Barajas, a political strategist and former communications director for the California State Senate Republican Caucus. Born in East Los Angeles and raised by undocumented immigrant parents, the 41-year-old is a rising star in the GOP. He was invited to appear on the panel by Gadi Schwartz, a reporter at KNBC-Channel 4 in Los Angeles and the NAHJ member who organized the speakers for the event.
Barajas intended to deliver three messages – Latinos need to work with Republicans and Democrats, study the issues, and question elected officials.
He never got the chance. His appearance was vetoed by Perez, one of the most powerful Democrats in the state.
According to Schwartz, Perez called the day before the event to complain about Barajas being on the panel and insisted that he would not participate.
“He was upset,” said Schwartz. “He said he didn’t want to debate a staffer.”
Schwartz stood his ground. So Perez went over his head and called someone in the leadership of the organization. Schwartz was then ordered to tell Barajas he was off the panel. He did so, but he isn’t happy with how it turned out.
“I didn’t think it was going to turn into a sideshow,” Schwartz said.
NAHJ President Hugo Balta, a producer for ESPN, confirmed that someone in the hierarchy was contacted by Perez, but he would not say who it was. He claimed he didn’t know.
When I pressed him, Balta shouted: “You’re harassing me! I’m hanging up now!” He did, but eventually called me back and admitted, “We made mistakes.”
Barajas was more forceful.
“These journalists allowed a politician to dictate who sits on a panel and who doesn’t at their own conference,” he said. “That diminishes the organization.”
It’s hard to appear nonpartisan when you have a political panel with no Republicans. So Perez made a last-minute call to California Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, who agreed to sit on the panel.
I didn’t attend the conference but watched some of it as it was live-streamed. According to people who were there and media reports, there were few fireworks.
Perez spokesman Steve Maviglio tried to frame the issue as being about false advertisement.
“The speaker saw the program and it said this panel was for Latino elected officials,” he said. “And he was curious why that wasn’t the case.”
Kumar isn’t an elected official. Perez didn’t complain about her.
Then Maviglio said that organizers had trouble finding a Republican Latino elected official, so Perez offered to help.
But Schwartz told me that he was pleased with the panel as originally configured.
Maviglio made clear that Barajas isn’t in his boss’ league.
You mean like Longoria?
Then he got personal. He asked, “If you were invited to a panel with national journalists and found a reporter for a junior high school, wouldn’t you be upset?”
No, I said. I was taught that when you’re invited to a party, it’s rude to try to set the guest list.
Finally, he too hung up. He probably considered it a waste of time. Like a conference that is prefabricated.
Shame on the NAHJ. Hispanic journalists deserve to be represented better than this.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.