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Politics trumps journalism

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From page A11 | August 29, 2013 | 6 Comments

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 ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

Ruben Navarrette

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | 6 comments

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  • Hugo BaltaAugust 28, 2013 - 6:51 pm

    With all due respect Ruben...you failed to mention that I took your call, asked that I have time to gather information in order to provide you a proper response, that you continued to push for an answer despite the fact that I told you I was driving (in an unfamiliar city) trying to follow GPS instructions, still managing through a national conference, tried to connect several times that day (despite my busy schedule) and as promised called you back once I concluded NAHJ business in Anaheim on Tuesday (less than 24 hours since your call). You didn't even provide the response I gave on the matter to Latino Rebels and the SFGate. You should practice fair and accuracy. Your certainly entitled to your opinion, but you should know better. Here is my statement: m.facebook.com/HugoBaltaNAHJPresident2012/posts/433546636764691?comment_id=36662542&offset=0&total_comments=5¬if_t=feed_comment

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  • Stephen A. NuñoAugust 29, 2013 - 5:48 am

    Mr. Balta, pardon me, but your statement is super weak. How can you get an honest discussion about politics by allowing the participants in a debate (or at least a contentious discussion) to pick and choose their adversaries? Ms. Kumar is not an elected official, and neither is Ms. Longoria. Also, did it not occur to you that Rep. Chavez is a minority member, as a Republican, of a legislative body that is dominated by Democrats and that the leader of that body, Rep. Perez, was a participant? Do you not think that the disparity in power there would have an impact on the candidness of the discussion? This is the second time since i started following these discussions that your group has fallen way short on your stated purpose of serving the Latino community. Last time, you invited a person to speak for their participation in a recall election without even knowing that she had no role in the recall besides her own press releases. This is the opposite of serving the Latino community, and purely you serving yourselves.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Samantha NewmanAugust 29, 2013 - 6:43 am

    Latinos are all about manners. La cortesia. Journalists are all about balanced reporting. Speaker Perez is all about.....well....controlling the piñata stick and scarfing down the sweets inside to the exclusion of others. The irony of it is that voters are all about fairness. (Sigh)

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • Rafael OlmedaAugust 30, 2013 - 11:25 am

    "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." As a former president of NAHJ who stuck his neck out for wrongfully fired members of news organizations whose parent companies were (and still are) major sponsors of and participants in our events, and as someone who personally spent eight years monitoring media coverage and making sure NAHJ was heard when Latinos and others were improperly treated by those same media, I would like some examples of this. Without a doubt, there have likely been incidents that NAHJ has missed, and there have been others where a strategic decision was made not to get involved (most personnel matters fall under this category). But this broadside against NAHJ seems to me to lack a basis in reality. It seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don't in this regard. If we complain too much about news media portrayal of Latinos, we are criticized for being hyper-sensitive and looking for reasons to be offended. Complain too little, and we are accused of being weak. I don't mean to apply those observations to my friend Ruben Navarette, but again, I don't think the comment criticizing NAHJ for its lack of advocacy is at all fair. Enlighten me.

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  • Rafael OlmedaAugust 30, 2013 - 11:59 am

    Sorry. The preceding was supposed to be a standalone comment, not a reply to Samantha Newman.

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  • Bill VincentAugust 31, 2013 - 7:05 am

    Mr. Balta's defense notwithstanding, I can say with certainty that this particular problem has existed for decades within California. Speaking as a former newspaper publisher of Rumbo and business director of La Estrella En Casa, my own journalists belonged to NAHJ, and I have been an active member of NAHP. Once the invite was issued, the deal was done. The retraction completely compromised your objectivity, and has now subject any decision you make in the future to the pesky ancillary questions that constantly bring the entire organization's credibility in doubt. California is mired in problems that has sunk its own legislature's credibility into a pit. That the NAHJ chose to cave in to its bullying brought it, as well, into that pit, under the most insidious conditions imaginable for a journalistic organization. I've had my disagreements with Ruben Navarette's columns in the past, but I join him in this one. It's a real shame.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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