Hispanics and Television News Media: Standing on the Outside Looking In

As the immigration bill grinds its way through Congress, amnesty opponents have increasingly taken to the airwaves. Ann Coulter claims the United States will become Mexico. Media personalities like radio host Laura Ingraham have joined forces with more than 100 conservative groups to oppose the Senate bill. Numbers USA, one of the larger anti-immigration reform groups, just launched a 16-state TV and radio ad campaign.

Aided by social media, Latinos have become increasingly adept at responding to savvy media campaigns and provocateurs. Yet they have no national media champions to counter opponents' voices, and their basic mode of operation is reactive. Setting aside the once-in-a-generation issue of immigration, Latinos seldom create and drive their stories at the national level because they are excluded from the stages and backstages of mainstream media outlets.

True, Latinos have Jorge Ramos at Spanish-language Univision. But on primetime they have no Al Sharpton, no Joy Reid, no Donna Brazile, no Eugene Robinson, no Oprah Winfrey. Even though Latinos are 50 million strong and clearly decided the 2012 election, they are largely absent from the production, writing and telling of their stories.

Media Matters issued a diversity report that catalogued 1,677 guests on 13 evening cable news shows (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) during April 2013. White guest representation ranged from 73 to 83 percent, clearly above the national population of 72 percent. Latino guest representation did not exceed 3 percent, even though Latinos constitute 16 percent of the population.

The same pattern of exclusion can be observed in news industry staffing. Of the 239 regular anchors and reporters in ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, only 13 individuals, or 5 percent, could be classified as Latinos (meaning they have at least one Hispanic parent). These anchors and reporters include Miguel Almaguer, Diane Alvear, Jim Avila, Manuel Bojorquez, Gabe Gutierrez, Natalie Morales, Soledad O'Brien, John Quiñones, Geraldo Rivera, Elizabeth Vargas, Cecilia Vega, Juan Williams and Zoraida Zambolin. None of them works at MSNBC, the liberal counterweight to conservative Fox News.

In 2011, the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts (NHFA) issued a report showing that in a nine-month period, 380 guests and commentators participated in ABC's This Week, CBS's Face the Nation, FOX News Sunday, and NBC's Meet the Press. Only 12 of these guests and commentators were Hispanic. At the time, NHFA, along with the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and its member organizations, met with news executives to discuss Latino under-representation in network and cable news. While news management was receptive, their only response to date has been to branch out into the Latino market through media specialty outlets -- Fox News Latino, NBC Latino and ABC-Univision's Fusion.

There is no better way to illustrate the present-day disparity than to look back at the 2012 election. During the MSNBC Republican candidates' debate, Telemundo's Jose Diaz Balart popped out of nowhere to ask a single immigration question and was politely dismissed by Brian Williams, as one would do with the help, when he was done. It would have been more humiliating had it not been so shockingly comical, especially in a year when the Latino vote was so crucial to the outcome.

Paradoxically, one of the most revealing news events in the entire campaign was Univision's forum with President Obama, which came about after Jorge Ramos criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates for not including a Latino moderator in the debates. In the forum, Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas asked President Obama hardball questions, such as why Obama had broken his promise on immigration reform and whether his decision to halt some deportations was politically motivated.

At present, the news media industry is pursuing a strategy of separate but equal, providing quality media products through alternative venues. This is not a bad strategy in that it allows for a high degree of ethnic specialization. Yet it shortchanges both Hispanic and non-Hispanic audiences in that it reduces the overall level and quality of information that is made available to them. Furthermore, it restricts Hispanic influence and employment to Latino markets and impedes their entry into mainstream media outlets.

Hispanics are right to demand respect and accurate information from their media sources; but unless they demand greater participation and visibility in the news media industry, they will continue to sit on the sidelines for the rest of their TV-watching, radio-hearing, news-reading days.