As I get ready to celebrate my 25th year in journalism, let me introduce you to my tribe.
Journalists are much more comfortable covering a story than we are becoming the story. We would much rather ask tough questions than answer them. We should know better than to get cozy with politicians, but somehow we still make that mistake -- perhaps because we play in the same sandbox. And, while we make a living telling people what to do, we don’t like it when others tell us what we’re doing wrong.
Not everyone who calls himself a “journalist” merits the title. Everyone from bloggers to political strategists to radio talk show hosts, it seems, wants to borrow the credibility that comes with being considered journalists. Yet, even some card-carrying journalists aren’t cut out for this type of work. They want to be popular and avoid conflict, which is hard to do in this line of work.
The Fourth Estate should be viewed by the powerful as a first rate pain in the ass. That’s the job. We comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. When journos forget what role they’re supposed to play, things go haywire. Just look what happened to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) earlier this year at its annual conference in Anaheim, CA, an event attended by about 1400 people.
Founded in 1982 by a small band of reporters and editors, the organization was intended as a professional support group that would also arm-twist media companies into hiring Hispanic journalists and providing better coverage of the Hispanic community. I’ve been a member of the organization, on and off, since 1990. Many people go to these gatherings in the hopes of snagging a job from a representative of one of the many media companies that commonly attend these events. Others go simply to see old friends.
For years, the NAHJ has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from media companies---the New York Times, Gannett, ABC News, etc. ---to fund its events. And 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. That’s not a coincidence.
More recently, the organization has partnered with celebrities to draw attention. In Anaheim, a panel on Latinos and voting was moderated by---tongue planted in cheek---noted political expert Eva Longoria, who served as one of the honorary co-chairs of the Obama-Biden reelection campaign. Longoria is also an outspoken proponent of the rights of immigrants, nearly 2 million of whom have been deported by this administration since Barack Obama took office. Other people on that panel included Voto Latino Executive Director Maria Teresa Kumar, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, and California Assembly Speaker John Perez.
By the way, speaking of afflicting the comfortable, they don’t come much more comfortable than Perez, the Democratic Speaker of the California Assembly. He is the undisputed King of the Mountain in the legislature in the most populous state in the nation. Now that Democrats have a supermajority in both houses of the California legislature, and don’t need a single Republican vote to pass anything, the majority party gets what it wants. And so does Perez. During the NAHJ conference, what Perez wanted was someone gone, off the program, and out of the building. Adios.
That someone was Hector Barajas, a Sacramento-based political strategist and former communications director for the California Senate Republicans, whom the NAHJ had invited to sit on a panel discussing the ups and downs of Latino political power. The invitation came from Gadi Schwartz, a reporter at KNBC-Channel 4 in Los Angeles and the NAHJ member tasked with organizing the panel moderated by Longoria.
Born in East Los Angeles and raised by undocumented immigrant parents, Barajas is a rising star in the GOP. The 41-year-old has an interesting perspective that he often shares as a political analyst on both English- and Spanish-language television. He thinks that the GOP has a winning message for Latinos, but that it’ll never get it across as long as Republicans keep fumbling the immigration issue. He also thinks that Latinos are hurt by being written off by one party, and taken for granted by another.
As for his fellow Republicans, he believes that they’re wrong to assume Latinos get all their news in Spanish and that they’re a lost cause politically because they will always vote Democratic. He also bristles whenever he hears someone in his party say that it was a “mistake” for President Ronald Reagan to sign the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave amnesty to more than 3 million people---including Barajas’ parents.
Eager to share those messages, Barajas and his wife flew to Anaheim and checked into the hotel room provided them by organizers of the conference. In his remarks, Barajas intended to stress three themes: Latinos need to work with both Republicans and Democrats; they need to study the issues so they can be informed voters; and they need to hold elected officials accountable---especially those Latino officials who profess to represent them.
He never got the chance. You see, white males can disagree all day long, and still go out for a beer. Latinos aren’t like that. When we disagree with one of our own, it gets real personal, and soon it’s all out war. And, when it came to the war over the NAHJ panel, the person determined to win was the King of the Mountain. According to sources, Barajas’ appearance was effectively vetoed by Perez.
Schwartz told me that the day before the event, Perez called him to complain about Barajas being on the panel and insisted that he not participate. “He was upset,” said Schwartz. “He said he didn’t want to debate a staffer.”
Perez spokesman Steve Maviglio framed it somewhat differently: “The speaker saw the program and it said this panel was for Latino elected officials. And he was curious why that wasn’t the case.”
Again, this wasn’t a debate between two people with opposing views but a forum that featured a number of people with different views. A career politician should know the difference. And neither Kumar nor Longoria are elected officials. But Schwartz stood his ground. So Perez went over his head and called someone in the leadership of the organization, who gave in and ordered Schwartz to tell Barajas that he was off the panel. Schwartz finally gave in and did as he was told, but he told me that he isn’t happy with how it all unfolded. “I didn’t think it was going to turn into a sideshow,” he said.
Actually, given what is supposed to be the watchdog relationship between journalists and politicos, it’s much worse than that. A sideshow is simply a distraction. What happened in Anaheim was damaging---to the journalism profession, to the integrity of Hispanic journalists in particular, and certainly to the reputation of NAHJ.
“The thing that bothers me is that they allowed a politician to dictate who sits on a panel and who doesn’t at their own conference,” said Barajas. “That diminishes the organization. I know that many of these journalists, especially those in Spanish-language media, worry that they’re always being looked down on by mainstream media. This doesn’t help.”
He will get no argument from Maria Elena Alvarez, a veteran journalist who has been in the business for over 30 years and was the founding editor of HISPANIC Magazine. In fact, her family has been in this business for three generations. For Alvarez, this story has its roots in the new media culture where the very term “journalist” has been cheapened.
“Right now, anyone with a pen and a computer is a journalist,” she told me. “Ordinary citizens are covering world events, and what they capture on their cell phones is show cased by CNN and other major networks. And even those of who are real journalists, they’re giving it up for free. They write for free, blog for free. It’s about trying to get people to listen to you and develop your own following. Journalism has moved into the public arena, and it’s a new world.”
As one of the first generation of Hispanic journalists to belong to NAHJ -- from the mid-1980’s into the 1990’s---and a former treasurer and board member, Alvarez laments what has become of the organization. “In its current incarnation, it has very little value,” she said. “Because of its shrinking membership, and lack of professional engagement, it is no longer serving the interests of the profession.”
But did the organization ever really do that? To answer this question, it helps to look back at why this group came together. “The origin was a need for Hispanic support group,” Alvarez recalled. “It was a trade association, and a place where people could network with one another. You went to these conferences to hone your skills, to get a job, and to socialize. This was a place to be seen.”
Apparently, as with many Hispanic organizations, money was always a problem. “You needed large media groups to support this organization, and the companies needed to show their support,” Alvarez said. As the group’s financial troubles grew, they became even more protective of the sponsors they still had---and reluctant to make them angry or disappoint them in any way. And when you’re supposed to be about advocacy---as concerned with raising hell as raising funds---that’s not an easy line to walk.
“This is an organization that started out of the Hispanic civil rights movement,” Alvarez noted. “We go to college. We become reporters, get jobs, get off our knees. We created NAHJ, and there is still a movement mentality. It’s all about: ‘We gotta fight The Man.’ But, in time, talent rises, so we move up the food chain. Eventually, every major newspaper had some Latino talent on staff. You have kids, a mortgage payment...”
I get it. You wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and realize that you are The Man. Or at least, you’re on a first name basis with him.“The organization no longer provides advocacy, or pushes for diversity in the newsroom,” she said. “No one does. Who talks about that in 2013?”
Finally, I asked Alvarez if Latino journalists could ever make NAHJ relevant again? How can the organization declare its independence from media companies that control it and politicos who bully it?
“Journalism is not relevant to the new world,” she said. “And it’s same with NAHJ, which is not relevant to the new world marketplace. They would need to take on a mission to empower individuals that wanted to infiltrate the system and buy their own radio and TV stations, newspapers. Our job used to be to just get in the building. Now, our job is to become the publishers and owners.”
For now, the leaders of NAHJ aren’t trying to climb to the top. They’re too busy trying to run for cover. When I contacted NAHJ President Hugo Balta, who works as a producer at ESPN, and asked him about what happened in Anaheim, he 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 into his cell phone: “You’re harassing me! I’m hanging up now!” And he did.
A couple of days later, he called me back, and, in a calmer voice, admitted that -- in politic speak -- mistakes were made. He said he took responsibility, but he wouldn’t admit that anyone did anything wrong. So what was he taking responsibility for? It was all vague. There were no specifics. So it wasn’t of much use.
And after I wrote a column on the debacle, and criticizing NAHJ’s leadership for how it handled it, Balta accused me of practicing “pompous journalism.” I had to remind myself that this was someone who calls himself a journalist, but who seems to have strayed from the principles and practices that form the underpinnings of the profession.
It’s a shame about the NAHJ. In five years, its leaders will be working for a corporation, or serving as a flak for a Democratic official, or doing public relations. It’ll be a short walk.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a CNN contributor, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, and the author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano (Bantam, 1993). You can reach him at www.rubennavarrette.com