Marco Rubio Attacks Univision
MIAMI, FL & SANTA FE, NM (By Arian Campo-Flores, WSJ) October 10, 2011 ― Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, has been hailed in the GOP as someone who could draw more Hispanics to the party. Yet an escalating dispute between him and Univision, the largest Spanish-language television network in the country, could complicate the GOP's efforts to reach out to Latinos.
The spat stems from an allegation, reported in the Miami Herald last week but denied by the network, that it offered to soften or kill a July 11 report about Mr. Rubio's brother-in-law, who was convicted for marijuana and cocaine trafficking in 1989, if the senator appeared on its Sunday news program "Al Punto," where he would likely face questions about his anti-immigration stances.
In response to the allegation, three political allies of Mr. Rubio's accused Univision of attempting to "extort" the senator. They called for the Republican presidential contenders to boycott a planned GOP debate on the network on Jan. 29 — two days before the new Florida primary date announced by state officials a week ago.
All of the leading candidates quickly complied, saying they would only agree to the debate if Univision remedied the situation. Demands for redress from the candidates were general in nature, like those from Gov. Rick Perry's campaign demanding Univision "take action to correct" what it calls an "ethical breach." Mr. Rubio's political allies, such as U.S. Rep. David Rivera (R., Fla.), State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and Erik Fresen, chair of the Miami-Dade GOP, issued more specific demands for relief, including requiring an apology from Univision and the firing of the president of the network's news operation.
Republicans like Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said the episode has served as a catalyst for the party's longstanding complaints some Univision anchors, principally Jorge Ramos, display liberal bias and unfairly attack GOP positions on illegal immigration. Mr. Aguilar said the GOP candidates "are using this to vent frustration against Univision."
Univision spokesperson Monica Talan said the network brings "all perspectives on all issues to our audiences."
Other Republicans question the wisdom of taking on Univision, which has a larger audience than all of its competitors combined.
"The Republican party needs to reach out to the Hispanic community," said a former George W. Bush administration official, who requested anonymity. "I don't think this is the way to do it."
Asked about the dust-up at a forum last week, Mr. Rubio declined to comment. A spokesman for the senator also declined to address the matter.
At the heart of the fight is Univision's report on the drug conviction of Orlando Cicilia, who is married to Mr. Rubio's sister, Barbara Rubio.
Mr. Cicilia was sentenced to 25 years in prison and released early, in 2000. He remains married to Mr. Rubio's sister.
The senator, who was a teenager at the time, was in no way implicated in the case.
No one disputes the facts of the story.
In a letter objecting to the piece, Mr. Rubio's staff noted "when Sen. Rubio's sister's husband was a younger man 25 years ago, it is a fact he made many mistakes." Mr. Rubio considered the Univision piece to be an intrusion into his family's private life.
His staff, as well as a friend — Republican fund-raiser Ana Navarro — sought to kill the piece by appealing to Univision executives.
"It's not fair game to drag his extended family through the mud for an event that took place a quarter-century ago and has no relevancy to his public life," Ms. Navarro said she argued. Univision responded to Ms. Navarro's question of relevancy by stating Mr. Rubio is a public figure, which justified running the piece.
According to all parties involved, when efforts to block the airing failed, both sides arranged a July 7 conference call. Mr. Rubio was represented by Alex Burgos, his communications director, and Todd Harris, an adviser. On the Univision side were four members of the news division — including Isaac Lee, president of news — and two in-house lawyers.
According to the Herald story, Messrs. Burgos and Harris told the Herald Mr. Lee suggested on the call the story could be dropped if Mr. Rubio agreed to an interview on "Al Punto." "While there are no guarantees, your understanding of the proposal is fair," they alleged Mr. Lee said, according the Herald story.
In interviews with The Wall Street Journal, four Univision participants on the call deny such an offer was made.
They say Mr. Lee did offer for Mr. Rubio to appear on "Al Punto" or another program to discuss the matter of Mr. Cicilia, as well as other issues. They say Mr. Harris asked if the subject of Mr. Cicilia would be dropped if Mr. Rubio agreed to the appearance — to which Mr. Lee responded he could make "no guarantees" about what would or wouldn't be asked. Mr. Rubio never appeared on the Univision programs.
The four participants say even if Mr. Lee had wanted to offer a quid pro quo, why would he do so on a call with two company lawyers? "You would have to be plain stupid," said one of the participants, who, along with the others, requested anonymity. They also note in a lengthy letter Mr. Burgos wrote the day after the call, outlining numerous objections to the Cicilia piece, he made no mention of an alleged quid pro quo.
Roberto Suro, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, said if Hispanics perceive the GOP field is demonizing Univision, and by extension them, "it's the kind of thing that will drive down the Republican share of the Latino vote."
Ms. Navarro said the candidates could turn to other Spanish-language networks like Telemundo.