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Jorge Ramos's Long Game
On a Tuesday morning earlier this month, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., waited near a side entrance of the Tent City Jail, the open-air compound he operates in Phoenix. Several female inmates were lined up before him, hands behind their backs, ankles linked by chains. The women wore black-and-white-striped prison uniforms — the kind of throwbacks tourists don for photographs near Alcatraz — with the words "Sheriff's Inmate" on their backs. Arpaio wore a black suit, black shoes and a white shirt. He looked as if he had raided Johnny Cash's closet.
Arpaio, now 22 years into his controversial tenure in Maricopa County, has proclaimed himself "America's toughest sheriff"; he is surely its most media-savvy. That morning, he was outside to greet a film crew from the Miami headquarters of the Spanish-language network Univision. Later, while the cameras gathered scene-setting shots, Arpaio prompted the inmates to request signed copies of Tent City Jail's campy postcards. "Make sure I do sign your card," Arpaio told his chain gang. "It'll be worth something."
Around the corner from Arpaio, near a bright yellow sign that read "No Outlet," two producers and two cameramen huddled with the Univision anchorman Jorge Ramos, running through their pre-interview preparations. Cameras rolling. Microphone on. "I'm on TV," Ramos told me later. "I'm constantly thinking about performance and journalistic integrity." For him, one is no use without the other.
At 57, Ramos may be the most influential news anchor in the Americas. He has been awarded eight Emmys and has interviewed more than 60 presidents from almost every country in the two continents. For 29 years he has co-anchored Univision's flagship Spanish-language news broadcast, "Noticiero Univisión," which averages 1.9 million viewers and often grabs higher ratings than English-language newscasts in cities with large numbers of Latinos, like Phoenix. Ramos also hosts Univision's Sunday morning news program, "Al Punto," as well as an English-language news program, "America with Jorge Ramos" on Univision's sister network, Fusion. His interview with Arpaio would run on all three shows.
But most non-Spanish-speaking Americans probably know Ramos best as the journalist who was thrown out of Donald Trump's press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, in August. Ramos had tried to ask Trump — who had recently declared that "anchor babies" were not American citizens and that he would deport 11 million undocumented immigrants — about his immigration proposals. Trump told Ramos to sit down; Ramos refused. "I have the right to ask a question," he said. Trump shot back, "Go back to Univision," before signaling for a guard to remove Ramos from the room.
It was a remarkable exchange, and the optics of it weren't entirely accidental. Ramos arrived almost two hours early to grab a seat in the front row while his team set up two cameras: one to film Trump and one to film Ramos. Even before Trump entered the room, Ramos knew he would stand up when he asked his question. He'd studied Trump, he told me, and noticed that it was easier for Trump to silence reporters when they were sitting down. He also wanted to be equal to Trump, visually, and to be miked separately so that, for his audiences at least, his voice would be as loud as Trump's.
When I suggested that such preparations turned the news into a kind of contrived performance, Ramos countered that performance was very different from acting. Television news, he argued, can't be wholly improvised. Flights need to be booked. Press passes must be requested and approved. "TV doesn't happen," he said. "You produce TV." And if the cameras are not rolling, there is no story.
To prove his point, he cited the case of The Des Moines Register, the Iowa newspaper that was denied press credentials for at least one Trump campaign event after it published an editorial titled "Trump Should Pull the Plug on His Bloviating Side Show." "What's more important?" Ramos asked me: the ejection of one reporter or the exclusion of an entire newspaper? Yet for the average television viewer, The Des Moines Register incident might as well never have happened. It occurred off-camera.
Ramos wanted to ask Arpaio about the Department of Justice's recent finding that the Maricopa County Sheriff's office singled out Latinos for traffic stops (and thus, indirectly, for deportations), called Latino prisoners "wetbacks" and "Mexican bitches" and failed to adequately respond to allegations of sexual violence against female prisoners. Arpaio, for his part, seemed excited about the opportunity to argue with Ramos, announcing their interview on Twitter a week before it happened. "In fact, I was hoping all the media would come," Arpaio told me. "But he asked me not to do that." Arpaio had even tried to get Donald Trump to join the interview. (Trump declined.)
Here, in microcosm, was the new terrain of American immigration politics. Since the 1990s, Univision's domination of the Spanish-language broadcast market has made Ramos and his co-anchor, Maria Elena Salinas, figures of great interest for presidential campaigns. (In 2014, "Noticiero Unvisión" had more than twice the average daily audience as its closest competitor, Telemundo's "Noticiero Telemundo.") Politicians saw Ramos as a kind of emissary from that vague territory known as the Hispanic vote; acceding to an interview was a way of telegraphing that they took the concerns of Latinos seriously and valued their approval. But the advent of Trump, whose tirades about border-crossing rapists seem to have only improved his standing in the polls, has turned this relationship on its head. Now talking back to Ramos about "illegals" can be a politically valuable bit of theater, and it isn't bad press for Ramos, either. Watching the footage of Trump ejecting Ramos from the Dubuque press conference, my husband observed that the scenario could not have served each party better if they had agreed to a script. Ramos shone like a hero to his followers. Trump shone like a hero to his.
"I want to ask you a favor," Arpaio said to Ramos. "I know you're popular. You're a journalist. I respect you." They sat inside the open-air prison at a square picnic table shaded by a canvas tent. Around them, the cameramen adjusted angles and microphones in near-90-degree heat. "I want to go to Mexico," Arpaio said. "Can you get someone to welcome me?"
"They don't like me so much," Ramos replied.
"Really?" Arpaio said, surprised.
Once the tape was rolling, Ramos began with one of his signature polite, ferocious questions: "Last time we were here I told you that you were possibly one of the most despised and hated figures in the Hispanic community. Now clearly something has changed. Donald Trump has taken that place." Arpaio chuckled. "Eighty-two percent of Latinos have a negative opinion of Donald Trump, according to a CNN poll," Ramos went on. "Why do you think Latinos hate you and Donald Trump so much?"
"Well, first of all, I don't like the word 'hate,'" Arpaio replied slowly. "It has very serious connotations. Maybe disagree with me. I don't hate you. Some people hate you. They don't really come out and say it."
Afterward, both Ramos and Arpaio seemed surprised that, despite their profound disagreements, their conversation had been so civil. As we walked from Tent City to his rental car, Ramos said, "I thought he was going to be more aggressive."
The following day, Arpaio told me: "I'm a little disappointed he was so nice to me. ... I worry that he's getting to like me now. He'll ruin my reputation."
Jorge Gilberto Ramos Avalos grew up in Mexico City and arrived in the United States in 1983, at age 24, after his career as a journalist for Mexico's Televisa network came to an abrupt end. Ramos had reported a story about Mexican psychology that doubled as a critique of Mexico's authoritarian government, which at the time had been controlled exclusively by the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party for more than half a century. (Its rule would last another 17 years, a streak that once provoked the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to call Mexico the "perfect dictatorship.") Ramos's footage included interviews he did with the well-known dissident intellectuals Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska. When Televisa tried bowdlerizing the footage with a pro-government spin, he destroyed the tape and resigned, effectively blacklisting himself. Less than a year later, he sold his Volkswagen Beetle and moved to Los Angeles in hopes of restarting his career in the United States. In January 1984, he began working for a Los Angeles station, KMEX, affiliated with a Spanish-language network that would, a few years later, be rebranded as Univision.
Ramos's English was still so wobbly that he felt nervous about asking questions at press conferences, but his timing was impeccable. Two years earlier, Univision made its first national newscast out of its Miami affiliate, WLTV. Just months after Ramos moved to WLTV to host a morning show called "Mundo Latino," the staff of the national newscast resigned en masse to protest the hiring of a famous Mexican news anchor named Jacobo Zabludovsky who was known for his close ties to the Mexican government. Ultimately, Zabludovsky went back to Mexico for "personal reasons," leaving the network in urgent need of an evening news anchor. Ramos got the job. He was just 28 years old.
Ramos's professional ascent also coincided with the rise of Latinos as the most demographically significant minority group in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1980 there were 14.7 million Latinos in the United States. By 2013, that figure had more than tripled to 53.9 million. In 2010, Latinos passed African-Americans as the country's single largest minority. When he began working at KMEX, Ramos recalls in his memoir, "No Borders," the political power of Latinos "was almost nonexistent." By 2012, however, the Latino vote had become crucial to winning presidential elections, and Univision's influence rose with the demographic tide. When the network requested that a fourth presidential debate be held and carried exclusively on its network, in Spanish, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama quickly agreed to a compromise: two town-hall-style "forums" aired in September, a month before their English-language debates.
As the 2016 election approaches, Univision's parent company, Univision Communications, wants to expand its power beyond the Spanish-language market. It has already announced that Univision will hold a Republican candidates forum with The Washington Post sometime before March. But the main instrument of its ambitions is the company's fledgling English-language cable network and online-media startup, Fusion. A joint venture between Univision Communications and Disney/ABC that started in October 2013 — with Univision handling content and ABC handling distribution — Fusion hopes to attract a millennial audience. The network's lead news program is "America With Jorge Ramos." Ramos is so important to the strategy that for months after Fusion's start, he appeared every night on both "Noticiero Univisión" (in Spanish) and "America With Jorge Ramos" (in English), as well as on Sunday's "Al Punto" (in Spanish). He averaged 35 interviews a week in all. Since then, "America With Jorge Ramos" has scaled back to Tuesday nights, but Ramos told me that they are prepared to do more as Election Day nears.
Fusion's fate may be contingent on the network (and Ramos) being a real actor in 2016. This July, in preparation for its upcoming initial public offering, Univision Communications revealed that Fusion posted a net loss of $35 million in 2014. It has no distribution on Comcast or Time Warner Cable, which means it wasn't available in the Phoenix hotel in which Ramos spent the night before his interview with Arpaio. Fusion makes and airs documentaries — a strategy it plans to intensify in the coming months — but right now as a news organization, it is essentially an online start-up focused on social media and making headlines.
Dax Tejera, the executive producer of "America With Jorge Ramos," says that profit is not Fusion's top priority. "I've gone into meetings where my bosses have said, 'We want Fusion and the brand to be ubiquitous with the election,'" Tejera told me at a food court in the Houston airport, as he and Ramos traveled from Phoenix back to Miami. "They're not saying to me, 'We want to hit this target with the ratings, this target with the revenue stream,' which is the traditional speak in an established media organization. Ours is about awareness and brand identity and association." The idea, he said, tapping his upper arm, was for Fusion's fans to want to wear their viewership on their sleeve as "a badge brand."
Tejera pointed to Ramos's April interview with the Florida senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio as one of the best examples of how they are trying to drive the political conversation. Before the interview, they convened in Ramos's office to figure out the most visceral question they could ask about gay rights. They went with: "If someone in your family or your office happens to be gay and they invite you to their wedding, would you go?"
"It got all this attention," Tejera recalled. "It was the new litmus test of 2016. Nobody had asked it, and everybody started asking it. That's what we are always trying to do."
Among Republican Party eminences, the conventional wisdom following Romney's defeat was that the party's political future turned in no small part on embracing immigration reform. President George W. Bush supported the idea of reform in the 2000 and 2004 elections, as didSenator John McCain in 2008. After McCain's defeat that November, the Republican strategist Karl Rove argued in a Newsweek column charting a future course for the party that "an anti-Hispanic attitude is suicidal. As the party of Lincoln, Republicans have a moral obligation to make our case to Hispanics, blacks and Asian-Americans who share our values. Whether we see gains in 2010 depends on it."The interview was indicative of an effort to expand Ramos's franchise beyond his historical role as a tribune of Latinos' concerns and establish him as a more all-purpose newsmaker. In part, this strategy played upon Ramos's appeal to a fan base that finds him as attractive as, say, George Clooney. It also suggested an assumption that, after the 2012 election, immigration might not continue to be the political flashpoint that it had been throughout most of Ramos's career.
Instead, the party's gains in 2010 came thanks to the Tea Party movement, which took a hard line on immigration. During the 2012 Republican primary, Romney tacked to the right on the issue, opposing the amnesty-offering Dream Act and suggesting that immigrants "self-deport" in a January Republican debate. These statements haunted him in the general election, and after his defeat, the party went through another round of soul-searching. Writing days after the election, the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer argued that avoiding further electoral disaster "requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Use the word."
But since Trump's rise in the polls, Republican candidates have abruptly bolted in the opposite direction. The problem, Romney told Salinas after the 2014 mid-term elections, is that "the number of Latinos that vote in the Republican primary is quite small, and so in the long period of the primary, the people trying to get the Republican nomination are going to focus on those who they think will vote in that primary process," i.e., non-Hispanic white conservatives. So Bobby Jindal tweets that "we need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants." Jeb Bush defends the term "anchor babies." Marco Rubio, who once supported immigration reform, tells Fox News that he will not legalize undocumented immigrants during his presidency. And Rand Paul flees from a Dream Act supporter in Iowa, leaving half a hamburger on his plate.
"I had never expected that in 2015 we would get a candidate with such an anti-immigrant position," Ramos told me in talking about Trump. His own views on immigration have tacked in the opposite direction. In his 2000 book, "The Other Face of America," he argued for an amnesty similar to the one Ronald Reagan ushered through Congress in 1986, legalizing the status of more than three million people who had been working the United States since before 1982 and could prove that they were not guilty of any crimes. These days, Ramos says that undocumented immigrants must not only be legalized, they must be given a pathway to citizenship. He has evensuggested that the United States should consider the possibility of an open, European Union-style border with Mexico.
If such positions have led to accusations that Ramos is an activist, other facts make people wonder about Univision Communications's bias as well. Fusion's other major news anchor is Alicia Menendez, the daughter of the New Jersey Democratic senator Robert Menendez. One of Univision Communications's major stakeholders is the billionaire Haim Saban, a top donor to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Ramos's daughter, Paola, accepted a position with the Clinton campaign in June.
When she took the job, Ramos disclosed the event in a letter posted on the Fusion website. He told me that he and his daughter still speak to each other almost every day, but that their conversations about politics are now strictly limited. They won't discuss anything connected to his job or hers. That's almost everything, I pointed out. "It's almost everything," he agreed. What do they talk about instead? "Bah," he sighed. "Relationships, trips, family. That's much more important than politics."
Ramos toyed with the idea of running for a Senate seat as recently as 2002, when he mentioned the possibility in "No Borders." His most recent political book, "A Country for All" (2010), reads like a cross between a white paper and a stump speech. But when we spoke, he insisted that he no longer has any intention of running for any office. He has decided that he can have more impact as a journalist.
Was this simply politics by another means? I asked. "Well, as a journalist, I want to be relevant, no?" he said. "And I want to be a participant, a player, in the country where I'm living. And that's what I'm doing every single day."
Over the years, he said, he has developed a philosophy about what sorts of issues a journalist can appropriately advocate for: human rights and freedom of the press, for instance, and battles against corruption and dictatorships. Partisan politics, he said, falls outside of his territory. But Ramos is unapologetic about exhorting Latinos to exercise the political power they possess as a voting bloc. In "A Country for All," he argues that candidates can no longer expect to win the Hispanic vote "by simply saying a few words in Spanish, showing up at a press event with a politician who has a Latino surname." Now, he says, Democrats and Republicans alike must deliver concrete benefits to Latinos. A Supreme Court justice. Immigration reform.
On July 16, a month after Trump announced his candidacy, Ramos made ashort speech in Spanish on Univision's annual entertainment awards show "Premios Juventud." "We're going to talk about those who love us, but also about those who don't love us," he said. He pointed out, to huge applause, that more than four million Latinos have university degrees and more than one million have master's or doctorate degrees; that they are not narcos, rapists or otherwise criminals. "When they attack one of us, they are attacking all of us," he continued. "But we already know what we're going to do. ... On Election Day, we will remember who was with us and who was against us. No, we won't forget." He repeated the warning in English.
Ramos never named Donald Trump. He never told his audience to vote for Clinton or for Rubio. He simply said, "We will remember." That night, "Premios Juventud" was the top-ranked program on all broadcast television among viewers aged 12 to 34, beating ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
Whatever happens in 2016, Ramos told me, he believes that candidates who openly oppose Latino immigrants will be soon become relics. Trump? "We might read about him in history books, as the last one who tried to do something like that."
Marcela Valdes is a journalist specializing in Latin American culture.