MSNBC President Phil Griffin Promises Change for Latinos

Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, speaks at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in August, 2014.

Rick Jervis/USA Today

Griffin Pledges That Show Hosts Will Meet With Hispanics

A contrite Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, apologized again Friday for a May Cinco de Mayo skit on his network that Hispanics found offensive, and he agreed with a wide-ranging list of complaints from Latino journalists.

Those concerns included the need for more Latinos behind the scenes and on the air, objections to having to tone down Spanish accents and pronunciations, and the inclusion of Afro-Latinos along with their lighter-skinned brethren.

"It's important. We want to lead the way" on diversity, Griffin told attendees Friday at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in San Antonio's Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, a centerpiece of the city's celebrated River Walk area downtown.

"A cultural change" must take place at the network, Griffin said. "We've got to be honest."

Griffin agreed to hold a session between the hosts of MSNBC programs and Latino experts on issues of the day and meetings with potential Hispanic on-air talent. Both were suggestions from Alex Nogales, a diversity watchdog who leads the National Hispanic Media Coalition and shared the stage with Griffin.

"I think we should do it regularly," Griffin quickly said of the proposed meetings.

The network president told NAHJ members who lobbed questions at him from the audience, "I agree with everything that's been said at this microphone."

He made continual references to the idea that "the world is changing" and that "the forces of history" require changes in attitudes.

NAHJ leaders, who by Thursday had gathered about 850 registrants for their 30th anniversary convention, according to President Hugo Balta, were impressed.

"We invited all of the heads of the networks," Balta told Journal-isms. "Phil quickly agreed. He was the only one to show up, and they were not in the hot seats."

Craig Robinson, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal, said he warned Griffin that he would face sharp questioning but that Griffin wanted to appear anyway.

Mekahlo Medina, NAHJ's vice president for broadcast and the sole candidate for NAHJ president, to be elected Saturday, said that "to take on a group of 500 or 600 Latino journalists who had issues with all the media and really talk about it . . . no other executive would be up there today but Phil."

Griffin opened his luncheon remarks by saying, "I apologize to everybody in this room for what took place on May 5" and said its ramifications had been felt in every corner of NBC headquarters "at 30 Rock," or 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan.

On May 5, an interlude on MSNBC's "Way Too Early" show, featuring correspondent Louis Burgdorf and host Thomas Roberts, showed Burgdorf onscreen wearing a sombrero, shaking maracas and taking a swig from a bottle of tequila. The holiday marks an 1862 battle victory by Mexican troops against the French and is celebrated in the United States with parades and revelry.

The hosts subsequently apologized, and Griffin said Friday, "When I walk by a Mexican restaurant, I get nervous."

Griffin went on to praise the network's coverage of voting rights issues as being ahead of the competition and said the network's addition of Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart to the network's weekday lineup has changed "the entire environment" because he is not restricted to Hispanic issues.

Díaz-Balart anchors MSNBC's 10 a.m. hour live from Miami, but as Nogales noted, continues to co-anchor Telemundo's "Noticiero Telemundo" and host "Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart."

"The challenge is to get beyond Jose," particularly by installing a Latino anchor, Nogales said.

Griffin agreed, saying, "We've got to build 'em." Growing Latino talent is the only way to change the culture inside the network and project a more diverse image, he said.

A Díaz-Balart interview in Spanish with a teenage Guatemalan refugee in real time "was one of the most powerful things" Griffin said he had seen on the network. "We should have done this years ago. He's part of the family now," he said of Díaz-Balart.

The network trails Fox News Channel and CNN in the ratings. It is working with its Telemundo sibling on a series about children of the DREAM Act after its successful documentary "Underwater Dreams," which aired in July.

Griffin counted among his top advisers Yvette M. Miley, vice president and executive editor, who is African American, and Chris Peña, senior executive producer, who is Hispanic.

Nogales said catering to Hispanics had progressed from "the right thing to do" to a business imperative. He said of Griffin from the stage, "He doesn't have everybody aboard, but at least he's not fighting us."

NAHJ members challenged Griffin with their own concerns. One questioned whether the diversity among Hispanics, with their various countries of origin, would be addressed. Griffin said the network thrived on personality-driven anchors, "and that's the way the business is moving." Rachel Maddow, for example, hosts MSNBC's top show, and "I never asked her to change a thing. I didn't ask for a lesbian who dressed in T-shirts." Al Sharpton presents himself "his own way." Nogales used the opening to note that Maddow rarely has people of color on her show.

Daisy Gonzalez, a Mexican-American NAHJ member who works with a set-design firm, said she had family members who look "indigenous" and wondered why more people with their complexions were not on the air. So did Annette Raveneau, a Panamanian-American who said she could name only three Afro-Latinos on English- or Spanish-language television. Adrian Ramirez of the Rivard Report, a San Antonio online magazine, asked why he saw so little about the killings of indigenous people in South America, which he told Journal-isms he learned about from Al Jazeera.

Griffin told Ramirez that the networks have "so much more European and Asian coverage. We've got to change that," and that "we're behind" in covering Central and South America. "The forces of history are going to overwhelm what's going on. I want to embrace this change. We've got to," he repeaed.

Latinos-as-White Stories Called Damaging as Well as Wrong

A May story on the New York Times website that asserted that more Latinos are considering themselves white riled some Latino journalists so much that a panel on the subject took place Friday at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in San Antonio.

It wasn't simply discussed. Signs with a range of Latino faces and the hashtag "#What Latinos Look Like" were placed around the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

The panel's consensus: Stories about Latinos and race require a level of nuance and understanding too great to be left to reporters with no background in the subject. And if mishandled, the results can be damaging.

"I cringed, but I knew exactly how it got there," veteran journalist Ray Suarez, now a host on Al Jazeera America, said from the audience about the Times piece. "Nobody should have been surprised."

Placards at San Antonio's Henry E. Gonzalez Convention Center are labeled, "##What Latinos Look Like.

The original item was by Nate Cohn for the Upshot, a Times blog on demographics. Its editor, David Leonhardt, former Times Washington bureau chief, has stood by the story but the Times did not respond to an invitation to appear in San Antonio, according to panel organizer Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of the Latino Rebels website. The item gained traction as Cohn returned to the subject in a subsequent posting and the idea was picked up on television.

The researchers whose preliminary work was cited by Cohn wrote their own report this week on the U.S. Census Bureau website.

"We wonder if Cohn will take back his initial reporting?" Varela wrote Wednesday on Latino Rebels, pointing to the researchers' latest work. "He clearly only reported one part of the study and made some incredibly sweeping generalizations that never made sense to us."

No sense and damaging, panelists said. "Latinos are a multiracial identity. It's as simple as that," Roque Planas, the editor of HuffPost LatinoVoices who describes himself as a white Hispanic, said in his opening remarks. "There is no mestizo box, no mulatto box in the census. . . . The questions are confusing."

Racial categories in the United States are not the same as in Latin America, said Blanca E. Vega, director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at Marymount Manhattan College. Her family is from Ecuador, and she said she had mostly African but also Native roots.

"In the United States, a different process of racialization occurs," Vega said. That process accelerated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the racial profiling that resulted, she said.

Yvonne Latty, an NAHJ board member whose parents are Dominican and Jamaican, said it was difficult for her to discuss the subject without emotion.

"I felt, 'here we go again,' " she said. The study was saying "you, too, can still live the American dream, like the Irish and the Italians, but if you're black, you're the minority again. This was very, very divisive. In my childhood in New York City, all the Puerto Ricans and the Dominicans wanted to be white. I was always (considered) ugly, and it hurt. The first time I was called a nigger was by Puerto Ricans. . . . The voices of Afro-Latinos, I don't feel like we're heard. We're not seen."

Planas said, "We have a problem of racism within the Latino community that nobody talks about."

Latty, a journalism professor at New York University, later led her own discussion of Afro-Latinos in a corner of the convention's job fair. Her list of Latino groups that needed more black participation included NAHJ. "If you show more diversity within the organization, it makes people want to join who are black," she said.

Mekahlo Medina, who is running unopposed for NAHJ president, told Journal-isms that he agreed with Latty that NAHJ could be more diverse.

Vega advocated more conversation among journalists, educators and politicians. She said the Times piece follows a troubling media narrative.

First, she said, it was, "Watch out, the Latinos are coming." "Then, watch out, black folks, Latinos are going to pass you now." "Now we have, wait a minute, Latinos are going white, if you can't beat 'em join 'em.

"They scare the hell out of the population."

Latty urged journalists to "be bold" and speak out against such representations. Planas said his social media campaign on the Times' pieces "was hands down the best thing we've ever done."

"We're in a world where it's OK to say as a journalist, 'This is what matters to us,' " Varela said.

Melanie Balakit, Latino Reporter: NAHJ and NABJ Agree to Convention as Unity Mulls Decision

Barnett Named Executive Editor of Whitlock's ESPN Site

"ESPN Digital & Print Media today announced that award-winning journalist Amy DuBois Barnett will join ESPN as Executive Editor of Jason Whitlock’s upcoming site that will provide coverage, commentary and insight about sports and culture directed [toward] an African-American audience," the sports network announced on Thursday.

"In this role, Barnett will manage editorial operations for the site. She will report to Whitlock, founder and Editor-in-Chief.

“ 'Amy’s impressive resume across a wide range of publications and brands, as well as her leadership experience, will ensure that the site will be at the forefront of news and commentary relevant to African-Americans,' said Whitlock.

" 'Together, we aim to serve audiences with quality and innovative journalism when the site debuts.'

“We continue to attract highly-acclaimed editors that bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the ESPN Digital & Print Media team, and Amy is a prime example,” added Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director, ESPN Digital & Print Media. 'She and Jason are building a tremendous team that will speak to, entertain, inform and serve African-American audiences about sports and culture.'

"Most recently, Barnett was Editor-in-Chief of Ebony, the oldest and largest African-American magazine in the country. At Ebony, Barnett executed the publication's first top-to-bottom redesign in its 68-year history and also re-launched Ebony.com, both to critical acclaim. . . ."

Robert Lipsyte, the ESPN ombudsman, wrote of the Whitlock site last month, "If the new moon rises and fulfills the expectations of ESPN president John Skipper, its most prominent champion, it will have the potential of becoming the media empire’s signal social achievement.

"The rewards for success are enormous, for ESPN, Whitlock, the staff and the audience. It is also the riskiest of the affinity sites. Race is America's greatest historical problem and its deepest divide. Sports, paradoxically, is the area of greatest visible progress in racial equality as well as greatest hypocrisy. To open a meaningful, ongoing discussion while giving opportunities to a new generation of journalists of color would be an incalculable contribution, well beyond sports.

" 'We want to be a birthplace for careers,' says Skipper, who added: 'It's also a commercial move. African-Americans believe ESPN is their TV network, but they are more ambivalent about ESPN.com as their site. We want to be the place to go when the community wants some conversation about Jay Z becoming an agent, about the racial aspects of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. African-Americans are big sports fans, and we want that audience.' . . ."

ESPN Suspends Le Batard Over Billboard Mocking LeBron

"ESPN television and radio host Dan Le Batard was suspended for two days after he paid for billboards in Cleveland that mockingly read 'You’re Welcome LeBron; Love, Miami' and displayed the two title rings he won with the Heat," Chris Chase wrote Thursday for USA Today.

"The billboards were a sly reference to James’ famed letter to Cleveland, which seemed to thank everybody except for Miami fans and their four years of support. The top line was written in Comic Sans, of course.

"The network released a statement about the suspension on Thursday.

" 'Dan LeBatard will be off the air for two days, returning Monday. His recent stunt does not reflect ESPN's standards and brand. Additionally, we were not made aware of his plans in advance.'

"Le Batard had been joking for weeks about playfully sabotaging LeBron's big welcome home rally in Akron. At first, he debated taking out a full-page newspaper ad. Then, he researched the costs of pulling a banner with an airplane. Finally, he and his show took out the billboards. . . ."

John Harper, Northeast Ohio Media Group: 'You're Welcome, LeBron,' reads billboard purchased by Miami radio host

Jason McIntyre, the Big Lead: Dan Le Batard Suspended Two Days by ESPN for Buying 'You're Welcome LeBron' Billboard [UPDATE]

Follow Richard Prince on Twitter.

Facebook users: Like “Richard Prince’s Journal-isms” on Facebook.

Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (mije.org). Reprinted on The Root by permission.

Follow Richard Prince on Twitter.

Facebook users: Like “Richard Prince’s Journal-isms” on Facebook.

Journal-isms is published on the site of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (mije.org). Reprinted on The Root by permission.