Naturally, not all the fallout from a scandal that saw a Telemundo reporter revealed as having an affair with the mayor of Los Angeles has been positive for the station. Just late last week, after concluding an investigation into its news department's handling of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's marital troubles, Telemundo's KVEA-TV in Los Angeles suspended without pay the reporter in question, Mirthala Salinas.
In a statement, Telemundo President Don Browne said he'd determined, after an investigation conducted with the help of the Poynter Institute, that "while the content and accuracy of KVEA's newscasts were not compromised, our news policy standards with respect to conflict of interest were clearly violated."
Also reprimanded were KVEA General Manager Manuel Abud, who was reassigned to another position, and News Director Al Corral, who was suspended for two months without pay.
But while the story may have damaged the station's credibility and put serious dents in a couple of careers, it didn't exactly hurt ratings. Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, CEO and principal of Los Angeles-based Enlace Communications, said: "Are you kidding? It actually helped the ratings. I think even non-Hispanics tuned in just to find out what was going on."
According to a report from Los Angeles Business Journal based on numbers from the Nielsen Hispanic Station Index, Telemundo affiliate KVEA saw its 11 p.m. news numbers skyrocket to more than 200,000 viewers the night news of the scandal broke. That put it within striking distance of leading L.A. Spanish broadcaster Univision KMEX-TV's 237,000.
The ratings spike lasted a number of days -- exactly until management took Ms. Salinas off the air.
That isn't exactly a surprise, considering the scandalous nature of the events. Local English-language media rushed to cover the juicy details, searching everywhere for additional facts to spice up a story that already featured a high-profile politician, a young reporter, an angry mother-in-law and a powerful TV broadcaster. Some media outlets even brought up the so-called "Latino macho culture" in talking about the mayor's latest pecadillo. "Are Villaraigosa, Nuñez and Padilla playing a game of ¿Quien es mas macho?," wrote the Los Angeles Times' Steve Lopez in a July 6 article titled "City Hall Saga Put Telenovelas to Shame."
Analogy draws fire
Even the telenovela analogy many media outlets used drew criticism. "There has been a gratuitous injection of ethnicity in the [Villaraigosa-Salinas] coverage," said Gregory Rodriguez, an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times who wrote a critique about the English-language media coverage of the affair. "I know many politicians who have sex with people who are not their wives ... but in talking about them, the media have not used the telenovela metaphor."
Mr. Rodriguez, though, overlooked the fact that the Spanish-language media was doing the same thing. In fact, when news of the affair broke, Telemundo's main competitor, Univision, ran a several-page-long story on its website under the headline: "Villaraigosa y Salinas, un romance digno de una telenovela" ("Villaraigosa and Salinas, a telenovela-type romance"). Furthermore, the story was not categorized under the "news" or "politics" sections of the site but instead on the "famosos" (famous people) page; the accompanying "related articles" included a story about Brangelina and another about the much-talked-about new romance between Reggaeton star Don Omar and Univision weather reporter Jackie Guerrido.
The Villaraigosa-Salinas scandal was a hyper-local media affair, but it shed some light on how media-related scandals are covered by Hispanic media, where print, online, radio and TV personalities have a cozy relationships with the communities they cover, becoming sort of role models for the mostly unacculturated audiences they address.
Indeed, more than their mainstream counterparts, many Spanish-language TV anchors and radio personalities are covered and talked about just like any other celebrity; they often appear in gossip- or entertainment-themed publications as they date, get engaged, travel or write books. They are much more than just people reading the news.
This year's People en Español's "50 Most Beautiful People," for example, featured on its list some of the most prominent news anchors and TV personalities, including Univision's Bárbara Bermudo, Jackie Guerrido, Carmen Dominicci and her co-anchor/fiancé Fernando del Rincón, Giselle Blondet, and Marissa del Portillo, as well as Telemundo's Candela Ferro and Ilia Calderón. Also a fixture in Spanish-language gossip and celebrity magazines are Univision news anchors Maria Elena Salinas and Jorge Ramos, known to many as the country's most respected Spanish-language journalists.
"News anchors -- in both languages -- have become ... celebrities," said Frank Sotomayor, associate director of USC Annenberg´s Institute for Justice and Journalism and a former editor at the Los Angeles Times. As for Telemundo´s recent scandal, he considers it a serious violation of journalism ethics. He added: "The media have to be extremely careful to not become too cozy with the subjects it covers. And this goes beyond KVEA."