There’s a line making the rounds in a lot of Latino journalistic circles about this presidential campaign. It goes something like this: ‘If you want to see a Latino journalist or Latino talking head on one of the Sunday shows or on one of the other political shows on cable, you’ll have to look on the side of a milk carton.’ With few exceptions, Latinos, while not entirely missing are more often than not, nowhere to be found in these venues, neither on the networks or CNN, MSNBC, or even Fox.
“Unfortunately, it’s still a mostly white industry with a few African Americans,” as part of the mix, said Professor Gabriel Sanchez. Sanchez was speaking of the political gabfests that abound on network or cable television this presidential campaign season. Sanchez, who teaches political science at the University of New Mexico, is also a partner with Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based Latino political polling and research firm founded by Drs. Matt Barreto and Gary Segura. Latino Decisions conducted polling and focus groups on Latino voters for the Hillary Clinton campaign.
While it would be easy to say network and cable political television are often guilty of omitting the faces and voices of the nation’s fastest growing and largest ethnic voting bloc in 2020, Sanchez argues that it’s a bit more complicated than that. “The Latino population is not monolithic,” said Sanchez. The Latino community is made up of people from 22 nations of origin, “all with different perspectives,” he said. “Sometimes that diversity dilutes power.” Cuban Americans, for example, are usually a more conservative and predictable voting bloc.
Too often, said Sanchez, networks and cable have been guilty of or are simply too lazy to widen their gaze. Like a sports team that relies on its star player to deliver the win, producers or bookers too often fail to see the talent on the bench and go with the familiar, recycling the same Latino voices rather than adding to the pool.
Latino political pundits getting regular or semi-regular face time on television include University of Texas Political Science Professor Victoria Maria de Francesco Soto and Voto Latinos’ Maria Teresa Kumar. New York University’s Dr. Christina Beltran also appears on an irregular basis as well as a handful of other Latino political pundits, but the numbers remain disproportionately low. Latino Decisions’ Barreto and Segura are periodically invited on but usually only when the topic is the Latino vote. Another regular Latino voice on CNN is conservative Steve Cortes, a Chicago businessman and Trump advisor.
The inclusion of these voices is obviously a good decision, said Sanchez but he decries television’s tunnel vision in extending invitations to appear only when the topic is ethnic politics.
Sanchez said that television too often goes to the well with the ‘can’t find qualified candidates,’ excuse for its failure to regularly include a proportionate or even respectable number of Latino experts.
Taking it a step farther, veteran journalist and San Antonio Express-News columnist Elaine Ayala calls the ‘unqualified’ explanation inexcusable. “That reason is, at best, a refusal or discomfort to search for diverse talent; at worst, it’s racism.” It is wholly untrue, said Ayala, that there isn’t a pool of distinguished and qualified Latinos to speak thoughtfully on the myriad of topics other guests are regularly invited to talk about. Today’s excuses, she said, for these failures are “no different than it was 10, 20, 30 or more years ago.”
Former Denver Mayor and Cabinet Secretary Federico Peῆa, who has appeared on a number of the Sunday shows, says television bookers would do well to look at a calendar. “There are no more excuses,” he said. In 2020, “we have CEOs, elected officials at every level of government and Latino experts who have run campaigns and written books.” If the networks and cable are looking for qualified Latinos, “we’re qualified,” said Peña.
The irony of all white panels discussing the power of the Latino vote or the census and its immediate and long-term impact on government is simply puzzling to Ayala, Peῆa and Sanchez. The 2020 census will show a demographic change that was unthinkable just fifty years ago with burgeoning Latino populations today in states like Alabama, Arkansas and others across the deep south.
But there is also a very pragmatic importance to more fully open the door of television to more diverse panels when discussing political and social issues. Television remains a place that still provides news and information to millions of Americans every day. The last election, said Sanchez, proves that point in dramatic fashion.
Exit polling information shared by network and cable pundits in the 2016 Presidential election showed “30-35 percent (of Latinos) voted for Trump,” he said. “We had a fundamental disagreement. Our data showed (only) eighteen percent” voted for Trump. “National experts used bad data that Latinos supported him.” Very simply, said the UNM professor, “That was a lie. Non-experts talking about it leads to conclusions that are just flat out wrong.”
To suggest that networks and cable television are ignoring Latinos would be a vast oversimplification. Former Denver television journalist Anna Cabrera has a weekend show on CNN. MSNBC recently named Alicia Menendez as host of a weekend political show and ABC has Tom Llamas, a Cuban American, as anchor of its weekend new.
Latino representation on political television shows needs to increase, said Sanchez. There is no reason, he added, for a continuation of the pattern of, often, all-white or nearly all-white panel discussions when Latinos have become a bigger variable in all political equations. “All it takes is a Google search and you come across (Latino) experts.”