Jim Simon left KNBC last January to take a job in the Chicago bureau of NBC News. He changed his on-air last name more than 20 years ago to Avila because, he says, he was named after his father, a former broadcast executive, and the broadcast union does not allow two members to share the same name. He identifies himself as a Mexican American and says Avila was his mother's maiden name.
Simon, 40, acknowledges industry tension over the ethnic name issue. "At what point are you a minority or not a minority?" he says. "Federal guidelines say I am a minority. I was born on Downey Road in East L.A." When asked whether he thinks using an ethnic last name has helped his career, he replies, "I don't think it's hurt any."
At the same time, though, he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as "a minority reporter." "I want to someday cover the White House," says Simon. "I don't want to have to go to the 'taco beat.' "
Yet other journalists have changed their names at least partly to gain credibility in minority communities they cover. At KTVL in Medford, Cathy Warren was assigned to cover stories affecting the Latino community.
"There are not many Hispanics in Medford, but there were some, and no reporters could get through to them to do interviews," Warren says. So, at a news director's suggestion, she borrowed her mother's maiden name and began using the hyphenated "Warren-Garcia." Later she dropped the original surname completely and became known on-air as Cathy Garcia.
She agrees with Simon and others that name-switching can be a career asset.
"I think it helps in the very first stage of a job search, getting a news director to see your [audition] tape," says Warren, now a reporter at CBS affiliate KDBC-TV in El Paso.
Gary Gabriel, a reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 in Los Angeles, says he was aware that some colleagues had attacked him for switching to a Latino last name. But his situation is unique, he says.
"I took my mother's maiden name when I was in high school" due to private family problems, Gabriel says. "And this rumor has cropped up ever since then that I changed it when I got into the business. But I changed it years before I got into the business.
"It's a very sore, sensitive subject with me," he says. "You have a lot of people in this business, maybe this town, who change [their names] for cosmetic reasons, because it's hard to pronounce, whatever. But I wasn't in that category."
Cheryl Fair, news director at KABC-TV, declined to comment on Gabriel's situation or in general about the subject of name-changing.
Mendoza, of the Chicano News Media Assn., says that news directors could discourage facile name-changing by asking tough questions that would separate legitimate minority reporters from mere climbers: Are you bilingual? Do you consider yourself at ease in both Anglo and Latino cultures? "They should at least try to verify," Mendoza argues, that reporters have some connection to the community from which they supposedly hail.
But news directors, who usually encourage reporters to chase down every lead in pursuit of a story, often shy away from thoroughly investigating the subject of minority hiring. Many say they are content to take a job applicant's name at face value. "I'm not going to ask someone whether they're bicultural or bilingual," KNBC's Lord says. "Such issues are very difficult for me to assess. Is one Hispanic employee more qualified than another because they're bilingual?"
But without a system of checks and balances, clever job applicants who know the ins and outs of minority hiring can profit greatly. Just ask David Johnston, a.k.a. Ono. Since the name switch, his career has been on an unmistakable upswing, with offers from at least two networks and stations in Los Angeles and elsewhere. "I gladly would have taken [those jobs]," he says, but his contract in Sacramento runs through July 1997.
"I don't regret changing my name," says Johnston, whose resume reads "David Ono Johnston." Prospective employers take it in stride, he says. "They don't really say anything about it. . . . To them, it's no big deal."