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It Speaks Spanish, Not Republican

June 01, 2003|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

There are valid reasons to be dubious about the proposed merger that would make the 800-pound gorilla of Spanish-language TV, Univision, even bigger than it already is. All media mergers diminish, to some degree, diversity of information and opinion.

That said, congressional Democrats are unwisely focused on the weakest -- and most self-serving -- reason to sound the alarm about Univision's attempt to buy Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. HBC owns 65 Spanish-language radio stations, including some of the highest-rated outlets in Los Angeles.

Some key Democrats have asked the Federal Communications Commission to bar the sale of HBC's radio stations to Univision, which has 53 television stations, because the combined network would have a virtual monopoly on news aimed at thousands of newly naturalized American citizens of Latino descent. They fear Univision's notoriously secretive chairman, A. Jerrold Perenchio, a major donor to Republicans, will use his broadcast empire to create a thinly disguised mouthpiece for the Bush administration -- sort of Fox News en Espanol. But he also donates to Democrats.

Also fueling the Democrats' flimsy conspiracy theory is the fact HBC is 30% owned by Clear Channel Communications, the radio mega-network (1,200 stations) that has turned much of English-language radio in the U.S. into a homogenous pap of right-wing rant and pop music. Clear Channel CEO L. Lowry Mays is an old Texas buddy of Bush and a big GOP donor.

This conspiracy theory has clearly gotten under Perenchio's skin. Univision paid lots of money to publish full-page newspaper ads last week defending the proposed merger. The ads took the form of an open letter from former Clinton Cabinet member Henry Cisneros, arguably the country's most popular Latino politician. Cisneros worked at Univision for three years after leaving government, but network spokesmen say he has divested himself of all financial ties to the network.

The letter rebuts claims that the merger would "represent a 'conservative' takeover of Hispanic broadcasting," defends Perenchio as a supporter of Latino causes like the lawsuit that voided California's Proposition 187 and denies that Univision's news coverage is biased in favor of Bush or the GOP.

I can speak only to the final point. Univision's coverage is not biased -- at least compared with the hyper-patriotic posturing on Fox. Indeed, at the height of the Iraq war there was no cheerleading for the U.S. military on Spanish-language TV, just sad details of war's human costs through coverage of Latino casualties.

The real reason Democrats should worry about Univision is that Spanish-language TV connects with its audience in a deeply personal way -- far more than English-language media do. Spanish-language TV reporters often got the names of Latino casualties in the Iraq war before the Pentagon officially announced them, for instance, because grieving families would call their local Univision (or competitor Telemundo) station after being informed of their loss by the military, in effect reaching out to an institution they knew would respond to their pain.

As the Latino vote has grown over the last few years, Republican campaign consultants have shown more skill and creativity than Democrats in using Spanish-language TV. It began during George W. Bush's gubernatorial reelection campaign in 1998 when he recorded Spanish-language ads that helped other Anglos on Texas' GOP ticket get more of the Latino vote than expected. Spanish-language ads also helped Bush get one-third of the Latino vote against Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

The national Democratic Party has been either too lazy or too cheap -- I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's not stupidity -- to match this appeal for Latino support. Democrats rely instead on local Latino officials and labor unions to turn out the vote. And when all else fails they fall back on scare tactics, reminding Latinos how former California Gov. Pete Wilson enthusiastically embraced Proposition 187 in 1994. But Wilson-bashing is wearing thin as a viable campaign tactic, even in California.

Bush is now the Republicans' face on Spanish-language TV. Add the prospect that a Latina immigrant, recently resigned U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, may run against California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2004 and that's made Democrats paranoid that Univision may tilt Republican -- however remote the possibility.

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