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A no-nonsense voice for Latin America

CNN en Espanol bets on anchor-analyst Carmen Aristegui's cross-border appeal.

November 20, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Mexico City — HER chauffeur barely has pulled into the parking garage, but Carmen Aristegui is already out the door of her silver Audi and bounding through the office-tower lobby as if powered by jet propulsion. She flashes a smile at the night security guards, whisks into an elevator and heads for the eighth-floor suite of CNN en Espanol.

A clock shows it's less than 20 minutes till airtime for "Aristegui," the half-hour, prime-time news talk show that since its July 4 debut has made its host one of the best-known Spanish-speaking journalists in the hemisphere. But Aristegui is all good-humored ease as she flops in a chair and submits to her makeup assistant's ministrations. Then, faster than you can say "Anderson Cooper," she races onto the studio set, introduces her guest -- Mexican presidential candidate Felipe Calderon of the ruling National Action Party -- and makes him squirm as she politely but firmly presses for his views on abortion and euthanasia.

It's all in an evening's work for Aristegui (pronounced ah-rees-STEH-gwee), a veteran radio and television news anchor-analyst who during her 15-year career has gained a large, respectful following in her native Mexico. Now her bosses at CNN are betting that this genial but no-nonsense journalist can dramatically expand her fan base on both sides of the border.

CNN hopes that "Aristegui" can help create a community of Spanish-language news junkies across a vast area stretching from East L.A. to Tierra del Fuego. Broadcast live from CNN en Espanol's Mexico City bureau at 10 p.m. CST, the show reaches 12.4 million household subscribers in Mexico, Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, plus another 3 million in the United States. Though "Aristegui" focuses heavily on Mexican political and social affairs, it aims for a pan-Latin American perspective on issues such as immigration, human rights and global trade. E-mail about the show flies in from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and most points in between.

"We believe that Mexico is a location that has a lot of information that can be interesting in Latin America, especially in the United States for the great quantity, the millions of Mexicans that are in the United States," Aristegui says.

"This doesn't excuse us from dealing with hurricanes, or dealing with terrorist attacks, or discussing the occupation in Iraq, the subjects that seem to us that are of the world -- from the perspective in Mexico."

CNN brass believe that in Aristegui they have found not only a seasoned journalist with the chops to break major stories and attract top newsmakers as guests, but a personality attractive enough to help spread the network brand name. Among her recent coups was scoring a one-on-one interview with Mexican President Vicente Fox on his private jet while returning from the Mar del Plata economic summit earlier this month.

"In thinking about a Larry King for Latin America, or Larry King for Mexico, her name had come up again and again over the years," says Christopher Crommett, senior vice president of CNN en Espanol, speaking by phone from company headquarters in Atlanta. It's the first regularly scheduled program that CNN en Espanol has produced and hosted from a location entirely outside Atlanta, Crommett says, and "in terms of buzz, nothing we've done in Mexico has remotely come close to the buzz around this."

CNN's new show arrives as competition is heating up in the Spanish-language news market. When the parent Cable News Network launched CNN en Espanol in March 1997, it signaled the growing size and importance of Spanish-language media, both within and outside the United States. CNN now operates bureaus in Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Havana and maintains a network of correspondents throughout the Americas. Its rivals in the region include Fox, BBC, Mexico's Televisa network and Venezuela's new state-funded Telesur network.

Crommett says it's difficult to obtain viewership figures for "Aristegui" because Latin American ratings services aren't equipped to make detailed performance measurements of niche news channels. Other Spanish-language news networks agree that it's hard to measure ratings consistently across such a broad geographic area. "I can tell you that the ratings numbers we've looked at show a very healthy increase in the tune-in since the program started," Crommett says.

A trim, compact woman who favors black and charcoal pantsuits, black calf-high boots and the barest hints of jewelry or cosmetics, Aristegui has little in common with her artfully preened and prepped U.S. counterparts, male or female. The studio set is an equally modest affair: two or three chairs, an abstract red-and-white background and a couple of flat screens fronting the show's logo.

But Aristegui clearly is in her element in front of the camera. Direct and insistent, though seldom confrontational or combative, she engages her interviewees with incisive questioning and a level, green-eyed stare.

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