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Newscaster suspended over affair

August 03, 2007|Duke Helfand and Meg James | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles television newscaster Mirthala Salinas was suspended without pay for two months -- but not dismissed -- Thursday from KVEA-TV Channel 52 for covering Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa while they were romantically involved, a relationship that journalism experts said damaged the station's credibility.

Three of Salinas' superiors with the Telemundo network also were disciplined, including the top two station officials. KVEA General Manager Manuel Abud was reassigned to another position, and News Director Al Corral was suspended for two months without pay.

The highest-ranking executive, Ibra Morales, who oversees the network's 16 Spanish-language stations, was reprimanded in the unfolding scandal that Telemundo President Don Browne said flagrantly violated Telemundo's journalistic standards.

In an internal memo to Telemundo staff members, Browne said 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."

Salinas, 35, could not be reached for comment. She had been suspended with pay since the scandal erupted three weeks ago.

Villaraigosa, 54, did not comment on the merit of Telemundo's decision, saying only that he wanted to concentrate on his job in its aftermath.

"I regret that decisions I have made in my personal life have been a distraction for the city, and I am deeply sorry that I have let so many people down, especially my family," he said in a statement.

It is unclear when Villaraigosa and Salinas became romantically involved, but The Times traced their relationship to at least November of 2005. Salinas covered the mayor for an extended period while she was dating him.

Media watchdogs assailed not only Salinas for her conflict of interest but her superiors for allowing her to continue reporting on the mayor after they knew of the relationship. One analyst predicted that the scandal would tarnish Salinas' career.

"People will always remember her as the reporter who had an affair with the mayor, and that she got in trouble for that," said Judy Muller, a former ABC network news correspondent and current NPR commentator who now teaches journalism at USC.

"That damages her credibility, and I don't know where she goes from Telemundo," Muller added. "A reporter only has her credibility, and once that's sullied you have lost your value to your news organization."

Telemundo is owned by NBC Universal, and that connection raised another thorny issue for the company and the mayor. Villaraigosa has been supporting a $3-billion development that NBC Universal is planning near its Universal Studios, and opponents have questioned whether that would color Telemundo's decision on Salinas.

In his memo, Browne said that KVEA management and Salinas agreed at the end of 2006 to reassign her from the political beat so that her job would not involve stories about the mayor because of "a friendship that had developed between the reporter and the mayor."

Browne said that in April, Salinas was given the role of temporary news anchor, reading lead-ins and other material involving stories about the mayor and politics.

Seated in the anchor's chair, Salinas reported on the 6 p.m. news June 8 that Villaraigosa and his wife, Corina, were separating after 20 years of marriage.

Three days later, Salinas was again in the anchor's spot when the newscast reported on a Villaraigosa news conference in which he said he felt a "personal sense of failure" about the breakup of his marriage. His wife filed for divorce the next day.

Browne singled out the two occasions as the most egregious examples of the conflict of interest, saying those involved showed a "lack of leadership and vigilance required to protect the credibility and reputation of our news product ...."

He added: "Her reading of copy during newscasts on June 8 and June 11 regarding the mayor's separation from his wife was a flagrant violation of these guidelines. The failure to respond appropriately in the following weeks further compounded these errors."

Until the scandal surfaced, Salinas had enjoyed a successful 10-year run at one of Los Angeles' best-known Spanish-language stations. She anchored a newscast that won two local Emmy Awards and earned a Golden Mike broadcasting award as well. She started her broadcast journalism career in 1990 at a Phoenix radio station and eventually made her way to the Univision TV affiliate there before arriving at KVEA in 1997.

Her affair with Villaraigosa was an open secret in KVEA's Burbank newsroom and in the mayor's office at City Hall. Salinas also had dated Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) when he was divorced -- and before he remarried his wife -- as well as former Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, now a state senator.

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