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A trusted voice in Latino media finds her career on hold

July 21, 2007|Duke Helfand, Meg James and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

Mirthala Salinas was a rising star at one of Los Angeles' premier Spanish-language television stations before she came to be known as the other woman in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's life.

A respected and aggressive journalist, she anchored a newscast that won two local Emmy Awards at KVEA-TV Channel 52 during her 10 years at the Telemundo station. She earned a Golden Mike broadcasting award as well.

"She was very smart and always had her finger on the pulse of the community," said one former Telemundo executive, who recalled the 35-year-old newscaster as poised and articulate.

Now, Salinas' career hangs in the balance as Telemundo executives decide as early as Monday whether to fire her for having a romantic relationship with Villaraigosa while she was covering him as a political reporter.

Salinas' relationship with Villaraigosa had long been an open secret in Telemundo's Burbank newsroom, although it is unclear whether her colleagues were also aware she had previously dated Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and former City Council President Alex Padilla, now a state senator.

The executives who are reviewing her case want to know whether Salinas, who is on paid leave, fully disclosed the nature of her relationship with Villaraigosa. They are also examining how station managers handled the situation.

In addition, they are investigating the decision that Salinas would deliver the June 8 news of Villaraigosa's separation from his wife, Corina, when station managers were aware that she had been part of the story, according to a person familiar with the probe. They also want to know whether Salinas presented viewers any other news about the mayor after she was taken off the political beat about 11 months ago.

Salinas, a native of Mexico who broke into journalism 17 years ago as a radio reporter in Phoenix, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in a statement issued when Telemundo placed her on leave July 5, she voiced confidence that the internal review would exonerate her.

Revelations about her relationship with Villaraigosa -- and the conflict of interest it raised for her -- have damaged what many viewed as a stellar television career that began in 1993 at KTVW-TV Channel 33, a Univision affiliate in Phoenix.

That's where Salinas came to the attention of Carlos Jurado, then the station's newly appointed news director.

Though Salinas was working as a part-time reporter while attending college, Jurado said he saw immense potential in her presence and delivery. She was slender, beautiful, bilingual and, above all, hardworking and hard-charging.

"She just projected really well in front of the camera," Jurado recalled. "She was young, but she didn't look like a rookie."

Jurado said he decided to take a chance on the newcomer and give Salinas a shot as co-anchor of the evening news. Response from viewers was immediate.

"People liked her," he said.

For a time, Salinas co-anchored the news at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Between broadcasts, Jurado recalled, she would venture out to report a story.

Salinas also pursued a degree in broadcast journalism at Arizona State University. She left in 1997 before graduating, landing an anchor job in August of that year on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news at Channel 52.

Salinas had ascended to the peak of local broadcast journalism. She would become a public face of a feisty news operation that wanted to appeal to younger audiences.

Though KVEA ranks behind its more dominant competitor, Univision's KMEX-TV Channel 34, it still has an influential voice. It delivered higher ratings among key groups for its 6 p.m. local newscast than several area English-language stations, including its sister station, KNBC-TV Channel 4, and KCBS-TV Channel 2, according to Nielsen Media Research ratings for the May sweeps.

Salinas was an anchor of the 11 p.m. newscast that won two local Emmys in 2000, one for best overall news show and the other for coverage of a building collapse in Echo Park.

She also won a Golden Mike in 2004 for her reporting on the California wildfires.

In the winter of 2005, she began working as a reporter and fill-in anchor on En Contexto, the 11 p.m. newsmagazine that combines late-night news with analysis. (The show has dealt with many elements of Villaraigosa's agenda, including his recent trade mission to Mexico and one of his trips to Washington to lobby on immigration reform.)

In early 2005, Salinas also began covering the political beat, several months before Villaraigosa's July 1 inauguration.

Their personal relationship dated at least to November 2005, according to reporting done by The Times that has not been disputed by Villaraigosa's office.

Villaraigosa said at a recent news conference that Salinas decided around the summer of 2006 that their "friendship had grown to a point where it was necessary to inform her management that she shouldn't cover me. She did that. And they agreed."

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