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Network reassigns mayor's girlfriend

Mirthala Salinas, a former fill-in anchor on KVEA-TV, is being sent to Riverside as a general assignment reporter.

September 25, 2007|Duke Helfand and Meg James | Times Staff Writers

Television newscaster Mirthala Salinas, who was suspended without pay for two months in August after her affair with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa became public, is scheduled to return to work Monday. But she won't be taking up her old job as a fill-in anchor on evening newscasts for KVEA-TV Channel 52.

Instead, executives with the Spanish-language Telemundo network confirmed Monday that Salinas would be sent to the station's Inland Empire bureau in Riverside as a general assignment reporter, a notable fall for a one-time rising star who has become one of the most recognizable faces in local Spanish-language television.

Telemundo President Don Browne delivered the news Monday to workers at KVEA's Burbank headquarters. Browne also told the station's news staff that they would undergo ethics training this week by faculty members from the Poynter Institute, an authority on journalism practices.

Browne had previously criticized Salinas and her superiors for allowing a conflict of interest to fester as she continued to cover stories about the mayor while she was involved with him romantically.

It was Salinas, sitting in the anchor's chair, who delivered the news in June that Villaraigosa and his wife, Corina, were separating after 20 years of marriage -- an episode singled out by the Telemundo chief as a "flagrant violation" of the network's news guidelines.

In the aftermath of Villaraigosa's July 3 admission of the affair, the network conducted an internal review that resulted in Salinas' suspension, triggering criticism from media watchdogs who thought the punishment was too light.

On Monday, Telemundo spokesman Alfredo Richard said that the network and KVEA, one of its top stations, had learned a valuable lesson.

Reassigning Salinas to Riverside, he said, was meant to correct the ethics lapse and keep Salinas from reporting on Villaraigosa. Another official said station executives also were concerned about shielding Salinas from lingering animosity toward her in the newsrooms of KVEA and its sister station, KNBC-TV Channel 4, which share the same Burbank facility. Both stations are owned by NBC Universal.

"The whole spirit of this is to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest," Richard said. "As difficult as this process has been, we are coming out of it more determined than ever to comply with our ethics guidelines."

Still, Richard sought to downplay the significance of the move, saying it would provide KVEA with an opportunity to expand its coverage of the Inland Empire, one of California's fastest-growing regions and home to a growing Latino presence. KVEA now has one reporter in Riverside.

Salinas did not return calls for comment. Villaraigosa, whose wife has filed for divorce, had no comment.

It was not immediately clear whether Salinas would accept her new position, but those close to her said she was mulling over her options, including whether to resign. Her contract with the station expires in December, and it was unknown if it would be renewed.

To some members of the Channel 52 staff, Salinas' resignation would be welcome news.

"I personally would respect her if she didn't come back," said one station employee, who would speak only if not identified because workers were told not to talk about the transfer. "It's like the mayor said, 'I take responsibility for my actions.' Responsibility is when you do something about it."

In addition to Salinas, three of her superiors were punished in the fallout over her affair with the mayor. At least one received promising news Monday.

Telemundo executives announced that KVEA news director Al Corral, who also had been suspended without pay, would return to his job Monday.

KVEA General Manager Manuel Abud, who lost his job, is still awaiting reassignment. Telemundo has dispatched the general manager of its Miami station, Mike Rodriguez, to also run KVEA while the company searches for a permanent replacement for Abud.

Ibra Morales, who oversees the Telemundo network's 16 Spanish-language stations, was reprimanded for his role in the scandal.

One journalism authority said Telemundo's decision to transfer Salinas could help restore some of the credibility KVEA and its network had lost in the unfolding scandal.

"It's a way for the station to wash its hands of the conflict-of-interest problem," said Laura Castaneda, associate professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. "And it's a chance for her to prove herself again, and to redeem herself.

"We don't know what her career opportunities are," Castaneda said. "There might be some stations that would love to have her, and others that wouldn't want to touch her."

Until the scandal surfaced in July, Salinas had enjoyed a successful 10-year run at Los Angeles' second-most-watched Spanish-language news operation. She anchored a newscast that won two local Emmy Awards and also earned a Golden Mike broadcasting award. 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.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com

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