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Of darts and hypocrisy: CJR's falsehoods and omissions in Marco Rubio-Univision-Herald flap

After a high-profile politician repeatedly stiff-arms a TV network over an interview, the media company then dredges up a 24 year-old drug-bust story about his brother-in-law. It runs in prime time. Even its viewers bash the story.

A newspaper later reports a behind-the-scenes tussle over the story: The network's news chief allegedly offered a deal to soften or kill the drug-bust story if the politician gave the long-sought interview. The news chief denies the allegation. 

To the Columbia Journalism Review's Erika Fry, it was clear who deserved the most-jaundiced look: The newspaper, The Miami Herald & El Nuevo Herald. The network, Univision, largely gets a pass from CJR for the way it reported and presented the story about the drug bust of Marco Rubio's relative when the current Republican United States Senator was a teen. 

That's right, the self-appointed dispenser of media "darts and laurels" doesn't dwell much on how Univision's report was so newsless on its face and such a potential political cheapshot that the 24-hour news-media machine largely ignored it -- even though Rubio is a vice presidential shortlister.

Critical focus isn't the only flaw in CJR's piece. It prints a clear falsehood about The Herald's reporting. It omits facts. It falls prey to its own criticisms. It implicitly demands The Herald meet standards that CJR fails to live up to. And its analysis is constructed around a phony premise: That The Herald clearly took sides in our report and blamed Univision's Isaac Lee for clearly making a quid pro quo offer in a conference call with Rubio's staff.

"If Univision is guilty as charged, of course, it deserves many darts. But the Herald didn’t make its case," CJR opines.

The Herald did not try to make this "case." The Herald did not make that "charge." The Herald never said Univision was "guilty." Rubio's folks did the charging and made their case. So did insiders at Univision. We printed what they said. Lee made his case in a written statement after refusing to speak with us. We printed that, too. 

Newspapers do this routinely. We print two sides of an issue. If CJR thought we were biased in favor of the Republican Senator and against Univision (a news partner of El Nuevo), that would be false but somewhat understandable. But CJR never bothers to make that case. It just registers its opinion as fact. Had we been asked why we "accused" Univision of being "guilty," we would have had an opportunity to register our denial of this misrepresentation.

CJR does nick Univision in the penultimate paragraph of the piece: "Univision’s news judgment also deserves scrutiny. The relevance of a twenty-four-year-old story about the drug conviction of a relative with no connection to Rubio’s career or candidacy is debatable."

Though Univision "deserves scrutiny," CJR opted to spend considerable time trying to figure out who our sources were in interviews with me and El Nuevo Herald editor Manny Garcia, who co-bylined the story.

Garcia, first approached by a number of Univision employees complaining about Lee's alleged quid pro quo, gave limited information to CJR about who the sources were not. I, too, spoke with and/or called people at Univision. Garcia handled the primary sources, those who came to him. I handled my sources. Some of them may have overlapped with Garcia's. Some may not have. We won't say. We protect sources. 

Notwithstanding all this, the following CJR sentence is patently false: "aside from Lee, none of the Univision journalists who were on the phone call—even [Gerardo] Reyes, the former Herald reporter—were approached for comment or to corroborate the quid pro quo claim."

CJR doesn't source that sentence. It should end with the phrase  "according to Univision officials interviewed by CJR."  

When we reported the substance of a call that we didn't hear, we noted the source of the information. CJR didn't. That's a journalistic sin -- especially because the CJR piece goes to such lengths to flyspeck The Herald over how we reported and sourced a call we were not on.

"It’s impossible to know for sure what happened on that conference call," CJR said. It's also impossible to know for sure who I called and who I didn't call if I don't tell them. I repeatedly refused to give CJR information about the sources and calls out of a concern that a process-of-elimination game would abet Lee's effort to find the whistleblowers in his own newsroom and fire them. (This will be the last time I discuss these sources and calls, or respond to future false analyses on this topic, hence the length and detail of this blog.)

CJR also downplays the roadblocks Univision erected: "As for [talking with] the others on the call, Garcia said there were access issues created by corporate Univision. (I encountered no such access issues when I requested interviews with the journalists on the call, and it makes me wonder if Caputo and Garcia even knew exactly who was on the call.)"

First, we were told who was on the call. Second, CJR probably had "no such access issues" because Univision was pretty sure CJR would carry its water. Good bet. After all, CJR wound up asking the same Univision-fed questions in the same way around the same time as the New Yorker, which also published a piece this week. 

When we called Univision, Lee refused to speak with The Herald. About two days later, a Univision corporate spokeswoman based in New York emailed a written statement. First, though, she tried to determine our sources.

Perhaps despite its bias, CJR still managed to bolster The Herald story anyway, which noted in the lead that "the Spanish-language media powerhouse offered what sounded like a deal to the U.S. senator’s staff."

Lee admitted to some type of dealmaking in CJR:Lee, who did most of the talking, invited the senator to... whatever Univision platform he wished, including Al Punto or Aqui y Ahora. Lee says his message was clear: “What we wanted is for him to answer these questions. Format doesn’t matter, substance does.” No deal was made.

That confirms a "deal" was offered. And then CJR lets that matter -- the specific terms of the "deal" -- drop.

If Rubio took the "deal" and appeared on the show Al Punto, then Univision probably would not have run the standalone drug-bust story that made Rubio brother-in-law Orlando Cicilia look like the drug king pin he wasn't. (No mention of this overhyping by CJR, by the way.) If the standalone drug-bust story didn't run, it's arguable that this effectively kills the story, at least in primetime. It certainly has the potential to soften the story.

How much time would Al Punto host Jorge Ramos have grilled Rubio over the drug bust? It's unclear. But Ramos has questioned the value of prying into the private lives of politicians, such as Republican Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. 

"Why? Why is the private life so important here?" Ramos asked panelists on his Dec. 4 show. "I'm Mexican. I'm surprised because in our countries that doesn't matter, no? I was being told now in the presidential campaign in Mexico, these topics aren't even touched."

What is often touched by Ramos is the pro-immigrant DREAM Act, a rallying point that Democrats are hoping to use against Republicans this election season. In the New Yorker, Lee admitted Univision covers immigration from a "pro-Hispanic" point of view and Univision's chairman, Haim Saban, said the Hispanic Rubio and the GOP presidential candidates have "anti-Hispanic" stances. Saban is a major Democratic donor.

No mention of that blatant bias or conflict of interest by CJR.

CJR understates the key role that the issues of bias and immigration played in the controversy. It also subtly swipes at Rubio's credibility by highlighting a Washington Post piece that misrepresented the level of embellishments by Rubio regarding his family's exile from Cuba. The piece was written by Manuel Roig-Franzia, coincidentally a guest on Ramos's show this December.

The New Yorker had opined The Herald story was part of an elaborate right-wing conspiracy. Based on these cozy relationships between Democrats, Univision and the Washington Post reporter, conservatives will have a field day with their own conspiracies that are bound to rope in the Ivy League Columbia University in liberal New York City.

Univision's Gerardo Reyes tells CJR that he came across the drug-bust story while checking out a 2010 Miami Herald report concerning Rubio's suspicious political expenditures. The story was printed when Reyes worked at The Herald/El Nuevo, where he didn't discuss the story with our political team or follow up. So his interest piqued when he began working at Univision in March, just as Rubio's refusal to go on Al Punto was causing consternation.

To Rubio's folks and others at Univision, the timing of Reyes' new-found interest indicates the network was trying to find a way to leverage the Senator or punish him for refusing interviews with Al Punto's Ramos. Rubio had previously offered a chance for a local Univision reporter to follow him around. But it was so important that Ramos interview Rubio that, CJR says, the network "ultimately forbid the local anchor to do the interview, saying they would not allow a politician to dictate editorial decisions."

That seems to contradict Lee's sentiments in the "deal" he offered Rubio. In one case, "format doesn’t matter, substance does." So Rubio can decide his forum. But in the other case, he can't.

No mention of this potential paradox in CJR.

In noting that Univision killed the interview with the local TV reporter, CJR didn't mention this fact was first reported by The Herald. CJR prefers to show where The Herald may have gotten something wrong (e.g., our story said the drug-bust story was Univision's first investigative-squad report; Univision says it was its sixth).

CJR seems to give further credit to Univision by saying "Univision provided these documents to CJR, though the Rubio camp’s letter to Univision is also available online." Who put it online? The Miami Herald. No mention of that by CJR, which dwelled instead on Univision's cooperation.  

CJR dings us for noting the bio of a Rubio staffer but not the bio of Univision folks on the conference call. The significance of this is puzzling. But CJR thinks its important, so it mentions Univision's Reyes won a Pulitzer at The Herald (he was part of a team). But El Nuevo's Garcia helped win two Pulitzers for The Herald. No mention of that in CJR, either. Pulitizers are important to mention. Except when they're not.

And though it's concerned with the use of anonymous sources, CJR also refused to provide a passing mention of the fact that Reyes used anonymous sources and got Univision sued last month by a Venezuelan lawyer, according to this Courthouse News Service report. You see, for Univision and CJR, anonymous sources are questionable. Unless Univision uses them. (Note to CJR: Just because we provideda link to a lawsuit doesn't mean we are making the "charge").

In its closing, CJR laments that Univision and The Herald failed the people by dwelling on "myopic, insidery" political reporting. So the Univision-Herald controversy is so myopic and insidery that it deserves to be closely examined? You see, insidery myopia is bad. Unless it's done by CJR, which bemoans we don't cover important issues that it doesn't cover, either.

But regardless of all its false criticisms and omissions, even if we adopted CJR's nitpicks in a light most favorable to Univision (where everyone says on the record that their boss, Isaac Lee, was telling the truth) the story would hardly have changed for these reasons, which don't comprise an exhaustive list:

1) Lee still admittedly would have offered a "deal."

2) Rubio's people still would have said he offered a quid pro quo and that Univision was strong-arming and leveraging the Senator by going after his family.

3) The 24-year-old drug bust would have remained 24 years old.

4) The timing of Univision's interest in the story would have remained suspicious.

5) Univision still would have parked a news truck in front of the home of Rubio's sister's house in the morning so neighbors could drive by before work and gossip. No mention of this by CJR.

6) A Univision reporter still would have gone out of her way to ask Gov. Rick Scott if Rubio should resign over Cicilia's drug bust that the then-teenager had nothing to do with a quarter-century ago. Yes, that really happened, but you wouldn't know that by reading CJR.

In full disclosure, The Herald uncovered Cicilia's drug bust in 2010 (unbeknownst to me while I covered the governor's race) during our examination of Rubio's finances. Univision barely touched that story then. A Herald reporter at the time checked out the drug bust and decided there was almost no news value because Cicilia was a relative and it wasn't germane to a campaign that lacked discussion about crime and drugs.

Had The Herald decided to run with the drug bust at the height of an election, it's likely that we would have accurately been accused of publishing a hatchet job to influence the vote. It could have merited a "dart" from CJR.

But considering its hypocrisies and false spin, CJR might want to spend less time examining the speck in our eye and more time examining the dart in its own.