The Cuban Connection: Who Controls Latino News?

A tribute to someone you esteem can be infuriating when offered by someone you hate. The great Cuban writer Jose Marti, who died in 1895 fighting to free his country from Spain, is honored by both the Cuban government and Fidel Castro’s most ardent enemies. His memory divides the two sides even further.

On May 19, the centennial of Marti’s death, news director Jacqueline Gallardo of WGBO, Channel 66, prepared the evening report. Gallardo had taken over when the Univision network converted the station to Spanish at the first of the year. Mixing international news with in-depth coverage of Chicago’s Latino communities, WGBO overtook Telemundo’s Channel 44 affiliate as the Spanish-language news preferred by the city’s growing Latino audience.

Gallardo wanted to focus on what Chicago’s Cubans were doing to honor Marti. But there are only about 12,000 Cubans in the metropolitan area, and no big public event was planned. However APTV–the Associated Press’s television service–was offering a one-minute feed from Havana.

Viewers saw Castro at a wreath-laying ceremony on the battlefield where Marti fell. Then Vice President Carlos Lage interpreted Marti’s legacy. “Cuba isn’t governed by American laws,” Lage declared. “Cuba isn’t governed from the U.S. Congress. Cuba is governed solely by its own people.”

Gallardo could air APTV feeds from Mexico or Colombia or Venezuela without thinking twice. But this was Cuba, and she was aware she was breaking ground.

“The AP–they’re not leftists, you know. They’re not communists. They’re not interested in disseminating communist propaganda,” said Sandra Aponte, the assignment editor. “Jackie thought, Wow! For the first time since we’ve been on the air we have a chance to put on news from the island.”

The Friday broadcast done with, Gallardo went on vacation.

“What happened during the weekend,” Aponte told me, “is that somebody told Mr. [Antonio] Guernica, the general manager, that some communistic propaganda had been aired on Channel 66. Monday at 9 AM he called the newsroom outraged. He said, “How dare you air such a piece of trash!’ He used a lot of foul language.”

A day later, says Aponte, Guernica called a staff meeting. “He started by saying that Jackie had made a terrible mistake by airing communist propaganda. He used foul language again. We all knew, according to him, that she had an agenda. And we all knew what it was. And because of that he’d made a decision–she’s no longer going to be the news director.”

When Gallardo returned from Mexico Guernica bought out her two-year contract. “The first words out of his mouth were, “From now on everything will be censored–or resign,”‘ Gallardo told me. “I said, “You’re going to have to fire me, and you’re going to have to pay me.”‘

Guernica insists Gallardo was not fired. “It was a mutual agreement to go our own ways. Jackie has for some time expressed an interest in pursuing other interests, in moving back to Mexico.”

So this had nothing to do with putting Carlos Lage on the air?

“I disagree with the way it was done,” he said. “I felt it was unbalanced. But again, in no way was the airing of that piece or any one particular piece the cause for Jacqueline and WGBO to part company.”

A TV journalist for 23 years, Gallardo, born in Chicago to a Mexican father and a Honduran mother, offers herself as a victim of a notorious bias in Spanish-American journalism. “A small number of Cubans dictate ideology,” she told me. “They control the media, and they have the money to do so.”

Guernica, described even by Gallardo as one of the more temperate of the Cuban media bosses, was born on the island. So was Jose Lamas, the vehemently anti-Castro general manager of Channel 44.

Gallardo also had in mind major ethnic advertisers that are controlled by Cubans, and even mainline Anglo firms whose advertising in Hispanic media is determined by Cuban marketers. The result–she is not alone in maintaining–is disproportionate Cuban influence over news that is aimed at more than half a million Latinos.

Which is why some grassroots Latino leaders who aren’t Cuban were so unhappy when Gallardo disappeared. “Evidently it was some kind of censorship,” said Casa Aztlan’s executive director, Carlos Arango, who praised Gallardo for her international coverage. “It was basically an act of censorship,” said Raul Ross, director of the Mexican program of the American Friends Service Committee. “The Cubans cannot rule what the Mexicans and the rest of the Latinos are supposed to watch on TV. We are afraid that this community forum is going to be destroyed.”

“It’s a shame,” said Julio Revolorio, executive director of Casa Guatemala, who praised Gallardo for sending a reporter to his native country to interview not just government and army officials but also guerrillas in the mountains. “They were perhaps the first ones paying attention to what we’re screaming to the four corners of the universe–about human rights abuses in Guatemala.”

These Latinos and others spoke among themselves of calling on Guernica and demanding an explanation. But they didn’t do anything. Last Friday Sandra Aponte and a WGBO field producer were fired. Guernica told them the jobs were being eliminated in a reorganization. Aponte believes their crime was “guilt by association” with Gallardo.

The acting news director, Elio Montenegro Jr., is a Cuban-American.

Newtonian Logic

Mr. Speaker, there’s a call for congressional hearings into the menace of armed militias. Why do you oppose these hearings?

“I personally am not alarmed by fidelity to the Second Amendment. When a young man expresses that fidelity by blowing up a federal building it’s safe to say that man was overwrought. But it is not the role of Congress to legislate emotions.”

Yet you are active on other fronts. You strongly support a constitutional amendment to forbid flag burning.

“That is correct. The American public is devoted to the emblem of our glorious union whose government everyone despises.”

But some say that if the Oklahoma City bombers had been content to convey their displeasure with Washington by burning a flag many lives would have been saved.

“Can you imagine a rugged ex-GI like Timothy McVeigh burning a flag? No real man would stoop so low. You media types are out of touch with the people. The people hate flag burners, and they’ve said so loud and clear. When it comes to how they feel about individuals who blow up federal buildings I don’t think there’s even been a poll.”

Do you have other steps in mind to protect the American way of life?

“You’re aware of the constitutional amendment guaranteeing schoolchildren the right to pray to the Christian-Judeo God of their choice. And lately I’ve sensed growing support for a constitutional guarantee that our pizza makers can make pizza any way they want to. Those swarthy gentlemen from Naples who came over here hoping to shove their alien doctrines down our throats were way out of line. Imagine if the only ice cream you could eat was Neapolitan! That would mean equal slices of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla whether you wanted them or not. Talk about quotas!”

News Bites

Last week Mark Hornung was named director of Sun-Times distribution. Three months earlier he’d resigned as director of the editorial pages after committing plagiarism. “That doesn’t mean he should have his head chopped off,” explains Larry Perrotto, head of the parent American Publishing Company. “My God, who of us has not made a mistake in his life?”

Perrotto takes a more tolerant view of Hornung’s transgression than Sun-Times reporters do. “Mark is a very bright individual with a great feeling for the city and the newspaper,” says Perrotto. “It’s unfortunate the mistake was made. He made it, he admits it. And what can we do but get on with our lives?”

A strange profile of WLS TV’s general manager led the Tribune’s Tempo section on Memorial Day. The timing was odd: Joe Ahern’s tenth anniversary at the station, which Cheryl Lavin’s feature nominally observed, had passed two and a half months earlier. The content was odder: if only the Hindenburg had been full of the same nonflammable gas.

“You can’t tell everything there is to tell about the person,” Lavin explained to me. “You pick and choose what’s most interesting.” But so innocuous were Lavin’s choices, even after she’d rewritten the piece, that Tempo editor Rick Kogan asked another reporter to convey Ahern’s darker side in a sidebar. “I’d heard too many good Joe Ahern stories over the years,” says Kogan, a former Tribune TV columnist.

But no one Ahern had fired or otherwise infuriated would speak on the record. “I think the reason is that in that fucking business you never know who the fuck you’re going to be working for in three or four years,” Kogan reasons.

So Lavin’s profile eventually ran alone. One careful reader was the Sun-Times’s TV reporter, Rob Feder, whose own critical piece on Ahern had appeared on March 13, Ahern’s actual anniversary. A couple of weeks earlier WLS publicist Fran Preston had turned down Feder’s last request to interview Ahern. Around the same time she had lunch with Lavin, a longtime friend. Preston mentioned the milestone. Lavin said it sounded like a story.

“I can only surmise that in rejecting me WLS turned around and served up my proposal on a silver platter, along with access to the general manager,” says Feder. Not true, insists Lavin: “I’m telling you, she did not pitch me the story. Zero. Period!”

A key revelation in Lavin’s profile of the rarely interviewed exec was: “I was a young kid with a lot of dreams and I was never afraid of hard work or taking risks.”

Feder needn’t grieve for what he didn’t get.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.