A contrite Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, apologized again Friday for a May Cinco de Mayo skit on his network that Hispanics found offensive, and he agreed with a wide-ranging list of complaints from Latino journalists.
Those concerns included the need for more Latinos behind the scenes and on the air, objections to having to tone down Spanish accents and pronunciations, and the inclusion of Afro-Latinos along with their lighter-skinned brethren.
“It’s important. We want to lead the way” on diversity, Griffin told attendees Friday at the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention in San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, a centerpiece of the city’s celebrated River Walk area downtown. “A cultural change” must take place at the network, Griffin said. “We’ve got to be honest.”
Griffin agreed to hold a session between the hosts of MSNBC programs and Latino experts on issues of the day and meetings with potential Hispanic on-air talent. Both were suggestions from Alex Nogales, a diversity watchdog who leads the National Hispanic Media Coalition and shared the stage with Griffin. “I think we should do it regularly,” Griffin quickly said of the proposed meetings.
The network president told NAHJ members who lobbed questions at him from the audience, “I agree with everything that’s been said at this microphone.”
He made continual references to the idea that “the world is changing” and that “the forces of history” require changes in attitudes.
NAHJ leaders, who by Thursday had gathered about 850 registrants for their 30th anniversary convention, according to President Hugo Balta, were impressed.
“We invited all of the heads of the networks,” Balta told Journal-isms. “Phil quickly agreed. He was the only one to show up, and they were not in the hot seats.”
Craig Robinson, executive vice president and chief diversity officer for NBCUniversal, said he warned Griffin that he would face sharp questioning but that Griffin wanted to appear anyway.
Mekahlo Medina, NAHJ’s new President, said that “to take on a group of 500 or 600 Latino journalists who had issues with all the media and really talk about it . . . no other executive would be up there today but Phil.”
Griffin opened his luncheon remarks by saying, “I apologize to everybody in this room for what took place on May 5” and said its ramifications had been felt in every corner of NBC headquarters “at 30 Rock,” or 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan.
On May 5, an interlude on MSNBC’s “Way Too Early” show, featuring correspondent Louis Burgdorf and host Thomas Roberts, showed Burgdorf onscreen wearing a sombrero, shaking maracas and taking a swig from a bottle of tequila. The holiday marks an 1862 battle victory by Mexican troops against the French and is celebrated in the United States with parades and revelry.
The hosts subsequently apologized, and Griffin said Friday, “When I walk by a Mexican restaurant, I get nervous.”
Griffin went on to praise the network’s coverage of voting rights issues as being ahead of the competition and said the network’s addition of Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart to the network’s weekday lineup has changed “the entire environment” because he is not restricted to Hispanic issues.
Díaz-Balart anchors MSNBC’s 10 a.m. hour live from Miami, but as Nogales noted, continues to co-anchor Telemundo’s “Noticiero Telemundo” and host “Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart.”
“The challenge is to get beyond Jose,” particularly by installing a Latino anchor, Nogales said.
Griffin agreed, saying, “We’ve got to build ’em.” Growing Latino talent is the only way to change the culture inside the network and project a more diverse image, he said.
A Díaz-Balart interview in Spanish with a teenage Guatemalan refugee in real time “was one of the most powerful things” Griffin said he had seen on the network. “We should have done this years ago. He’s part of the family now,” he said of Díaz-Balart.
The network trails Fox News Channel and CNN in the ratings. It is working with its Telemundo sibling on a series about children of the DREAM Act after its successful documentary “Underwater Dreams,” which aired in July.
Griffin counted among his top advisers Yvette M. Miley, vice president and executive editor, who is African American, and Chris Peña, senior executive producer, who is Hispanic.
Nogales said catering to Hispanics had progressed from “the right thing to do” to a business imperative. He said of Griffin from the stage, “He doesn’t have everybody aboard, but at least he’s not fighting us.”
NAHJ members challenged Griffin with their own concerns. One questioned whether the diversity among Hispanics, with their various countries of origin, would be addressed. Griffin said the network thrived on personality-driven anchors, “and that’s the way the business is moving.” Rachel Maddow, for example, hosts MSNBC’s top show, and “I never asked her to change a thing. I didn’t ask for a lesbian who dressed in T-shirts.” Al Sharpton presents himself “his own way.” Nogales used the opening to note that Maddow rarely has people of color on her show.
Daisy Gonzalez, a Mexican-American NAHJ member who works with a set-design firm, said she had family members who look “indigenous” and wondered why more people with their complexions were not on the air. So did Annette Raveneau, a Panamanian-American who said she could name only three Afro-Latinos on English- or Spanish-language television. Adrian Ramirez of the Rivard Report, a San Antonio online magazine, asked why he saw so little about the killings of indigenous people in South America, which he told Journal-isms he learned about from Al Jazeera.
Griffin told Ramirez that the networks have “so much more European and Asian coverage. We’ve got to change that,” and that “we’re behind” in covering Central and South America. “The forces of history are going to overwhelm what’s going on. I want to embrace this change. We’ve got to,” he repeated.
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