Apologies Only Go So Far in the MSNBC and GMA Cinco de Mayo Fiascos

Now that MSNBC apologized for its ridiculously offensive frat-boy Cinco de Mayo segment and a co-host for ABC’s “GMA” kind of apologized for her own Cinco de Drinko silliness, many would want to believe that the “angry Latinos” who followed these stories today should just go away and disappear.

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If it were only that simple. As is the case with most blatantly ignorant TV segments that try hard to speak to the “sizzling hot” U.S. Latino demographic without doing any real work to truly understand the complexities of the U.S. Latino experience, the end path is always failure. The reason is simple, to borrow a phrase from writer Blanca E. Vega: the conversation continues to address Latinos, without having any Latinos as part of the conversation. It is “Latinidad without Latinos.”

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We all know that U.S. newsrooms are not diverse, so does it come as a surprise that we continue to see such ignorance getting produced by professional news organizations? These two Cinco de Mayo fails (#CincoDeFallo for those playing in Spanish) are just the latest examples. And quite frankly, I am getting exhausted from seeing this go on for so many years.

So why do we continue to see instances like the ones on MSNBC and ABC? Because U.S. news organizations lack a critical mass of managers, talent, producers and reporters who would be the first ones to tell their colleagues in a pitch meeting that filming Drinko de Mayo segments might not be the best idea.

Two years ago, I wrote a column for NBC Latino (the same NBC Latino which shut down last December) addressing why there are almost no Latinos in English-language newsrooms. The three conclusions I made then still apply today. We haven’t really progressed that much. Two years later, instead of getting more diverse newsrooms, we get more Cinco de Drinko. Nonetheless, here are the reasons why I think the diversity issue lingers:

  • Media in America is still segregated between English and Spanish: We as a society have accepted the fact that American media is either English-dominant or Spanish-dominant. English media is perceived as superior in terms of reach and quality, because it has always been the mainstream and the larger market. Spanish media is seen as inferior because those media outlets that have become part of the Spanish mainstream (i.e., Univision, Telemundo) are more influenced by Latin America than by the United States. Have a Spanish-language surname? You are already perceived as inferior, so you have to work twice as hard to prove people wrong.
  • Journalism is still seen as a rather “elite” (read “white”) profession. study says “that minorities with journalism or communications degrees who have jobs in the industry are outnumbered 7 to 1 by their non-minority colleagues.”
  • Newspapers and news networks still haven’t fully embraced the world. A diverse staff gives you diverse perspectives, story ideas and opinions. Diversity is happening online, but not in newsrooms, and readers who are actively searching for this diversity can now find it easily in the digital space. By going to the digital space, there is less of a need to go to traditional outlets. And then you wonder why newspapers are having problems getting new readers and cable news is struggling with getting more viewers.

So while news organizations try to figure it out (by the way, this issue has been discussed and dissected for decades), you get even more offensive Cinco de Mayo segments because U.S. news organizations still don’t have the right people in the right places to tell others to drop the pitch and don’t even think about “going there.”

Yes, I know news organizations are trying to hire more diverse candidates, but they still operate in analog, while news consumers are already living in digital. That analog culture perpetuates Cinco de Mayo segments trivializing the topic. But who can blame MSNBC and GMA? It’s not like they don’t see bad Cinco de Mayo ads plastered all over New York City or drunk people behaving badly with their sarapes and think, “So that’s how people celebrate this holiday.”

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Imagine instead if these organizations had actual producers or researchers or on-air talent who could have directed the team to what was going on in Morgan Hill or UC Davis?

Now those are real pitches, which by the way, gained momentum first in the digital space.

Here’s another pitch: the whole concept of how misunderstood Cinco de Mayo really is. Just read the commentary Lalo Alcaraz wrote for Pocho.com about his thoughts on Cinco:

As I heard it, Cinco is only a holiday because Chicano college students in the late 60s wanted their colleges to have a holiday to honor their Mexican heritage and presence on campus, and Mexican Independence Day (September 16) was not always available or convenient to schools just getting started in the Fall. So, it’s not a big mystery, nor a conspiracy by alcohol companies, nor a plot to sell more sombreros and fake mustaches. But Cinco is a blessing for all those schemes.  

Cinco de Mayo was originally a nod to multiculturalism in an era when that was truly respected, but now has morphed into a national fiesta and tortilla chip orgy that eventually operates just like all our other national fiestas: TO MAKE MONEY.

That’s the type of pitch to bring to a newsroom: how did we get here and why are we now wearing sombreros on national TV and offending people? It’s a topic worthy of discussion, one that stems from digital, too. I know that U.S. newsrooms don’t have many people who can bring a pitch like that to the table. The real question is this: do these newsrooms really want to bring people like that to the table? Because if they don’t, then we will just keep seeing newsrooms insult and not inform.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the NationNPR,  Univisionand The New York Times. Recently, he was a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream.

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