It's a story with all the makings of a good telenovela. More to the point, the public fallout from the affair between Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Telemundo reporter Mirthala Salinas has highlighted, in dramatic fashion, the growing presence and power of Latinos in the United States.
When Villaraigosa was elected mayor of the nation's second-largest city in May 2005, he became the first Latino to hold the position since 1872. His victory was applauded by the media as a sign of political equality and increasing power for Latinos. A rising Democratic Party star, Villaraigosa was also chosen by the Democratic National Committee to deliver a Spanish-language rebuttal to George Bush's State of the Union Address in 2006.
At the same time, Latino media clout in the U.S. is also growing.
Among Villaraigosa's most important media constituents are Univision and Telemundo, the two dominant domestic Spanish-language broadcasters in the U.S. According to its own figures, Telemundo--about one-fourth the size of Univision--reaches 93% of U.S. Hispanic households in 142 markets, through 16 owned-and-operated stations, 36 broadcast affiliates and nearly 684 cable affiliates.
Together, they serve an estimated population of 45 million Latinos now living in the United States, many of whom prefer Spanish-language media. Univision recently surpassed UPN and the CW Television Network to become the fifth-most-popular network overall in the United States.
Telemundo, and its parent company NBC, clearly place a premium on the integrity of the network's Spanish-language news reporting. Earlier this month, Salinas was suspended from KVEA-TV, a Telemundo affiliate in Los Angeles, and NBC's management was said to be reviewing her reporting for evidence of impropriety going back 18 months--the length of her affair with Villaraigosa.
The relationship is a PR nightmare for Villaraigosa, who has endured hostile coverage. One reason may be the anger among reporters who feel Villaraigosa used the affair to manipulate coverage. Others may have resented that Salinas had special access to L.A.'s key politico.
Separately, Alicia Unger, a reporter for Spanish-language network Azteca America, is seeking unspecified damages after being pushed against a cargo container by the mayor's bodyguard on Aug. 3. After a press conference at the Port of Los Angeles, she and other journalists were chasing Villaraigosa to ask him questions about his affair with Salinas. He refused to address Salinas' suspension. Film of the incident was shown on Azteca rival Telemundo, as well as "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
On the national front, political analysts speculate that the Villaraigosa-Salinas affair may impact Hillary Clinton. In May, Clinton publicly sought and received Villaraigosa's endorsement for the politically crucial Latino vote--a strategy that may now work against her.