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Conundrum of Covering Trump Lands at Univision’s Doorstep
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Conundrum of Covering Trump Lands at Univision’s Doorstep

Conundrum of Covering Trump Lands at Univision’s Doorstep

The howls of protest against Univision began as soon as its interview with Donald J. Trump aired. A month later, they still haven’t stopped.

To critics of Univision, the Nov. 9 interview — with its gentle questioning and limited follow-ups from the interviewer, Enrique Acevedo — has confirmed their fears since the traditionally left-leaning network merged with the Mexican broadcaster Televisa early last year in a $4.8 billion deal. The network, they said, was taking a troubling turn to the right under its new owners, who have a reputation for cultivating relationships with leading politicians in Mexico, where Televisa has been a feared kingmaker for more than 50 years.

Last-minute maneuvering at Univision raised further suspicions. Just hours before the interview aired, the network reversed its invitation to the Biden campaign to run ads during the hourlong special with Mr. Trump, citing what appeared to be a new company policy. Scarcely an hour later, Univision abruptly canceled an interview with the Biden campaign’s director of Hispanic media.

But the reason for changes at the network can’t be explained by political considerations alone, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former Univision journalists and executives, including Mr. Acevedo and Daniel Coronell, the network’s president of news.

Hispanic media is proving susceptible to the same upheaval straining other American newsrooms. Spanish-language television news audiences are in decline, compounding pressure from an uneven economy. And the dilemma over how to report on Mr. Trump — should he get exhaustive, minimal or even no coverage? — is vexing Univision just as it is its English-language counterparts.

Univision executives have said they are making a pivot toward the center — a strategy that reflects the split political preferences of the Hispanic electorate and the need to broaden their audience.

“I think they saw the reputation Univision had as a Democratic megaphone,” Mr. Acevedo said about the network’s new owners, in his first interview about the criticism. Univision’s new approach is an effort to be more balanced and offer diversity of not just race, gender and sexual orientation but point of view, he said.

“I think they understood that in 22 years, we hadn’t had a Republican sitting or former president sit down with us,” Mr. Acevedo added. “If anything they’re being criticized for that.” No one told him what to ask or to go easy on Mr. Trump, he said.

While Univision’s shift may upset some Democrats, it reflects the political and business reality: To grow, Univision leadership believes, the company needs to change its programming to better serve the Hispanic voting population, which recent elections and polling suggest is inching to the right.

“If you’ve been the beneficiary of media bias for the last 30 years, then balance starts to feel like betrayal,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant who is highly critical of Mr. Trump but also believes that Democrats have taken the Hispanic vote for granted.

“But they have to adjust,” he said of Univision. “They have no choice but to find another audience.”

To even a casual viewer, there is no doubt that Univision has been more friendly to Republicans lately. Conservatives appear more frequently on the air. Coverage of immigration — long the network’s bread-and-butter news — has become more skeptical of President Biden’s policies. Regular programming has been interrupted to cover Mr. Trump’s remarks live — something even Fox News generally avoids. The network’s streaming platform, ViX, has recently introduced several shows with decidedly conservative hosts.

The network’s course adjustment is not a trivial concern for either party. Univision, with a bigger footprint than any other Spanish-language network in the United States, is a crucial entry into the homes of one of the most important and fastest-growing swing demographics in the country.

It accounts for about 60 percent of the Hispanic media market in the United States. Along with its signature channel, its holdings include dozens of local television stations, from Bakersfield, Calif., to Raleigh, N.C. Historically, Democrats have far outpaced Republicans in ad spending on the network during elections. Republican spending on Univision increased sharply in 2022, however, to $18.1 million from $12.7 million in 2020, according to AdImpact.

Inside the company, the fallout from the Trump interview has unsettled longtime journalists who have asked — as many at CNN did when it was accused of being too soft on the former president during a town hall in May — whether Univision pulled its punches when the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Mr. Acevedo defended his approach in the interview, which he acknowledged was “soft.” He said he wanted to give Mr. Trump the room to talk, so the audience could hear and judge for itself. He said that the interview made news by getting Mr. Trump to say things he hadn’t said before. Mr. Trump said he would consider using the Justice Department to prosecute his political enemies. He also insisted — among other false claims that Mr. Acevedo didn’t challenge — that Mexico had paid for construction of the wall along the southern border during his presidency and suggested that he had received double or triple the number of counted votes.

Mr. Acevedo said he had one regret: not pushing back when Mr. Trump compared some migrants to the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Many migrants crossing the border, the former president said, are “very, very disturbed, very, very mentally ill.”

Many critics of the interview, including journalists at the network, compared the interview to the way media in Latin America — and Televisa in particular — prop up the party in power with flattering coverage. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus asked for a meeting with the network. And a top Univision anchor, Jorge Ramos, said on his website that the interview had “put in doubt the independence of our news department.”

Adding to the concerns was that Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, had helped broker the interview with one of TelevisaUnivision’s chief executives, Bernardo Gómez. Both men stood off camera in the Mar-a-Lago ballroom where Mr. Acevedo questioned Mr. Trump. Inside Univision, many employees complained that seasoned Univision journalists in Miami were passed over for the assignment. Mr. Acevedo anchors Televisa’s nightly news show in Mexico City.

Despite their concerns, few Univision employees have been willing to speak out publicly for fear of reprisal or even termination, a concern that was amplified by the abrupt departure of León Krauze, a popular news personality at Univision, less than a week after the interview with Mr. Trump ran. An official at TelevisaUnivision, who was not authorized to speak about personnel matters, said Mr. Krauze was laid off for cost-cutting reasons.

At least one Univision journalist received an email from management that asked to promote the interview on social platforms — a request that had never happened before, the person said. Across its various platforms on television and online, Univision devoted three days of extensive coverage to the interview. Several employees said they were surprised the network did not use that time to do more fact-checking of Mr. Trump’s lies.

Mr. Coronell, Univision’s president of news, said he understood that not everyone agreed with Mr. Acevedo’s approach to the interview. But he defended it and strenuously denied any suggestion that Televisa executives had played a role in shaping the tone or the questions.

“The picture they paint is almost laughable,” said Mr. Coronell, a journalist originally from Colombia. “As the serious media company that it is, Univision has a clear separation between corporate interests and the news department.”

He added: “Having an interview with Trump doesn’t make us Trumpers. It makes us journalists looking to reflect all voices.”

The decision to cancel the interview with Mr. Biden’s director of Hispanic media was his, Mr. Coronell said, because he did not believe Mr. Trump’s appearance on Univision was like the State of the Union address, when the opposing party is afforded a rebuttal.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

For many liberal Hispanics, reaction to the interview has been shock mixed with a feeling of disappointment in a network that many have viewed as an ally and advocate for decades.

“We were dumbfounded,” said Felix Sanchez, a co-founder and the chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit that focuses on Latino representation in media. “It sent shock waves through the community, because the whole incident was so off brand.”

Representative Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Univision had a civic duty to push back against Mr. Trump’s distortions because of its unique role in the community,

“Univision serves as a main source of information for the Latino community and has a real responsibility to vet information from any campaign,” he said, “particularly Trump’s, given how he’s handled that community.”

A Univision spokesman said the network had been in touch with the caucus since it sent its letter on Nov. 20 and was in “regular contact” to schedule a meeting.

Univision’s history with Mr. Trump has not always been so friendly. Its chairman during the 2016 presidential race was the Israeli American billionaire Haim Saban, a major Democratic donor and a top contributor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. At one point in 2016, Mr. Trump barred all Univision employees from his golf resort in Miami, which abuts the Univision offices there.

The interview delivered Univision strong ratings. According to Nielsen, 2.9 million people watched. Univision said it was the most-watched interview with Mr. Trump in recent years among Hispanic adults in the United States ages 18 to 49.

Observers of TelevisaUnivision said that was most likely the strongest motivation for the company as it tried to adapt in an uncertain economic and political climate.

“It’s very much a weakened company,” said Andrew Paxman, a historian who wrote a biography of Emilio Azcárraga, the founder of Televisa and a grandfather of the current boss. Univision’s prime-time audience is slightly up overall from a year ago but down among the younger viewers who drive advertising sales.

Mr. Paxman said he did not think Univision was “shifting” to Republicans, but was looking to attract more political advertising next year. “They want Republican cash as well as Democratic Party cash,” he said.