A breaking news event that occurred in the United States 39 years ago started longtime Univision anchor Jorge Ramos on his journalism career path. To help pay for college, the Mexico City native was working at a Mexico radio station. When then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan was shot in Washington, D.C., Ramos’ news director needed someone who not only could speak English but who also had a passport handy. The only staffer to speak up? An eager 23-year-old who found himself promptly dispatched to the U.S. to cover the assassination attempt.
“Without any experience whatsoever as a foreign correspondent, they sent me to Washington … and that changed my life,” Ramos said. “After that, I decided I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
Based in Miami, Ramos serves as anchor of “Noticiero Univision,” the Univision Sunday-morning political news program “Al Punto.” Considered the “voice of the voiceless” within the Latino community, he has covered five wars and such world events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 attacks. A tough-minded reporter who puts authority to the test, Ramos has challenged politicians, dictators and world leaders. In a 1991 interview, he confronted Cuban President Fidel Castro on-air for 63 seconds before being cut off by the leader’s bodyguard, and in 2015 while covering an Iowa press conference, Ramos was forcefully removed while trying to ask then-candidate Donald Trump a question on immigration. Most recently, Ramos’ February 2019 interview of Venezuela leader Nicolás Maduro got him expelled from the country. He and his camera crew were detained for two hours and then ordered to leave.
In addition to his TV duties, Ramos hosts the Facebook Watch show, “Real America with Jorge Ramos,” writes a weekly column found in 40 newspapers and contributes to The New York Times. An Emmy award winner, he is the author of 13 books including, “Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era” (2018), which is his personal account of feeling like an outsider in both Mexico, his home country, and the United States, where he became a citizen at age 50.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Was there a defining moment early in your journalism career in Mexico?
In 1982, I was working for a television station. I started as a writer, and then they gave me the opportunity to be a reporter. Back then there was fierce censorship, direct censorship from the government to all the TV and radio stations — complete censorship. The PRI was in power, they controlled absolutely everything, and I remember that I was doing a story on the psychology of the Mexican citizen. And I decided to interview two writers, Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska. When I came back to the TV station and wrote my story, they told me that I couldn’t broadcast the story, because these two writers were critical of the Mexican government. They asked me to rewrite my story. I did it, but I kept them in the story, and at the end they censored my story completely, 100%. They didn’t allow it to air. At that moment, I realized that I needed to make an important decision, and I decided to quit. I wrote a letter of resignation to the news director and to the owner of the TV station, and I told them that I was not going to accept being a censored journalist. It was probably the most difficult decision of my career because I had no job, no money, no possibility of getting another job in Mexico because of the censorship, and at that moment I decided to come to the United States. I sold my car — a small, red Volkswagen. I got a student visa and came to UCLA to study a one-year course on television and journalism, and that changed my life. It was a very difficult moment, but I am glad that I had the courage to confront the owners of the TV station and to quit. Otherwise, I would have been a miserable, censored, sad reporter with no reputation and no credibility.
What did your parents think about your going into journalism as a career?
My father wanted me to be an architect like him, an engineer, a doctor or an attorney. Those were the only four legitimate professions. And I remember when I told my dad that I wanted to be a journalist he said, “What are you going to do with that?” I told him that I really don’t know, but that’s exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life. My dad was an architect and he was OK, but he was really a magician. And he should have been a magician; he just didn’t have the courage to tell his father that he wanted to pursue a different profession. And I learned from him in the sense that I chose the profession that really meant something for me. And then, of course, I decided not to be an architect, or an engineer, a doctor or an attorney, and that changed everything.
You’ve been referred to as the Walter Cronkite of Latino America. How do you feel about that designation?
You know, I’m simply just a reporter who’s asking questions. And I do understand that I’m in a privileged position because on many occasions I give voice to those that don’t have a voice. I like to use what I do to give the opportunity to hear those who’ve been silenced and those who’ve been invisible for many decades.
What is your preparation for an interview? Do you still get butterflies after decades in the profession?
Of course I get nervous, and it’s always difficult. I always tell other journalists and other students that when you’re doing an interview and right before the interview you realize that your heart is beating and that your hands are sweaty, that’s precisely the question that you have to ask. The way I approach it is twofold. First, I think that if I don’t ask that question, nobody else will. And second, I approach most interviews with powerful people thinking that I will never talk to them again. So, if you think that you won’t have access to that person again, it is a different interview. Now, I do believe as the Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, that every interview is like a war. Sometimes that interviewer wins, and sometimes the interviewee wins. But, I like to approach the interviews with powerful people, with politicians, with dictators, with presidents, as a conflict, as a war. There’s a beautiful word in Spanish called contrapoder. Contra means against, and poder is power. And I think our role as journalists is precisely to be contrapoder. In other words, we always have to be on the other side of power. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, but we always have to be on the other side of power. So, when I’m approaching an interview, I think of myself as an opponent, as the only person at that moment in time that can ask those questions. I spend days, if not weeks, preparing for the interview. On many occasions, I try to know about my subject or that person more than they know about themselves. Usually, I use my first question to set the tone of the interview. For instance, when I had the opportunity to talk to the dictator Fidel Castro, I asked him about the lack of democracy in Cuba, or just recently, last year when I went to Venezuela to talk to Nicolás Maduro, my first question was, “How should I call you? Are you a dictator?”
In terms of diversity in the newsroom, what do you think of the status of Latinos in decision-making roles?
Let me give you the big picture. In 2044 everyone is going to be a minority in this country, absolutely everyone. Whites, which compose about 60% of the population, non-Hispanic whites will become another minority. So, by then, and I hope to be alive, everyone is going to be a minority. This country is going through an incredible demographic revolution right now, and what we are seeing with white supremacy, with racism, with discrimination, with police brutality, is a resistance to that demographic change. Now as a minority reporter, I know that we are not properly represented when it comes to politics, when it comes to the economy, when it comes to mass media, when it comes to social media, we are not. And it is our obligation to make sure that even though we are not properly represented, that the audience that we represent, that the communities that we represent, have a voice in the national debate. So, I am glad to see journalists like Tom Llamas from ABC and José Díaz- Balart from NBC doing their newscast, the nightly news during the weekends. I think it’s an incredible advance, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago. I am glad that I was chosen, as well as my co-anchor, Ilia Calderón, to be part of the presidential debates recently among Democratic candidates. So, I do see that there’s progress. It is not enough, and we have to push it forward.
How do you view objectivity as a journalist? Are there times you are an activist?
I think that sometimes as a journalist — and I know this is going to be controversial to some reporters — we have to take a stand, and I think we have to take a stand on six major issues: racism, discrimination, corruption, public lies, violation of human rights and dictatorships. I don’t believe that the most important responsibility that we have is to be objective or to be neutral. Sometimes you cannot be neutral in front of a dictator. I cannot be neutral with someone like Fidel Castro. I cannot be neutral with someone like Nicolás Maduro. I cannot be neutral with someone like President Donald Trump, who on June 16, 2015, said that Mexican immigrants — and I am a Mexican immigrant — are bringing crime and are rapists. That’s a racist statement. So, in front of those situations I think we have to take a stand as journalists because if we don’t do it, nobody else will.
How has being bilingual and bicultural impacted your journalism work?
The fact that I am bilingual and that I have a dual-citizenship has given me an incredible opportunity, because I become a sort of translator of what is happening in the Hispanic community and in Latin America to a broader English-speaking audience in the United States. Because I’m not only doing the newscast in Spanish, I also have a weekly show on Facebook Watch, I write a weekly column for 40 newspapers, and I’m a contributor to the New York Times, where I publish once every month. So, I am translating the reality of the Hispanic community and the Spanish-speaking people in the United States and the people in Latin America to an English-language audience. And at the same time, I translate what’s happening in the United States to an audience in Latin America and to those who prefer to receive their information in Spanish in the United States. So, in a way, I am from both countries. I am a stranger, and I am also a translator.
With layoffs and downsizing, COVID-19 and threats against reporters, young people may be shying away from the profession. What advice do you have for students considering journalism as a career?
This is the best time to be a journalist. Think about it: We are living two, maybe three major crises at the same time. We have a pandemic, we have a horrible economic crisis, and we are dealing with a social justice crisis because of police brutality and the way minorities and African Americans are being treated in this country. This is exactly the kind of crisis that any journalist would love to be in and to report on. This is the most important defining moment in our lifetime. We’re never going to be living another moment like this with a pandemic, with an economic crisis and with a social justice crisis like the one we’re living right now. So, what I’m telling young journalists is that this is an incredible time. When I was growing up, my only possibilities were to work at a network, a TV network, in a radio station or for a newspaper. That was it. Now, with social media, every single young journalist has the possibility of using many different platforms to broadcast their message, and this has created new challenges for us.
What changes would you like to see in the news industry? What would help build trust?
We need more diversity in our newsrooms, so the voices of this incredible multicultural, multiracial society could be heard. And that’s where we are right now. I think our responsibility, more than being objective and being neutral, is to be fair and to tell the truth. And the only way to do that is if you have more voices and more diversity in the newsroom. That’s the only way. I’ve been doing that all my life. I’ve seen progress. I think we’re going in the right direction, but much more needs to be done.
How do you manage the pressure that comes with the job — especially covering current news events?
It sounds so basic but I’ve learned to breathe properly in the last 10 or 15 years. I do yoga. I always wonder if I would have survived in such stressful media without learning how to breathe and without doing yoga. Early in my life, I learned to jog, so if you see me running on the street, it’s because I’ve had a very stressful day or a very stressful week, and I play tennis because I’d rather hit a tennis ball than explode in a social situation. I have a very rich family life with my children. They’ve given me the opportunity to manage stress. This is an incredibly stressful profession and I want to keep on doing it for the rest of my life. You know, many people my age are retiring. After the pandemic and after spending a couple of weeks at home, I know that I cannot do that. I cannot be at home, so I’m hoping to be a journalist until the end of my life.
PHOTO CAPTION: Jorge Ramos is one of this year’s five Fellows of the Society, the highest honor given by the Society of Professional Journalists. In addition to being featured here, each will be a part of special SPJ programming at the online convention and beyond. (Photo by Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images)
Tagged under: Fellows of the Society, Jorge Ramos