June 27, 2008
By: Gebe Martinez
The burst of anger on the Barack Obama campaign’s recent news media call was unexpected, but it should not have been a surprise.
For weeks, members of the Spanish-language media had been blogging, writing and outright complaining that the presidential campaigns have not been paying attention to them.
First, they expressed frustration about Republican John McCain’s campaign. About the same time, McCain brought on a media specialist to deal with the Hispanic press.
Then last week, they went after Obama’s communications director, Robert Gibbs, who had gotten on the telephone with reporters to highlight McCain’s “flip-flops” on various issues, including immigration and energy.
Forget the issues. The Latino reporters who spoke up on the call wanted to vent.
There has not been much “outreach with the Latino community,” one reporter complained, before others piled on their gripes: no access to Obama, no interaction with bloggers, no attention being paid by the “change” candidate and his campaign.
As if to ask, “Is that all?” one caller wondered who else, besides New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, would be campaigning in the Hispanic community for Obama.
In a week when Obama was appealing to Hispanic members of Congress to be as loyal to him as they were to his former Democratic rival, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his campaign was experiencing a major disconnect with the reporters who communicate to the community.
Gibbs, sounding a little off guard, defended the campaign’s efforts “to reach out, especially online, to every part of the American electorate.” He said that would continue, including with Latinos.
Judging by the level of discontent, however, the campaign needs to do more.
The Hispanic press “will be absolutely critical in terms of getting the message out and also to get voter mobilization of the campaigns done,” said Matt A. Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington.
With Latinos expected to make up 9 percent of the electorate in November, and perhaps be the deciding factor in Florida and Southwestern battleground states, the candidates’ press offices would be remiss not to return the calls of Spanish-language media sources that serve Hispanics.
Ignoring the Latino press is like downplaying the importance of The New York Times or information gatherers such as The Huffington Post. Sure, the candidates have debated on the Univision television network and have also been interviewed one on one by the network. But there is more to Spanish-language media than a couple of hits on Univision.
The diversity of the Latino electorate also requires a deeper understanding by the campaigns.
“It’s a mistake just to say you are reaching only Spanish-dominant voters” by talking to Spanish radio, Barreto said. “You are also reaching a lot of [Hispanic] English-dominant voters who get most of their information from Spanish-language media.”
The Hispanic media’s irritation with the candidates has been building for some time. Last month, a columnist for La Opinion, a major Spanish-language newspaper, complained about being dissed.
“Usually, to do the job, reporters need a constant and accessible contact person in the campaign,” wrote columnist Pilar Marrero. “In Obama’s case, this has been virtually impossible: There is not nor has there ever been regular communication with the Hispanic press. One wonders what might happen in the general election campaign, and then in an eventual Democratic presidency, if indeed they win in November.”
Latina Lista blogger Marisa Trevino wrote last week that Clinton’s campaign “knew how to make us feel cool, and once you experience what everyone else has always had, you don’t want to go back. ... As it stands now, we don’t even know if the Obama campaign wants Latino bloggers’ support.”
Spanish-language media have limited resources at the local level compared with most mainstream media, but they tend to do a better job of going beyond the horse race aspects and reporting the substance of issues and candidates’ platforms, said Federico Subervi, a communications professor at Texas State University. Subervi has researched and written about the mass media and Latino politics during the period between 1984 and 2004.
English-language media outlets usually cover Latinos only when the candidates visit Hispanic voting areas, against the backdrop of mariachis and colorful ethnic costumes. Spanish-language sources offer “a more consistent coverage and a more diversified coverage,” Subervi said in an interview with Hispanic Marketing and Public Relations.
Perhaps the Obama campaign slipped up with the Spanish-language media because polls show he already has the community’s support.
The Hispanic backlash against anti-immigrant rhetoric from conservative Republicans McCain is not among them as well as the economy and the Iraq war, are usually cited as reasons why Hispanics are favoring Democrats this year.
A Latino Decisions national poll this month found Obama leading McCain among Hispanic voters, 60 percent to 23 percent. The survey, conducted by Pacific Market Research and the University of Washington’s Barreto, also showed that among foreign-born Latinos, Obama was ahead of McCain, 64 percent to 21 percent.
And those voters get most of their news and information in Spanish.
“Spanish radio is everywhere,” Barreto offered. “Whether you are talking about service workers or construction workers, perhaps they are in their trucks and driving to and from jobs, or farm workers, there are a huge number of Spanish-dominant voters who spend a long number of hours listening to Spanish-language radio.”
Television is not far behind. It has previously been noted that the local television newscasts of Univision lead in 16 media markets, including Las Vegas, Miami and Albuquerque, N.M.
Even in Winston-Salem, N.C., the local government channel will soon start broadcasting a Spanish-language program to inform Latinos of city services.
At the Obama headquarters, Gibbs tried to reopen the lines of communication with the Latino reporters.
Just before ending the conference call, the communications director rattled off the name of the campaign’s Hispanic media contact and the general phone number to the press office. The reporters already had that information.
What they wanted were assurances that they would not always have to sit at the back of the media bus.
Gebe Martinez is a longtime journalist in Washington and a frequent lecturer and commentator on the policy and politics of Capitol Hill.