Telemundo’s José Diaz-Balart: ‘The Latino Community Shouldn’t Be Seen as Foreign’

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

Jose Diaz-Balart and Diane Clehane

DianeClehaneLunch_FeaturedWhat a difference a week makes. Those that did show up at Michael’s last week were downright subdued with whispered conversations that kept the volume unusually low. Today, it was business as usual — at least it appeared so judging by the decibel level- with the power lunch crowd. With the Garden Room occupied by a flock of fashion folks for a private lunch (more on that later), the front room was jam-packed with suits, spinmeisters and a heavier than usual contingent of NBC Universal talking heads (Tom Brokaw, Mike Barnicle, former CNBC host Donny Deutsch).

José Diaz-Balart and Diane Clehane
José Diaz-Balart and Diane Clehane

 I was joined today by José Diaz-Balart, a man whose star at the network is clearly on the rise. He is the co-anchor of Telemundo’s nightly newscast, Noticiero, as well as its Sunday public affairs show Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart. José is also the Saturday anchor for NBC Nightly News and frequently fills in as host on The Today show. He landed the coveted Nightly News gig earlier this year after having anchored his own show on MSNBC for two years.

Having never met José before, I was struck by his warmth from the start. As we made our way to our table, he stopped to shake hands and talk (in Spanish) with many of Michael’s servers who recognized him, giving out plenty of pats on the back. “These guys are our viewers,” he told me as we settled in for our chat. “I might not get the best table in a restaurant, but I do get the best service!” I knew I was in for some great conversation.

José, who was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is based in Miami, has the historic distinction of being the only broadcaster to anchor the news on two major broadcast networks in two languages. I was surprised he had any voice at all given his seven-day work schedule and the virtual round the clock presence he’d maintained during — and after  — the election cycle. Last Tuesday, after helming Telemundo’s morning show, he returned to the air at 6:30 p.m. to anchor the election coverage and signed off at 3 a.m.

The morning after, he was back on the air at 9 a.m. and hosted a one-hour special that evening on Telemundo that looked at the effect will Donald Trump’s presidency could have on the Hispanic community. “We visited the border and I talked with immigration attorneys. We went and talked to our viewers — the street cart guy in New York, the day laborers in Los Angeles standing outside the hardware store looking for work,” he told me between bites of Cobb salad. “It was important that we listened to viewers about their concerns of undocumented workers and tried to get them answers. We were dealing with a lot of fear. There are a lot of ‘what-ifs’ for a lot of people.”

While talking about election coverage, I mentioned that when MSNBC’s Brian Williams said, “No one counted the lawn signs” when it appeared Trump had confounded the pundits and the polls, I told José I had done just that and all I’d seen were Trump-Pence signs everywhere from Greenwich to the South Bronx. “I was in Philadelphia a few weeks before the election and I said the same thing,” he said. “In South Florida, which is traditionally Democratic, there were not nearly as many [Hillary] signs as there were for Obama eight years ago. They were everywhere.” A young lady in Las Vegas told him she was voting for Trump but wasn’t telling anyone. “She said, ‘I can’t because I’m afraid [Hillary supporters] will scratch my car.” The takeaway: “When you see no signs it’s easy to think there is no story,” said José. “Sometimes no signs is the story.”

“It’s sad we have lost the desire to have conversations with people with different points of view and to listen,” he said. With social media an echo chamber and the pervasiveness of opinion journalism, José said that Telemundo endeavors to strive for a different standard. “Our mantra is to inform without activism,” he told me. “We are very conscious that the people we serve need to know all sides [of an issue] so they can make up their own minds. We respect our audience.”

And that audience is enormous — and growing. Telemundo is the No. 1 producer of Spanish-language prime-time content and reaches 94 percent of United States Hispanic viewers in 210 markers. With more than 57 million Hispanics in the United States and 53,000 U.S born Latinos turning 18 every month, José says it’s long overdue that people recognize the overwhelming majority of Latinos are not immigrants. “The Latino community is part of the thread of the culture of the United States. They should not be seen as ‘foreign,” he told me. “When we speak of the Latino community, the image in people’s mind should be Wall Street, City Hall, Capitol Hill, small businesses, restaurants and mergers and acquisitions firms, because that’s where the Latino community is.”

A certain segment of the network’s Spanish speaking viewers has another very specific reason for watching the network other than to be entertained or informed, José explained. “For millions of people, that television in the house is a safe place where they have a window to what’s going on in the world,” he said. Over the course of our nearly two-hour lunch, José shared many of the stories he’s heard from Latinos around the country whose families with “mixed status” are being torn apart by the current immigration policies — including tales of parents being deported after being picked up for a minor infraction like a broken tail light leaving their terrified children behind. “Millions of people leave for work or school and wonder if their dad is coming home that night.” He continued, “There are over 750,000 kids — future dreamers — who don’t know any other country than the United States, having been brought here by a parent and legalized by President Obama’s DACA [which prevents undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children from being deported],” he explained. “Because DACA was an executive action and not a law, there is a very real possibility it could be rescinded.”

At a press conference in November 2015 when Trump visited the border near Laredo, Texas, José attempted to ask the then-candidate about his now infamous comments about Mexicans and was “shouted down.” In his typically understated style Trump also told José he was “finished.” Having interviewed President Obama 13 times during his eight years in office, José told me he has, for “over a year” been requesting a sit down with Trump, having already scored a 15-minute interview via satellite earlier in the campaign.

I asked him what he thought of the president-elect giving reporters the slip last night having gone out to the 21 Club with his family without alerting the press pool. “The protocol of the press pool is important,” he said. “The reason the press pool exists is to bear witness.” As to whether Trump’s adversarial relationship with much of the press will continue into his presidency, José is taking a wait and see attitude. “On 60 Minutes he was trying to establish a post-candidate Donald Trump.” At the moment, what that means is anybody’s guess.

One thing’s for sure, if anyone is going to decipher what it all means for Spanish-speaking viewers, it’s José. “It is the privilege of my lifetime to be able to serve a national audience in two languages,” he said as we finished our coffee. “I speak about this all the time – about making a difference. I end every broadcast — in English and in Spanish — saying, ‘Thank you for the privilege of your time.’ I very much take that to heart.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Neil Sedaka presiding over a table full of pals including Kate Edelman Johnson

2. Bobby Friedman

3. Decamped from his usual perch at Table 8, New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia, Alex Hitz and Brooke Hayward

4. Donny Deutsch (yes, he was wearing a T-shirt) and Mike Barnicle

5. CBS’ Gil Schwartz

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Andy Bergman

9. WABC radio’s Joan Hamburg

10. Producer Beverly Camhe

11. Mickey Ateyeh

12. LAK PR CEO Lisa Linden with LAK colleagues Colleen Roche and David Simpson and former Yonkers mayor Phil Amicone and John Fleming, former security director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

14. Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel

15. Jerry Inzerillo

17. Bobby LeBlanc

18. PR maven Susan Blond

20. Tom Brokaw

25. Tom Goodman

27. Jose Diaz-Balart, Camilo Pino and yours truly

Faces in the Crowd: Desiree Gruber hosted a swanky shoe-in for footwear designer Sarah Flint. The chic styles were on view in the Garden Room for the well-heeled crowd which included Dayle Haddon, Rosanna Scotto, Jane Hanson, Elizabeth Harrison and Hearst’s Jeanette Chang.

We’ll be home stuffing the bird next Wednesday in preparation for Thanksgiving. See you back at Michael’s in two weeks!

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.