30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years: José Díaz-Balart

By A.J. Katz 

To mark the 15th anniversary of TVNewser this month, Adweek honored the 30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years, spotlighting the personalities and execs who were instrumental in the industry’s incredible decade-and-a-half evolution. TVNewser will be presenting expanded versions of each honoree’s interview.

José Díaz-Balart

  • Job now: anchor, Noticiero Telemundo and Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart, both Telemundo; anchor, NBC Nightly News Saturday
  • Job 15 years ago: Hoy en el Mundo, Telemundo; anchor, NBC’s Miami 5 p.m. newscast

Adweek: What were you doing 15 years ago, in January 2004?

Díaz-Balart: In 2004, I was working for Telemundo. I believe that I was also anchoring for NBC in Miami, the local station, in English and in Spanish. Spanish network in the mornings and in English, in the local in Miami. I’ll have to check the date on you though.

What’s your favorite professional moment of the past 15 years?

There are so many. The news is such a rapidly changing phenomenon, that I think of it as stories that I’ve covered. Anything from natural disasters to elections. I don’t ever want to sound like it’s all negative. Covering things like the terrorist attacks in Paris or the earthquake in Mexico September of last year. There are so many stories that stay with me. But stories also of positive impact on our communities. I’m thinking for example, immigration reform attempts in the United States, that have failed unfortunately, that mean so much to my community. There are so many stories that touched me in these last years, and some times that aren’t even the ones that one knows about. I can tell you a story of a mother I met in Los Angeles that came to see one  of our shows when we were doing it outside in the open air. And she said she and her two little small daughters were living in a car. I asked them, did something happen, and she said, yeah, my husband was just deported and he was the breadwinner of the family. So we ended up, my two little daughters and I, living in a car. She was there to tell me that one of those two daughters was going to become president of the United States one day, because they were born in the United States. And to see the hopes and dreams in the little girls’ eyes that came to see a newscast of Noticiero Telemundo to affirm that they would one day be president of the United States, told me a lot. They were almost I think, pretty close to my daughter’s age. And I saw in them the hopes and dreams of people who refuse to let even the most difficult problems in their lives take away their dreams. That’s a story that I remember.

What is the biggest way that TV news has changed over the past 15 years?

Coming from a guy who started in TV at the end of 1984, when there were the amazing advancement of ¾ inch video tape, they were carried by the soundman in a box the size of a large suitcase, connected by a six foot cable to an Ikegami camera. And then that video had to be transferred over to an editing machine, to where we are today. 15 years seems like decades ago. The immediacy of television has changed. That fact that We now don’t only work for half hour national news broadcasts, but see ourselves as journalists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through the different platforms. The immediacy of the interaction with the audience, because of the social platforms, is extraordinary. And that is something that in the last 10 years has changed. The immediacy is what strikes me.

Who have you learned the most from in your career?

I have learned the most from those who least are known. I have learned the most from that mother I told you about. I’ve learned the most from a man that I met in Chile after the earthquake, who lost his entire family, his wife and little daughter. His brother, his wife and their son, they were all camping when the earthquake hit in Chile. The tsunami ripped his little daughter and his wife away from his hands, as he was trying to hold onto a tree, to try and survive the tsunami.  And he saw how the waves took his wife and his daughter and his brother and his brother’s wife and his nephew. In one moment, he lost his entire family. He was a paramedic in Chile. I met him two days after the earthquake. He was giving first aid to little kids who had been injured during the hurricane. He was sewing them up and patching them up, and patting them on the head and saying, It’s okay, it’s gonna be alright. His name is Luis Gatica, and I will never forget the life lessons I learned by seeing how he deals with adversity. I could go on and on, because 34 years of experiences, of meeting people along the way, is really what has defined me as a journalist.

In 1985, I was in El Salvador. I was covering a story and then we heard on the radio there had been a shootout outside the presidential palace. And so we drove to the presidential palace, and some thieves had stolen a car. They’d done it using weapons. And so they’d stolen a car, the police are chasing them, and by their bad luck, they’d turned into the street that led to the presidential palace. So all of a sudden, they’re racing towards the presidential palace with cops behind them. So the guards at the presidential palace opened fire, and they just riddled the car with bullets. I got there, there were four people in the car, two were dead, two were in process of dying. I got there, we immediately noticed what was going on, that it was an unfortunately incident that wasn’t an attack on the presidential palace, but one of these happenstance situations. So we went back to our car, and when we were going back to our car, I heard this screaming that I hadn’t heard before, or many times since. It was the  scream of a little boy who was probably 9 or 10. This was about two blocks away from the presidential palace, where we had parked our car. We went into this one-room little house. I remember it as if it were today. There was a little boy who was 9 or 10, and he was on the ground playing with wooden car that his grandmother had made. And his grandmother was the last person on earth that he had. His  family had died in a battle, in the war zone, outside of San Salvador. So he went to live with grandmother, the last person he had on earth. He was playing with his little wooden car, his grandmother was mopping the floor beside him, and a stray bullet from that two-block-away shootout killed her. Here he was with a little wooden toy that his grandmother had made for him, playing on the ground and his grandmother was right beside him, dead. And I remember, that he told me this story in between tears. I asked him, so what’s next for you. And he said, nothing, my life is over. I’ve often thought about that boy. He would be 30 or 40 years old.  And in my dreams, he made it. I think of that a lot, because that’s what we do in journalism and in news. It’s tell stories. I’ve learned a lot from people who say, no, my life isn’t over, I’m going to keep trying. I carry a lot of those stories with me.

Which of your competitors do you most admire, and why?

I admire all of them. And I learn from all of them. He’s not a competitor but I think Lester Holt is an extraordinary journalist. I compete against him Monday-Friday, and then I fill in for him on Saturdays, because he did NBC weekends for many years. Lester is an extraordinary talent, and an extraordinary journalist. And again, I don’t think of him as a competitor, even though Monday-Friday, he is.

I think Tom Llamas, who anchors on ABC on the weekends, who is a young man who I very much admire and have known for many, many years. He used to work at the NBC station in Miami before he went to the NBC station in New York, and then onto ABC weekends. I look at him as someone who is very much in the mold of a future star, even though I think he’s a star already. There’s a lot of Latinos that are coming up through the business, and I’m very proud of them. I think of Morgan Radford at NBC Nightly News. So many young talents, journalists, that aren’t my competition but they are people that I look up to and admire.

What do you know now about the business that you didn’t know 15 years ago?

That consistency matters, and that truth matters. And that first, be best, than be first.

What has been your toughest professional challenge during the past 15 years?

I’ve had so many, but many more rewards. The toughest professional challenege is having a seven-day a week schedule. I anchor Monday through Friday, Noticiero Telemundo, and Saturday on NBC Nightly News in New York, and then Sunday is the Enfoque television show out of South Florida for Telemundo. A professional challenge is to just keep that going for seven days a week. It’s also been the biggest privilege of my life.

How long have you been on that seven-day-a-week schedule?

I was named the anchor for NBC Nightly News Saturdays in August two years ago, but I’ll have to look at that. Before that, I was part of the rotating anchors on NBC Nightly News Weekend. It was two years that I’ve been working officially seven days a week. And it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It has revigorated me, it had reemphasized my commitment to serve. It’s just a challenge because of seven days a week. So Aug 6, 2016 [I started]. If I fortunate enough to keep riding this forever, I would be the luckiest person on earth. It’s the privilege of a lifetime, and I don’t know even want to say it’s been a challenge. Other than the challenge of knowing where I am and what language I’m speaking in. But I work with the best.

I’m so passionate about the privilege of being able to serve the community in the United States on a national level in Spanish, and then on a national level in English. I’ve learned so much from so many people, every single day.