Maria Elena Salinas on Moving From Univision to CBS and Spotlighting the Pandemic’s Effect on Latinos in New CBSN Special

By A.J. Katz Comment

When Maria Elena Salinas joined CBS News at this time last year as a contributor, many were surprised. After all, Salinas—one of the most celebrated TV news journalists, regardless of language, and the first Latina to receive a lifetime achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences—spent 36 years in Spanish-language TV before leaving Univision at the end of 2017.

After so many years, why leave Spanish-language news for English-language news?

“I thought that it would be important to tell some of the Latino stories that I reported on Univision to a completely different audience,” Salinas told TVNewser in a phone interview. “After a while, you feel like you’re preaching to the choir when you work in Spanish-language media because we know our problems, we know our stories.”

Salinas brings her award-winning storytelling to English-language audiences in Sunday prime time, with a special on CBS News’ streaming service CBSN, titled Pandemia: Latinos in Crisis.

We spoke to Salinas about the new special, which features CBS’ Hispanic journalists working in front of and behind the camera, her own coverage of the pandemic, why she left Univision and what needs to happen to get more Latinos in the anchor chair.

TVNewser: Where did the idea for Pandemia come from, and what was the production process like?

Salinas: We have been doing several stories on how Latinos are affected throughout the [pandemic] coverage, but there’s so much to say and as we realize that Latinos were disproportionately affected in deaths, infections and the way it has impacted them financially–we realized this just needed to be done. The original idea came from [CBS News evp of news] Kim Godwin. The majority of the Latinos who are working at CBS News got together to put this together. This is the first time that CBS News has put on a special of this type with a complete team of Hispanic journalists. All of those who are on camera are Hispanic, and the majority of the people who worked on the show behind the scenes are also Hispanic.

You’re Miami based. What type of stories are you hearing from Miamians as it pertains to the pandemic? Miami is considered the epicenter right now.

I think people are a little surprised. They didn’t think it was going to happen to them. Think there are a lot of people who are incredulous and don’t believe that this is real. Until you see the numbers rise, or until you have someone in your family that is being affected by Covid-19, you tend to not be a believer.

One of the things that’s happening here in Florida is that a lot of the essential workers are Latino. The people who are going out, the people who are keeping the country going. The farm workers, for example. There’s a lot of agricultural here in Florida, and you have farm workers who have to go to work but can’t really social distance. They can’t work in the conditions where they need to protect themselves and they also don’t have access to adequate healthcare. There is a lot of fear, and there is also a language barrier that affects them. There is also the immigration status barrier, and it doesn’t just mean that those who are undocumented and don’t have access to either health insurance or unemployment, but even those who are here legally, those who might be on their way to getting their green card. And they’re afraid that if they try to access any kind of aid, to get a test or get treatment, that they might lose their opportunity for their green card because the laws are changing so much and because there’s so much confusion about what you can and can’t do in this health emergency.

You’ve spent one year at CBS. What has the transition been like, not only from Spanish-language to English-language news, but also transitioning from the role of nightly news anchor to a network contributor who we don’t see each night?

When I left Univision, I didn’t leave so I could find another job. I wanted to be an independent journalist, which is exactly what I’m doing now as a contributor.

Even though I’m not only reporting on stories that are related to the Latino community, there are some, and I think at CBS they know that’s my forte. They know I know the Latino community fairly well. I know their issues. I know their idiosyncrasies.

We feel as a Latino community that we’re sometimes ignored by our government and then also ignored by mainstream media, so I thought this was a great opportunity to get more and more accurate coverage of the Latino community and I’m excited for that opportunity. We have to remember we [Latinos] are the largest minority in the country. 60% of Latinos are U.S. citizens. Another 20% are naturalized citizens. 60% were born here, including me! We’re just as American as anyone else and sometimes we’re treated as foreigners. Sometimes we treat ourselves as foreigners.

I’m doing exactly what I want to do and I’m very happy about it.

What has working with Susan Zirinsky been like?

She is a powerhouse. Susan is so optimistic. She is all over the place, she does everything and she is such a hard worker. We have had several meetings and she listens to me. Always looking for ideas. Always looking for ways to do something new, something different. She wants to bring the audience something different, instead of the status quo. She is very creative. I think that most people you speak to at CBS will tell you that she is very positive and very hands on. One thing I love about her is she cheers everyone on.

During the whole pandemic, since it started, in the beginning it was every single day she would send everyone an email, and it wasn’t just to keep you up to date with what was going on, but sort of to encourage you, to congratulate you, to cheer you on for the sacrifices that you’re making. It’s nice to have someone in a leadership position that makes the staff feel cared for, like you matter.

Each weekend evening news anchor is Latino, which is important, but I can’t think of a single Latino host of a major weekday cable news hour. Carl Quintanilla on CNBC is an exception. What needs to happen to get more Latinos in the anchor chair?

You have Alicia Menendez on MSNBC on weekends and Ana Cabrera on CNN also on weekends. Representation matters and we don’t have that representation at the level that we should have. The networks need to wake up and realize how important the Latino community is.

We are around 61 or 62 million. 60% are U.S.-born, and about three-fourths are bilingual and if they watch Spanish-language TV, it’s not because of the language, it’s because of the content. They don’t feel that they can relate to English-language media. The networks are losing out on a very large audience that doesn’t want to be ignored. We just need to shake things up a little bit, like the African-American community has. They very much stand up for their rights to be recognized for what they are and for what they have to contribute. I think the same thing needs to happen for Latinos. One thing, I think elections and voting has a lot to do with it. If you don’t vote, you’re ignored. If you vote, then they pay attention to you; if they think that you are going to make a difference. That goes for politics, and that goes for media too.

What do you know now about the television news business that you didn’t know in 1981?

You can really make a difference. It is a completely different world than what it was back then, and for Spanish-language media, of course, we [Univision] grew tremendously. In the media business, you have to fight for every story, and I think one of the things I realize now is the power that we have. If media didn’t have power, we wouldn’t try to be silenced like we are by those in power.

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