Jorge Ramos Is Not Walter Cronkite

Monday, August 31, 2015."Notebook." The New York Times Magazine blog.

Shortly after Donald Trump’s bodyguard forcibly removed him from a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, the Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos declared that the ejection had caught him by surprise. As he told George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” “Never in my life, and I’ve been a journalist more than 30 years, have I been thrown out of a press conference.” Technically, Ramos’s statement is true. But anyone who has read his books knows that he has tangled with bodyguards before, even if they weren’t at a press conference.

In his 2002 memoir, “No Borders: A Journalist’s Search for Home,” Ramos recounts that in 1991 he was elbowed in the stomach and knocked to the ground by a bodyguard after accosting a politician, peppering him with questions and making an uncomfortable declaration. This time, the politician was President Fidel Castro of Cuba, and what Ramos said was, “Many people believe that this is the time for you to call for an election.” At the last word, the bodyguard’s elbow struck.

Getting face to face with Castro had taken some creativity. Ramos’s formal requests for an interview were met with silence, so he and a cameraman ambushed Castro outside a hotel room during the first meeting of the Ibero-American Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico. As Ramos tumbled to the ground, his microphone sailing through the air, he recalls, “Castro said nothing, he just kept walking, not even turning around to look at me.”

In the United States’ English-language media, it has become routine to describe Ramos as a kind of Mexican-American Walter Cronkite. Yet in his books, the person he presents as his North Star is not Cronkite but Oriana Fallaci, the fierce Italian journalist who faced off with Yasir Arafat, Muammar el-Qaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini. (Christopher Hitchens was another of her outspoken admirers.) Henry Kissinger once confessed that his interview with Fallaci — in which he called himself a “cowboy” and pleaded helplessly for her to stop asking questions about the Vietnam War — was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press.”

Reading Fallaci’s 1976 book, “Interview With History,” was a defining moment for Ramos. In the prologue to his 2006 book of interviews. “Detrás de la máscara” — “Behind the Mask” — he writes that he became a journalist “with Fallaci’s questions encrusted in my mind.” (The fact that Fallaci spent her final years writing jeremiads against immigration in Europe lends some oddity to Ramos’s admiration.) Ramos’s clash with Trump, and even his May confrontation with the U.S. House speaker John Boehner, look tame compared with his Fallacian 1996 interview with the sitting Colombian president, Ernesto Samper, in which Ramos asked Samper if he had knowingly received $6 million from the Cali drug cartel for his electoral campaign.

The morning after the interview, Ramos received two death threats and was rushed back to the United States with his cameraman and his producer. Two years later, when Univision tried to return to Colombia to cover the country’s presidential elections, floral arrangements arrived at the company’s offices days before the reporting team’s planned departure, with a note naming all the journalists scheduled for the journey, including Ramos. Univision canceled the trip.

When Ramos flew to Venezuela to interview President Hugo Chávez in 2000, Chavez insisted that their conversation be held outside on a cement basketball court, surrounded by a crowd of bodyguards, government ministers and dozens of the president’s supporters. “Every time I asked [Chávez] something he didn’t like,” Ramos writes, “the people would boo, and when the president responded, his words were followed by applause.”

A few months later, Ramos asked the former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari if he had ordered the assassination of his would-be successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, in 1994, a death that traumatized Latin American politics for years. Salinas’s response, transcribed in Ramos’s 2001 book, “A la caza del león” (“Hunting for the Lion”), begins with this parry: “Luis Donaldo Colosio was my dear friend.”

Dissatisfied with the absence of an explicit no, Ramos renews his attack: “I want to ask again: You had nothing to do with Colosio’s assassination?”

“I was among those who lost the most with Colosio’s death,” Salinas replies.

It is precisely this pattern of confrontation — not his poker-faced anchoring of the nightly news with his colleague Maria Elena Salinas on “Noticiero Univisión” — that has won Ramos the trust of so many Hispanics. They know that in many countries south of the United States, direct questions can provoke not simply a loss of access but also a loss of life. Ramos’s aggressive reporting on Latin America is possible because he is based in Miami. “The United States is my journalistic trench,” he has written, “and I am extremely grateful.” It’s very unlikely that he expected to contend with bodyguards here.

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