Univision president speaks to journalism community

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Isaac Lee, president of news for Spanish-language television network Univision, spoke at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism Wednesday evening in front of a small audience of faculty, students and professional journalists.

In a conversation with Lowell Bergman, a professor with the school’s Investigative Reporting Project, Lee discussed Univision’s unparalleled influence in the Spanish-language television market and how to balance good journalism with community advocacy. Lee also mentioned the network’s 2011 dispute with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and plans for Univision’s new English-language network, Fusion.

Born in Colombia, Lee is the son of Jewish immigrants who settled in Bogota. His upbringing, Lee said, gives him an understanding of the experience of second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans.

Only 42, Lee has already had a long career in print and television journalism. In 1997, he was appointed editor in chief of Colombia’s prestigious magazine, Semana, at the age of 26. He was announced president of Univision’s news department in 2010.

As president, Lee will oversee Univision’s involvement in the production of news content for Fusion, a new English-language “lifestyle and news” network. The program, a joint venture with ABC, will seek to serve English-speaking Hispanic Americans.

Questions from Bergman and the audience, however, returned repeatedly to the remarkable trust between Univision and its viewers.

Lee said he believes that his network has a clear responsibility to the Hispanic community and an obligation to uphold the public’s trust.

This sense of the public trust drove Univision’s decision to investigate the Rubio family’s background, Lee said. In 2011, a Univision reporter investigated the 1987 arrest and subsequent conviction of Rubio’s brother-in-law as part of a profile on the senator.

“You don’t decide to pick a fight or go after someone,” Lee said. “It always starts with a great investigative journalist finding a fact that catches his attention and pulls the string … When there were letters asking us to kill the story, (the story) became a must.”

Rubio’s staff later charged that Univision had offered to kill the story in exchange for on-air appearances by Rubio, though an analysis in the Columbia Journalism Review concluded that the accusations made by Rubio’s staff were unlikely.

Lee said that Univision believes in the “chronicle of the ascent” of the Hispanic community in the United States but emphasized that objective coverage does not preclude advocacy for the interests of the Hispanic community.

“Neutrality can only be on the side of the oppressor, not the oppressed,” Lee said, paraphrasing Elie Wiesel. “There are points in time when you need to know very clearly what is right and what is wrong … To be neutral is not safe, and history will not judge you well.”

Gautham Thomas covers city government. Contact him at [email protected].