Suits vs. Roots

Did NBC "professionalize" Channel 51's Cuba coverage? Or just weaken it?

In twelve years, Jorge Lewis went from intern to top dog reporter at Spanish-language television station WSCV, Channel 51. He covered some of the biggest stories of our time -- Elian Gonzalez, George W. Bush's presidential election grab, and 9/11, to name a few. Lewis, a salt-and-pepper-haired man with a television face, was an on-camera star, as well as one of Channel 51's staunchest anti-Castro-istas, generating investigative reports on dissident leaders like Oscar Biscet and other news that didn't sit well with Havana. In fact Lewis is known as the vocero televista of la Mafia en Miami (the Miami Mafia's television spokesman) by the Castro regime.

But Lewis's career at Channel 51, a local affiliate of Spanish-language network Telemundo, came to an abrupt end on January 24. That day, Channel 51 news director Roberto Vizcon called Lewis into his office to discuss the reporter's upcoming contract renewal. Believing he was about to be unceremoniously canned, Lewis stormed out and hasn't returned. And sure enough, at the end of February, Channel 51 opted not to renew his contract. Since then Lewis has accused his former employers -- specifically Donald V. Browne, vice president and general manager of NBC 6, who has been overseeing WSCV since NBC corporate owner General Electric bought Telemundo last April -- of conspiring with the Cuban government to terminate his contract. Lewis's rather wild-sounding claims are based on his charge that the Cubans pressured Browne to fire him as a condition for allowing an NBC news bureau in Havana. The embattled reporter also accused the station of softening its Cuba coverage in the last six months, to further appease NBC's business interests on the island.

"Don Browne and NBC are guilty of corrupt journalism," Lewis insists during a recent interview at his Pembroke Pines apartment. Lewis also shared his bravura accusations on the air at two Spanish-language radio stations in Miami, La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) and La Cubanisma (WQBA-AM 1140). This was three days after his meeting with Vizcon. "Y Yo quiero seguir denunciandolos! [And I will keep denouncing them!]" Lewis proclaimed.

Former reporter Jorge Lewis accuses NBC of "corrupt journalism"
Steve Satterwhite
Former reporter Jorge Lewis accuses NBC of "corrupt journalism"

Browne declined comment for this article, dismissing Lewis's vitriol as "figments of his imagination." "There is simply no truth to what he is saying," Browne said during a brief encounter at the dual headquarters of NBC 6/Channel 51 at its new home in Miramar. "There's no story here." Vizcon also characterizes Lewis's account as fiction. "I had no idea what he was talking about," Vizcon says of the confrontation. "We had no intention of letting him go."

Both suggest that Lewis, who is divorcing from his wife, Maria Lewis, Channel 51's managing editor, is not well and never adjusted to 51's move from its long-time home in Hialeah six months ago. "It's sad how it ended," Vizcon laments. "We all admired and loved him here. But he walked out."

Jorge Rodriguez, president and chief executive of La Poderosa, says he too noticed that Lewis seemed "strange and agitated" when he went on the air during Raquel Regalado's morning show on January 27. "I think his divorce played a role in his behavior," Rodriguez opines. "He even wanted to talk about it on the air and I advised him not to speak about his personal problems in public."

Jorge Lewis was born in Havana in 1960. At age seventeen, Lewis was forced into hard labor by the Cuban government, which put him in El Ejercito Juvenil del Trabajo for three years. He says it was because he had long, hippie-style hair (but then, so did Che). There, Lewis recalls, he cut sugar cane from dawn to sunset. "Some kids would inject petroleum into their calves so they wouldn't have to go out in the fields," he remembers. After his release, Lewis enrolled in night school, learned how to be a camera operator, and later got a job as a cameraman for state-run Cuban television.

In 1989 he fled to Panama and a year later landed in Miami, becoming part of el exilio. He was hired as an intern at Channel 51, while he sold newspapers on street corners and worked in Hialeah garment factories to eke out a living. In 1991, when the first Gulf War broke out, Channel 51 hired him part-time to edit news feeds from the Middle East. Soon after, he became a cameraman, chief camera operator, and finally, television reporter. "I never had a problem," Lewis insists. "I always dedicated a lot of time to my job. In fact, I was one of the first reporters to master the new editing equipment when we moved to Miramar."

In October 2001 NBC announced it was acquiring Telemundo and its local affiliates in a $2.7 billion cash and stock deal from a consortium that included Sony Pictures Entertainment and investment outfits Liberty Media, BV Capital, and Bastion Capital. The deal, which allowed NBC to enter the burgeoning Hispanic television market with an established brand, was finalized by federal regulatory agencies late last year. Browne is credited with convincing NBC chairman Bob Wright to buy Telemundo. Browne, a long-time NBC exec, envisioned Miramar mission control as a simultaneous hub for both an English-speaking station and a Spanish-language station. About six months ago, shortly after Channel 51 had settled into its new Miramar digs, Lewis says he got a call from one of his old friends from his cameraman days in Cuba. The friend, Lewis continues, told him the Cuban government wanted to pull a "numero 8" on Lewis through NBC. "That means they wanted to do something bad to me," Lewis says. "I'm pretty sure that they let NBC know their problems with Channel 51 and with guys like me."

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