Suits vs. Roots

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

He subsequently learned that NBC is allegedly negotiating with the Cuban government to establish a news bureau in Havana. The person in charge, Lewis claims, is Browne. Interestingly, Browne at first told NT that NBC News's foreign desk established its bureau in Havana a couple of years ago. (The U.S. Treasury Department confirmed that NBC has a license to open a bureau in Havana. But officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., did not return phone calls to confirm that the Cuban government has granted NBC permission to operate.) Later Browne called to revise his quote, saying that though NBC-TV has "office space" in Havana, it isn't an official bureau.

Lewis contends that he was denied an assignment to attend the twelfth annual Ibero-American Summit in Santo Domingo in November, where he planned to accost Fidel Castro in a hallway after one of the summit meetings. Lewis complained to Vizcon. "You know I have never turned down an assignment or called in sick when I'm scheduled [for] an out-of-town [job]," Lewis wrote in an e-mail in early January. "So why are you punishing me?" Lewis says he was subsequently chastised for a report he did about Fidel Castro shortly before his January 24 meeting with Vizcon. In that story, he tried to portray el comandante as an old, incoherent, and incompetent man. When it aired, Lewis says, station management and NBC 6 newsroom employees accused him of "editorializing" his coverage. "One guy asked me if I had done alguna trampita[messed around] with the tape," Lewis says.

Newsroom employees, who asked to remain anonymous, say they'd heard in January that Lewis was going to be fired. "We never thought he'd be the one to go," one tells NT. "We have [staff] who don't have the reporting and language skills that Jorge has. There is no justification as to why his contract was not renewed." Since Channel 51 and Telemundo were bought by NBC, the employees also claim, the issue of how 51 would cover Cuba became a hot topic.

"More than once we were told by senior management, including Roberto Vizcon, that we would cover less news coming from Cuba," another reporter recalls. "Management emphasized that Cuba was not that important anymore."

"We were all worried that once we moved to Miramar from Hialeah, we would have to change our editorial policy," says a news editor. "NBC's senior management felt we editorialized, even sensationalized, our stories about Cuba." Before NBC entered the picture, employees say, Channel 51 had "free rein" in Cuba. "Now we have to ask permission for every single story we do about Castro," asserts another. "At one point, we were considered the station to watch regarding Cuban issues and breaking news from the island. We've lost that edge."

Another anonymous employee adds that Luis Fernandez-Rocha, Channel 51's former general manager, and Mario Riquelme, the station's former chief engineer, resigned over differences with Browne's philosophy. Riquelme declined an interview. Rocha, who was hired last year as vice president and general manager of WLTV-Univision 23, did not return repeated phone calls. (In a seemingly shrewd business move, Don Browne hired Mike Rodriguez, the brother of Univision president Ray Rodriguez, Rocha's current boss, to take over the helm at 51.) "Officially, management never openly ordered us not to do anything on Cuba," the source says. "But any reports that reflected negatively, especially on Fidel and Raul, were frowned on."

To support this version of things, the same sources allege that NBC denied Channel 51 use of the network's video feeds coming from the island. "It was made quite clear that NBC 6 was not going to help us obtain video from Cuba," a 51 employee insists. "Browne wanted the local affiliate to remain separated from NBC's operation in Havana. We all know that he didn't want Channel 51 to interfere with NBC's Havana bureau goal."

Further, Channel 51 took a pass on home video footage of Fidel, which subsequently aired on Univision 23, 51's rival station, during November sweeps last year. The video, dubbed The 12 Days of Castro, catapulted Channel 23 to the top spot for that ratings period. "We missed a great opportunity because NBC 6 GM Don Browne and Channel 51 general manager Mike Rodriguez didn't understand how important that story was to our audience," one staffer complains.

There was also a home video of Fidel's brother Raul that aired on Channel 51 last February. The alienated employees say reporter Juan Manuel Cao received the tape last October, and that it sat on the editing table until after Lewis went on the radio to denounce 51's management. Then Channel 51 decided it had to air, to counter his accusations, they suggest.

"We realized quickly the NBC [suits] thought we were just a bunch of radical [righties] from a Mickey Mouse TV station they got out of Hialeah," scoffs one veteran, "and they were the pros."


Roberto Vizcon is an animated man, talking a mile a second while giving NT the grand tour of NBC 6/Channel 51. Like a kid in his favorite toy store, Vizcon is in overdrive, showing off the new gadgets his reporters and editors get to play with: NBC 6's $500,000 Doppler radar, and a map of the Middle East that is superimposed on a blue screen behind a reporter. "That map is going to blow away Channel 23!" Vizcon practically yells, reveling in the tech. "We never had this in Hialeah!"

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