Wrong Way Out

Why push diversity when you can complain?

It sounds great. Prod media companies to hire more Hispanics and improve relations with the Latino community.

Indeed, in just the past three years foundations have forked out more than $1.3 million to support this noble idea through a national effort called the Parity Project.

Problem is, it ain't working. None of the nation's twenty largest newspapers has signed on, and Hispanics remain horribly underrepresented in print, radio, and TV. Washington Post assistant technology editor Sam Diaz admitted the failure on June 15 in Fort Lauderdale, according to a newspaper called the Latino Reporter: "Saying that the Parity Project is not succeeding is a big understatement."

But not so fast. Diaz — who's also financial officer for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which held its annual convention here last week — denies he ever said it. "The story was not accurate," he contends. "I asked for a correction, and they wouldn't print one."

Monica Rhor, an accomplished Orange County Register reporter who edited the convention newspaper, angrily responds: "Sam went overboard in trying to cover his ass — overboard, overboard, overboard. He was not misquoted. I saw the notes."

The still-unresolved dispute opened a window on hypocrisy, bullying, and misplaced priorities among the nation's top Latino journalists. And this is precisely the wrong lesson to be teaching the college students who reported the newspaper — and to be sending to the nation about Hispanics in journalism.

Back in 2002, the Hispanic Journalists organization "called on the news industry to increase dramatically the employment of Latino journalists during the next five years," according to a description of the Parity Project on the organization's Website (NAHJ.org). At "selected newspapers," it would also improve relations with folks from Spanish-speaking countries and their American-born kids.

The next year big spenders including the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, agreed to pay almost $300,000 to the group for Parity. In 2004, the McCormick Tribune Foundation pitched in $1 million more. Since then, the Rocky Mountain News, the Tampa Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel, and some smaller papers have signed on. "This is the centerpiece of our organization," project director Kevin Olivas says.

Though there have been some victories — the News has increased its numbers from a pitiful eleven full-time employees to a slightly less pathetic thirty — papers like the New York Times or even the Arizona Republic haven't joined. And nationally, that hoped-for "dramatic" increase has amounted to about 200 employees since 2003.

So when Rhor took on the role of guiding the mostly college kids who were to publish a newspaper for the Hispanic Journalists convention called the Latino Reporter, one obvious story was the Parity Project's questionable performance. The writer assigned to the piece was a smart, right-thinking University of Colorado sophomore who has won diversity awards and fixed up homes on the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

When she asked the seasoned vet, Diaz, about Parity, he reportedly gave an accurate response. "Saying that the Parity Project is not succeeding is a big understatement: The media industry is changing, with many consolidations and buyouts. We're not going to see a lot of hiring, period."

But Diaz claims he was surprised to read the quote in the paper. "Here's the key issue: The word understatement should have been misstatement," he says. "And the second part of the quote was accurate, but the answer to another question. There were factual errors all over that paper that could have been borderline libelous."

So Diaz asked for a correction. Rhor (who agreed to go on the record only if the student's name wasn't used) questioned the reporter, checked the notes, and concluded that the quote was correct. "The story was 110 percent accurate," recalls Rhor, who has also worked at the Boston Globe and Miami Herald. "So I told Sam he could write a letter to the editor."

That follow-up missive stated: "I was disappointed with this story, which is inaccurate ... I've invested my own time, energy, and money to this project. I think we're sending the wrong message to students by refusing to print a correction or clarification."

When Rhor refused to publish the parts of the letter that amounted to a correction of factual information, she contends that Diaz hung up on her.

Olivas approached her later and said, "It makes us look bad. What if somebody puts this out there?"

When talking to me, Olivas acknowledged making the statement, then explained, "I just told Monica that I had some concerns about it."

Even the Hispanic Journalists president, a Sun-Sentinel editor named Rafael Olmeda, tried to convince Rhor that she shouldn't have published Diaz's quote "because he didn't mean it," Rhor recalls. Olmeda didn't return a call from New Times seeking comment.

Later, at the dance that ended the conference, Rhor recalls, Diaz pulled her and the young reporter aside. "He wasn't badgering her; he was like a skilled lawyer, 'You didn't understand, right?'... This has all been really disturbing to me, because I've been a member of this organization for years. I thought we were about journalism, not about teaching kids to cave in."

Responds Diaz: "I am 6 feet tall, 180 pounds, but I didn't want to intimidate the girl. I'm a father. I told the reporter, you didn't understand what I said. We rehashed it. But it ended up being an argument between me and Monica. She called me unprofessional. She called me a liar. Then she walked away. I did my best to stay calm."

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