Suits vs. Roots
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.
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."
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!"
After a brief conversation with his assignment editors, Vizcon responds to the charges leveled against 51's management and Don Browne. He vehemently denies that Browne or anyone else at NBC is exerting control over Channel 51's Cuba coverage. "If you look at Channel 51 today compared to six months ago, the news content remains the same," he says, pulling out a blue binder detailing NBC News's editorial policies and procedures. "The only thing that has changed is how we do business, which I think is just much more professional."
For example, Vizcon relates, he can no longer send a reporter on a clandestine mission to report from Cuba. This is because of an NBC News policy stipulating that employees cannot misrepresent themselves while investigating pieces. Prior to NBC's purchase of Telemundo, Channel 51 reporters would visit the island as tourists and return with stories. "Today we can still go to Cuba, but we have to say we're from Channel 51. Of course, the Cuban government [doesn't] let us in, because they don't want us doing negative news."
Another change, Vizcon says, is how Channel 51 handles videos sent to the station from Cuba through anonymous sources. Citing the Raul Castro episode, Vizcon says that such news footage must be reviewed by NBC lawyers for authenticity, copyright, and any other possible legal considerations. That video sat for a few months, Vizcon explains, so reporter Juan Manuel Cao could interview people to authenticate the video. Then, Vizcon says, the station made a decision to hold the report until February, just in time for the ratings sweeps.
"In the past, we would have aired it immediately, asi a lo loco [all crazy]," Vizcon offers. "Now it's a new ball game. We have to make sure the video is genuine. We have to make sure we are doing responsible journalism, so our audience sees a credible report."
Channel 51, he continues, passed on the home video of Fidel (the one that appeared on 23) because of money. "The guy who came to us wanted $200,000 for it," Vizcon says. "NBC's policy is that we don't pay for news. We are not into checkbook journalism." Asked how the tape made it to rival air, he opines: "I guess they paid for it." Officially Univision denies this, though anonymous sources say the station paid between $75,000 and $175,000.
Continuing the official rebuttal, Vizcon then explains that he'd called Lewis into his office on January 24 to inform him that execs would be reviewing his contract renewal the following week. "It's pretty standard procedure to meet with our employees a month before their contract is up," Vizcon says. "He thought I was going to fire him, which was not the case. I just wanted him to improve his reporting skills and work on his English. Lewis acted very bizarre. He came in here, pulled up all the blinds, and asked to tape-record our conversation. Then he just snapped. He started talking about calling the FBI. I was like: 'What the hell are you talking about?!?'"
That's when Lewis stomped out and made his subsequent appearances on Cuban-American radio. After a series of letters between the reporter and Telemundo's human resources department, his contract was effectively terminated on February 28.
From his home, Lewis vows to continue his fight. "It's been a struggle to denounce them for what they did to me," he says, sounding like a defeated man. "Pero yo sigo con mi historia [But I'm sticking to my story]."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.