Talking TV Ratings, Immigration, and Salsa Sales With Univision Anchor Jorge Ramos

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Jorge Ramos, photographed by Zony Maya. Photo: Zony May/New York Magazine

“Cada vez más numerosas y más intensas, las protestas en contra de las deportaciones de los Estados Unidos,” Jorge Ramos says to the camera in front of him: Protests against deportations from the United States are swelling in number and intensity. It is a few minutes after 6:30 p.m., which means that Ramos, the most widely watched Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, is beginning his nightly news program, viewed by an audience of more than 2 million. Tonight, as often happens, Noticiero Univision is leading with an immigration story, this time about protests in Illinois.

Ramos throws to his correspondent in Chicago, and the sound of civil disobedience plays softly over the PA system here in Univision’s Miami studios. Ramos looks down, below the anchor’s desk, to a hidden monitor showing his competition. “I have ABC, NBC, CBS, and Telemundo,” he says to me in flawless but heavily accented English. ABC, Ramos remarks, is leading with President Obama’s signing of two orders on equal pay, NBC with Ukraine, and CBS with Obamacare. “We’ll do much, much better in cities like Los Angeles and Houston,” he says. Partly, the focus on immigration is a ratings play—in places like those, along with New York and Miami, Univision often has the top local broadcast—but it is also personal for Ramos, who considers himself a hybrid of advocate and journalist. “The Latino community expects from us much more than just news,” he says, a monogrammed shirt cuff peeking out of his suit jacket. “They expect from us leadership. And they expect from us somehow to represent them.”

When the evening’s newscast ends at seven, after a drug-trafficking story and the nightly countdown to the World Cup, Ramos will cheerily slip into the South Florida heat with his jacket over his arm. But it has been a busy day: He’s also taped an installment of America, a newsmaga­zine he hosts on Fusion, the English-­language network that Univision launched in October in partnership with ABC. At the moment, the rapid growth of Latinos in this country is fueled not by immigrants but by the American-born children of immigrants. Univision executives realized that this younger group is more comfortable getting its news in English, and they launched Fusion as a direct response to the trend. (The network recently announced plans to target non-Latino millennials, too.) 

Before going on air, preparing for the shows, Ramos makes his way through the vast bull pen shared by Fusion and Univision in a refitted warehouse by the Miami airport. The new space gleams with mood lighting and projections of the networks’ top-­performing stories. “While you walk in the newsroom, you’ll notice—just check the age difference. If you see people who are under 30, they work for Fusion,” Ramos says. “They’ll be speaking English.” The differences are more than just linguistic. In an editing bay off a side hallway, the America production staff is working on a package for this week’s program. The segment deals with the HIV drug Truvada and gay men in San Francisco using it as a prophylactic. Ramos watches on a computer screen as the featured couple, Max and Andy, describe how the drug improves their sex life and protects Max in his side career as an adult-film actor. The editors snip out a moment of loving flirtation between the two men. “Should we leave the kiss?” Ramos asks. It’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the immigration and geopolitics staples that fill Noticiero Univision. Ramos’s stance on social issues doesn’t quite mesh with that of his older Spanish-speaking viewers, among whom, he notes, the most trusted institution is still the Catholic Church. “A story like this,” Ramos says, heading back to his desk, “for our audience on Univision, it’s not something that would resonate.”

Ramos takes a seat in his modest office at the edge of the newsroom, which has little decoration other than a bookshelf and an Emmy Award (one of eight) perched high above Ramos’s computer. Ramos was born in Mexico City and began a career there in television journalism in the 1980s, when government censorship was rampant. He set his sights on the U.S. and its press freedom and enrolled in the only school that would take him, a one-year certificate program at UCLA Extension. Afterward, he got his work permit and a job at Univision’s L.A. affiliate. “My English was—I couldn’t even understand myself.”

Thirty years later, Ramos is the undisputed face of Spanish-language broadcasting, his career arc coinciding with a boom in the sector. In addition to his nightly appearances on the evening news and the gig at Fusion, he hosts Al Punto, Univision’s Sunday-morning political-interview show. “I went on Jon Stewart the other day and I told him, ‘I’m an immigrant; I need a lot of jobs!’ ” he says. There are other prominent Spanish-­language journalists—José Diaz-Balart at Telemundo and Maria Elena Salinas at Univision among them—but none has Ramos’s following or stature. Wiry and fit at 56 years old, Ramos dates a fellow Univision host (who is a for­mer Miss Venezuela runner-up). He has the close-­trimmed silver hair and rugged looks of a slightly older Anderson Cooper. (Each has posted a photo of the two together to social networks, with Cooper calling Ramos “my TV twin.”)

With Fusion, Ramos hopes his clout will grow beyond the Latino community. “What I really like is that for the first time, I don’t need translation,” he says. “And without translation, there’s an immediate impact. And definitely the language of power is English.” He mentions an interview with Senator Patty Murray of Washington earlier in the day about pregnant immigrants being held in detention centers by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Even before we aired the story, ICE sent us an email rectifying the information that we were going to broadcast,” he says. “Had we done the same thing in Spanish, we wouldn’t have gotten any reaction.”

In recent election cycles, Ramos’s set has become a mandatory stop for candidates seeking the Latino vote (he says Bob Dole was the last major candidate to decline an interview), but the attention was periodic. “It was Christopher Columbus syndrome,” Ramos says, “because it seemed that we were discovered every four years.” This has changed. It is now accepted fact that Hispanic voters were integral to delivering Barack Obama’s presidency, and the road to D.C. has been permanently rerouted. So in this ­midterm-election year, Ramos’s schedule will be packed with office-seekers coming to kiss the ring. An immigration bill—which Ramos called “a prerequisite” for Latinos to even consider voting Republican—passed the Democratic Senate, but there is close to no hope in the Republican-­controlled House, at least at present. “They don’t get it,” he says. Ramos’s theory is that the Republican nominee in 2016 will simply say of the do-nothing Congress, “They were wrong,” and then offer an immigration proposal of his own.

“We are changing everything,” Ramos says. “I still remember when Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin were doing the ‘crossover’—that was the magic word for us. Now it’s all over the place. And food, the way we eat in this country, is completely different now.” To illustrate the point, he reaches into an office cabinet and produces a bottle of chamoy seasoning, for sprinkling on fruit. “There’s more tortillas being sold than bagels and hamburger buns. More salsa than ketchup.” He closes the cabinet. “That’s a fact.”

*This article appears in the May 5, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.