Media Freedom Under Fire?

Gerson Borrero was fired days after his station managers and a representative of the parent company, the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, held a meeting with the elected officials. Borrero says the congressmembers threatened to prevent the station from renewing its broadcasting license if he didn’t tone down his drive-time show on W-A-D-O a-m, or “Wahdo”. As WNYC’s Marianne McCune reports, Gerson Borrero chose not to comply.

Berrero: The way media works in my community is that they’re very respectful, they get an interview on radio or tv … oh thank you!!!! Mmmmmm … it’s disgusting!

N: If Gerson Borrero doesn’t get what he considers an honest answer from a politician, he calls him a Culipandero, one who sways from side to side. If he believes Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx isn’t taking a clear stance on the status of Puerto Rico, Borrero accuses him of lacking political testicles. New York Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez has no political ovaries.

Berrero: I think that’s an appropriate choice of words.

N: But some listeners don’t.

Juan: He’s mean …

N: Jose Martinez says Borrero speaks mostly the truth, but so unpleasantly.

Juan: … expresses himself.

Menendez: Well, I don’t think it’s the job of journalists to … talk about people’s body parts.

N: That’s congressman Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who along with Jose Serrano and Nydia Velasquez met with station brass. He’s one more among dozens of targets Borrero has aimed at, both from his perch as editor-in-chief of the popular Spanish-language newspaper El Diario La Prensa, and from behind his Wahdo microphone.

Menendez: WADO used to be called la campiona, which means the champion … was the champion of the hispanic community. It promoted its interests, it promoted its unity, it promoted its issues as a community. And we believe that it’s no longer la campiona, that it’s lost its way.

N: Congressman Menendez says Borrero is divisive, that he looks to pit one group of Hispanics against another.

Menendez: When you have open mics and you pick on the Cuban community and say that they’re right wing radicals and you have those that have that view piling on, and then the cuban community feels they have to respond … not about issues it’s about categorization.

N: Borrero once slammed the first ever Puerto Rican congressman as an EX-Puerto Rican. But that congressman, now New York mayoral candidate Herman Badillo doesn’t flinch. He says the Hispanic community can handle internal debate.

Badillo: I have every confidence the Hispanic community can discern what is good for the community … that is the nature of the reporting process, that’s why we have the kind of radio programs we do, so that people can decide what they believe is good for the community.

N: Berrero believes the thousands of new listeners he’s attracted to WADO are deciding he’s right -- and that’s why the congressmembers want him off the air.

Berrero: So instead of saying I’ll never be on his program, I will never listen to him, they’re saying get him off the air or I’m going to mess with your licensing. To me that is corrupt! That is dictatorial, tyrranical, not a democracy then if we allow them to do this?

N: Actually that DOES happen in a democracy, says Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at University of Minnesota. Whether or not the details of this particular story are Borrero describes.

Kirtley: I think the only thing that’s really surprising about this is the fact that this doesn’t happen more often.

N: Broadcast media are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and although the FCC is supposed to be impervious to political pressure, she says congress can and does get involved. Elected officials lobby commission members, they file letters of complaint or support. And they also act preemptively by stating their positions to heads of media outlets.

Kirtley: I think it would be appropriate for congressmembers to resist, but I think human nature is such that if you have power and … it takes a pretty big strong tall person to resist the impulse to do that.

N: She, like Gerson Berrero, believes it’s up to broadcasters to stand up for themselves.

Berrero: I was so incensed that they would …… sit there and be subjected to verbal insults and threats which I think constitute a corrupt act on the part of these officials who are looking out for their self interest.

N: But what if that’s not EXACTLY the way it happened? Congressman Menendez says WADO called the meeting to ask for his and his colleagues stamp of approval on a new programming idea.

Menendez: If you come to me and you ask me to support programming at your initiative, and I tell you no, and you ask me why I won’t support it, and I tell you why I won’t support it, then I think that’s you know, certainly proper. And that’s the nature of what happened here.

Kirtley: I don’t have a problem with them saying, we don’t like what you’re doing.

N: As long as it’s not couched in a retaliatory threat, says Professor Jane Kirtley.

Kirtley: You know, we don’t like what you’re doing and by the way we’re members of congress and by the way we may have some input into your license renewal so it would be wise of you to stay on our good side, I mean that I suppose is a more subtle form of censorship.

McCune: Did you say we may not support the renewal of your license in 2006?Menendez: I don’t recall specifically saying that, I do recall saying we are free as is the constituency we represent to consider raising our concerns at any given point in time, both with the station, and in the future should they go ahead and you know, have a licensing process.

N: WADO representatives passed on some version of that message to Gerson Berrero. And when Borrero made it clear he planned to tell his listeners all about it, he says, they fired him. None of the three WADO representatives present at the meeting have returned repeated phone calls. They have only released a statement saying, the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation does not comment on situations, relations, internal matters or negotiations with employees and/or former employees.

For WNYC, I’m Marianne McCune