Monday, October 4, 2010

RICK SANCHEZ: The Newsman Who Became the Story

Rick Sanchez is one of those new age broadcasters who undervalue the concept of journalistic neutrality. During his tenure on television he often pulled inane stunts like having himself tasered (below,left) to demonstrate how powerful the device is. He often spoke before his brain caught up with his mouth: One time he said he couldn’t understand how there could be a volcano eruption in Iceland because it’s so cold there. Remember Will Ferrell’s fictional anchorman, Ron Burgundy? In a way, Rick Sanchez is the real life Ron Burgundy. Bumbling, sometimes ill-prepared, seemingly disorganized and unafraid to look like a fool on television, Sanchez somehow inched his way up from a small TV station in Alexandria, MN to a two-hour anchor slot on CNN. Industry insiders never quite understood it. He morphed from a self-described poor immigrant kid named Ricardo León Sánchez de Reinaldo to a handsome, glib network news guy named Rick Sanchez. With his inexplicably anglo good looks and his self-imposed name change, one might not even know of his Cuban ethnicity.

A few months ago, recently-ousted CNN President Jonathan Klein offered Sanchez a juicy two-hour daytime slot that the anchor decided to call “Rick’s List.” It was a new-wave technology combo of traditional broadcasting paired with social media that allowed viewers to actually drive the content. It was a rather groundbreaking concept. But a concept is only that, unless somebody follows through on it. Sanchez’s follow through was often inept and anything but groundbreaking. Comedian Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show” often used short clips of Sanchez’s gaffes for his signature “Moment of Zen” segments.

Sanchez evidently didn’t take the ribbing well. His final meltdown took place on Pete Dominick’s Sirius XM radio show, when he described his childhood this way: “"I grew up not speaking English, dealing with real prejudice every day as a kid; watching my dad work in a factory, wash dishes, drive a truck, get spit on. I’ve been told that I can’t do certain things in life simply because I was a Hispanic." He then went on to lump Stewart with what he termed “elite Northeast establishment liberals.” (For the three of you who don’t know this, that’s code talk for Jews). He went on to say, “I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority? Yeah.” If you haven’t heard the interview, listen:

Two hours later he was fired.

Sanchez is apparently by nature a reckless man. In 1990 it was widely reported that he was driving his father home from a Miami Dolphins game, when he hit a man who was running between two cars in the stadium parking lot. Reportedly, Sanchez was drunk, as was the victim. Sanchez left the scene of the accident and did not return for two hours. The story that is told in Miami is that Sanchez had buddies on the police force, and he was able to get off with a simple DUI charge. His victim, one Jeffrey Smuzinick was not so lucky. He was paralyzed, ended up in a nursing home, and died in 1995 at the age of 36.

So, let’s review: Here’s what we have so far on Rick Sanchez – Unprofessional, anti-Semitic, bitter and cowardly. To this day, the married father of four has never addressed the hit and run incident. It is as if he pretends it simply didn’t happen. Personally, Sanchez never learned about accountability. Occupationally, despite all of his missteps and misstatements, he never quite got the message that he needed to become more professional and work a little harder. Watch this behind the scenes clip of Sanchez and his staff hours before his fateful radio interview, “preparing” for that day’s “Rick’s List.”

His was a laissez-faire, free-flowing style of journalism. It lacked the main ingredients of good reporting: solid research, meticulous preparation, and well-thought-out words. It opted for off-the-cuff, under-informed and sometimes arrogant banter. Sanchez wanted to come off as the “every man” of journalism. But there was something vaguely discomforting about his delivery. It was too nice, too folksy and not authentic.

Sanchez’s firing from CNN is not so much about a denial of free speech, as it is an example of irresponsibility. To call Jon Stewart a “bigot,” with nothing concrete to back that up was disingenuous. In all of Stewart’s making fun of Sanchez, he never once referred to his ethnicity. To fall back on the old “Jews own everything” argument is an insult to the masses of middle-class Jewish Americans, many of whom were Sanchez’s viewers. Further, blaming the Jews – or any other ethnic group, for that matter – is a copout from a guy who simply did not do the work required to become an Anderson Cooper or Diane Sawyer. One has to wonder if all of this doesn't just come back to professional jealousy on Sanchez's part. There is indeed a disconnect on how the public perceives Stewart as opposed to Sanchez. For example, Sanchez's oddly titled book, "Conventional Idiocy," sold just 802 copies in its first week of release. Stewart's book, "Earth (The Book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race" had a first printing of 1.1 million copies and sold almost 54,000 copies in its first week or release.

Even with the clear Shakespearean nature of this situation, with the antagonist falling on his own sword, I cannot work up much sympathy for Rick Sanchez. In the end, we are all responsible for our own words, and the respect – or lack thereof – we afford other human beings.

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