If you ask Vicente Calderón, San Diego TV news is mushy. "It tends to be extremely superficial," says the veteran Mexican television journalist. "You [in San Diego] feel you have to connect with the people, be more informal, personal, human in your stories. The result, a lot of the time, is stories about firemen rescuing cats up trees. It lacks content."
Mexican TV newscasts lean the other way. "Our news is very formal. The editorial style has always been very serious, very ceremonial. Our stories are about the economy. The price of milk going up. Tortilla prices going up. Who's going to be the next president or governor. That's what people think is important. We wouldn't normally lead with police stories and murder, as you do."
Part of the difference, Calderón says, is who you see on-screen. "The [on-camera] talent in the U.S. market, they're good at telling the story. But they don't have any real power in making the decisions on which stories they'll do, or the angle they'll take."
In Tijuana, by contrast, Calderón says the anchor onscreen who looks in charge, is in charge. He's not an actor, a hired face and mouth reading what somebody else shoved in front of him. "In Mexico your anchor person is also your news director. The guy you see on the air is the one who decides what to do with the story."
In the U.S., newscasters have to be appealing, cuddly, loveable, he says. "Look at your local newscasts. Most channels will give you the same stories, more or less. Their attitude is, 'We're all going to tell you the same thing, but who do you prefer to tell it to you?' That's the idea behind the U.S. way of doing it. In Mexico, even though an anchor person's delivery may be bad, everybody knows he or she has to be, in reality, a very good reporter with good journalistic instincts. Of course, they may not be very attractive, physically or personality-wise. The person may well be a guy you don't naturally want to sit down and chat with. But you know they get respect off-camera as well as on."
Calderón, who used to be an anchor himself (for Telemundo's Channel 33), now freelances, covering San Diego and Tijuana for Telemundo in Los Angeles. He has written for the Union-Tribune and worked as a field producer for KNSD, Channel 39. Tonight, a Thursday, he's here in the crowded Room 135 of SDSU's Storm Hall, talking to graduate students in the department of Latin American Studies.
He's not saying all San Diego anchors are mere puppets. ("I admire KNSD's Marty Levin. When he wants he can be a good reporter, though he doesn't do much [reporting].") And he's not saying Mexican TV news is better. But he is surprised at how, with far fewer resources, it has put itself into the game.
"For many people in Mexico there's this belief that everything across the border, on the other side of the fence, is better. That they are more professional. But I've discovered it's not necessarily the case. For all the money and special effects and resources San Diego television has, I have discovered there are just as many good reporters and dumb reporters on both sides."
One of Calderón's pet gripes is the way San Diego television news covers his city. "It's lousy, the way they cover Tijuana," he says. "People in San Diego don't understand. A lot of middle-class and lower-middle-class Tijuana people -- people who live in Tijuana but work on the U.S. side -- they want to see what's going on in San Diego. They more or less understand English, so they watch the San Diego newscast, as well as Tijuana newscasts. But these viewers don't show up on the San Diego rating [surveys]. So to San Diego news producers, it doesn't make any sense to exert themselves to cover what's going on in Tijuana, because those viewers don't show in 'the book.' Yet these people have purchasing power! They spend about $2.8 billion every year in San Diego."
Ironically, says Calderón, Tijuana news directors do come hunting for stories in San Diego's Hispanic market, precisely because it's good policy. "National sales, the big advertisers like Ford, El Pollo Loco, McDonald's, Pepsi, Coke, are spending money at the [Tijuana] stations to reach those Hispanic San Diego residents. All these stations have [sales] representation in the San Diego market. But the English-speaking [San Diego] television stations often will not even include Tijuana in their weather maps, will not include Tijuana in their temperature readings."
It shows in their news coverage too, according to Calderón. "The only Tijuana stories they want are the sexy stories," he says, "the bad ones, like bodies, kidnaps, drug killings. Very little about life in Tijuana. That gives San Diegans a very one-dimensional, bad picture of us.
"I am trying to convince them to do better stories. The sexy ones -- the shootout, the killing, the child prostitution, the narco-execution -- for these they will be paging me all over [to help cover the story]. But then earlier this year I tried to interest them in a local boxer who has become the WBC [World Boxing Council] junior featherweight world champion. Erik "El Terrible" Morales. He's from the Zona Norte, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Tijuana. Now you're getting his title being disputed here in Tijuana. You have HBO or ESPN broadcasting from here. But you can't get any of the local San Diego newscasters to show any interest in him! It's sad."
When San Diego TV stations did cover the Mexico-Colombia soccer match at Qualcomm Stadium last October 20, says Calderón, "instead of giving it the normal sports treatment, they only talked about 'look at the traffic problems the patrons caused.' " KGTV Channel 10's Jodi Hammond is his favorite Mexico reporter. "She speaks very good Spanish. I like her reporting better than most." And that's an irony, because most San Diego stations, when they do do stories about Tijuana, tend to send reporters who have a Hispanic surname. "They think they'll understand and communicate better in Tijuana. But that's not necessarily the case. What happens is Latinos [growing up in San Diego] keep Spanish as a personal language. But their professional language will be English. So it's risky to send many of these reporters to, say, an all-Spanish press conference."