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."
Calderón doesn't want to leave the impression Tijuanans don't like San Diego's TV newscasts. Quite the opposite. It's like eye candy. And that's what worries him.
"People in Tijuana like the American newscast, because they have a lot of visual elements. They're always looking for those eye-grabbing shots. In many cases [the stations] go too far in that. They'll throw on video footage when there's no story. We do that here too, more and more." Still, he says a Tijuana audience will happily stay with one news story for a full three minutes -- a lifetime in television time. "I don't think that would be the case in the U.S. But with three minutes you can explain your story better. You can put together all the elements."
Sometimes it gets out of hand. "Something that we still do in Mexico is allow television reporters to write as if they were writing for a newspaper. And they just throw the pictures over their text. Some are trying to change. TV Azteca is trying to become more image-oriented. Faster. Using more arresting footage, like the California newscasts. The Real TV kind of stuff."
Calderón admits working for Tijuana television news carries a slew of problems. "It would be difficult to convince an American reporter to work in the conditions that many of us work in in Tijuana," he says. "The standards in television in Tijuana are not necessarily very good. A lot of mistakes get to air and remain uncorrected. But journalists working in television have a lot fewer resources than you do in the U.S."
They are also saddled with a tradition of bowing to control by the governing PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). Back in the '80s, when Calderón was working for the Televisa station, Channel 12 (the largest, oldest TV station in Tijuana), he says candidates' access was weighted toward PRI candidates. "You could do a package on the PRI candidate, complete with long sound-bites, but you would only do a 'bio' on the opposition candidate. No sound-bites."
Then in 1985, a small once-a-week TV news operation called In Synthesis, run by an SDSU graduate named Carolina Aubanel de Bustamante, started giving opposition candidates airtime. Soon it was running daily newscasts. "They put a lot of pressure on the competition," says Calderón. On radio, it was suddenly open-mike talk shows. "Every Tijuana radio station was open-mike for a while, while it was kind of taboo in Mexico City or in Guadalajara or in Monterrey. Along with [the Tijuana weekly] Zeta, and the fact that the American media was coming to cover the electoral race, you had more options to get your news."
Now little In Synthesis is a big part of TV Azteca Tijuana. But the best news is that Tijuana journalists' traditional self-censorship has started breaking down, says Calderón. "Control is [still] a lot stronger in Mexico City, but here, now in Tijuana, if you don't put a [balanced] story on the air, people will find out the real story -- in some cases from the American news. So journalists are forced to try to be more objective."
Despite the progress, Tijuana journalists still have a hard time with support and pay. "When I was earning $500 a week as an anchor for Channel 33, I was considered to be very, very well paid," Calderón says.
He was a psychology major when he decided to try applying his skills over the airwaves. But the only job he could land was spinning norteño discs at Radio Ranchito, earning $45 per week. "I was a student, so it didn't matter," he says. "But they fired me. After that I got a contract with a television station. They gave me about $130 a week."
When Channel 12 sent him to San Diego to cover Latino news, he couldn't believe the "$30,000, $40,000, $50,000" pay packets his American colleagues told him they earned. "I remember when the Union-Tribune bought Ford Escorts for its reporters, and they all complained. On Channel 12 we were happy to have VW bugs! When I worked for Telemundo, you had to have your own car. When they had an urgent story to assign, it would pretty much be the guy who had the car who got the job."
But the biggest difference, he says, is what he calls the "infrastructure."
"When you work in Tijuana as a journalist, you work practically on your own. You are your producer, you are your writer, you are sometimes your editor. It's just the photographer and yourself. The assignment desk works very differently in Tijuana. They tell you only basically what to do. It's expected that you will bring your story, or if not, another story. For newspapers it could be half a dozen stories you're expected to find in one day. You have your quota. No time for research. So there's this kind of network. Reporters help each other. You get to some meeting, and you say to your fellow reporters, 'Hey. What's going on?' And we share. It's informal but real. That's the way you do stories in Tijuana."
But Calderón says even as the Tijuana TV stations get richer and the pay gets better and their American audience gets bigger and American TV news influences their style, one thing won't change. "Our newscasts will remain more formal. We are more ceremonious than you. Mexican people are less to the point, less direct, less in your face. Courtesy is more respected here than in the U.S. We had a time of kings and aristocrats in this country, and although we are an independent republic, that sort of Spanish formality is still part of who we are."