Reporter Without BordersTelemundo’s José Díaz-Balart brings bicultural fluency to the anchor chair 10/01/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern
Telemundo news anchor Jose Diaz-Balart might not
remember what he had for breakfast this morning, but he'll tell you with
striking precision the moment, place and time of day when he realized
journalism was his calling.
It was April 25, 1984, at around 6 p.m., when the then-24-year-old ended up
sneaking in a humble house seeking refuge from gunfire during a violent street
revolt in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
The young reporter was on his first foreign assignment, but wasted no time
collecting the names and testimony of his impromptu hosts, trying to make sense
of the deadly riots shaking the Dominican capital in those days of dire
What made the afternoon so memorable, though, was not the excitement of
covering a major incident in a foreign land, but the fact that the oldest
member of the household where the journalist ran for cover thanked him
profusely for listening and for his help letting the world know about the
struggles of her family and her people.
"If there had been any doubt, uncertainty or
intellectual search on my part about what I would do for a living, it
evaporated that very moment," Diaz-Balart recalled about that moment in
his early 20s when, covering the riots for United Press International, his life
took a definite turn.
The year 1984 was also the start of a fruitful career that has taken the
Cuban-American journalist to cover civil wars and military dictatorships in
Central America; hurricanes in the Caribbean; a deadly earthquake in Mexico; a
peace accord in Moscow; the death of a princess in Paris, a drug lord's funeral
in Colombia and coups d'etat all over. In the process, he interviewed
every major political figure imaginable, from Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald
Reagan in the 1980s to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and
President Obama last month.
At a time when mainstream news outlets are scrambling to capture the attention
of an estimated 50 million U.S. Hispanics, NBCUniversal and Telemundo are doing
so in part by tapping into the bilingual fluency of newsman JosÃ© DÃÂaz-Balart,
who moves comfortably from Spanish to English in broadcast and cable, flagging
the issues that are important to a demographic that is growing in numbers - and
51, an Emmy Award winning journalist, Telemundo's news anchor, MSNBC
contributor and host and managing editor of public-affairs weekly program Enfoque,
will be presented with the 2012 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Hispanic
Television by Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable on
Oct. 3 at the 10th annual Hispanic Television Summit in New York.
Jose Diaz-Balart was 23 when he graduated from New College in Sarasota, Fla.,
with a double degree in history and social sciences. The third of four
brothers, he had considered following in the footsteps of his father and
grandfather and going to law school. In the meantime, he took a summer job at
Sarasota radio station WQSA, where he was charged with opening the station at 4
a.m. and turning on the equipment.
The gig was far from exciting, but there was something that fascinated the
young graduate: A machine that would go "ding-ding- ding" every time
there was breaking news. It was the UPI Teletype machine, sending out special
wires to the nation's broadcasters that were known as "rip and read,"
since they were fresh from the machine and ready for air.
fascination with the contraption was such that, on his next trip to Miami, he
knocked on the door of UPI and asked to take a closer look at the operation.
Soon enough, he was offered a job and barely a few months later, he was on his
way to the Dominican Republic as UPI's only Spanish-speaking staffer at the
His coverage from Santo Domingo for UPI rapidly attracted the interest of
Spanish International Network - now Univision - which, in 1984, appointed the
relatively inexperienced journalist as chief of its Central America bureau in
San Salvador, El Salvador.
"I had never seen a TV camera, and had never been to Central America
before, but of course, I jumped on the opportunity," Diaz-Balart said.
From his post in San Salvador, he covered mostly civil wars in the region, but
also some crucial events in Latin American history, including the U.S. embargo
of Nicaragua, the end of Guatemala's military dictatorship and Mexico's
devastating earthquake in 1985.
As history would have it, Diaz-Balart's trip to Mexico City to
cover the earthquake coincided with the assignment of another budding
journalist, Jorge Ramos, then a reporter with SIN's Los Angeles station and
later a Univision anchor and the 2008 recipient of the Hispanic Television
Summit's lifetime achievement award.
"The best journalistic coverage of Mexico's 1985 earthquake was done by
two young Hispanic journalists: Jorge Ramos and JosÃ© DÃÂaz-Balart," said Ricardo
Brown, a veteran Cuban-American journalist who has known DÃaz-Balart for
Jose Diaz-Balart was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Cuban parents, Rafael
and Hilda Diaz-Balart, who left Havana in 1959 to start a new life in the U.S.
with their two young sons, Rafael and Lincoln.
Upon arriving in Florida, the Diaz-Balarts settled down and soon gave
birth to their third son, Jose, who was born on Nov. 7, 1960, the day John F.
Kennedy was elected the 35th president of the United States.
A younger brother, Mario, was born a year later.
are well known in Florida as an influential family with strong ties to
politics. Lincoln Diaz-Balart is a former U.S. congressman; youngest brother
Mario currently serves as one.
Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart are strong Republicans and staunch opponents of
the Castro regime, which comes as a bit of an irony, considering the brothers
were actually related to Fidel Castro by marriage at one time. [A sister of
Rafael Diaz-Balart Sr., Mirta, was Castro's first wife. They married in 1948,
had a son and divorced in 1955.]
father, Rafael Diaz-Balart y Gutierrez, was a prominent Cuban
politician, businessman and diplomat; a man who was larger than life and
instilled his four sons with a sense of passion for work.
"My father used to say: 'I don't care what you do for a living, as long as
you embrace what you do as if it were secular priesthood,' " said Diaz-Balart,
who along with his three brothers sat by their father's bedside until he lost a
battle to leukemia in May of 2005.
Throughout his career and while maturing as a journalist, Diaz-Balart has managed
to stand his ground, mostly keeping his personal and political views to
himself. Like his father and brothers, he will be critical of the Castro
regime, but he is also known for asking tough questions to Republicans as well
"Jose is one of those people who can be truly native in two worlds,"
said Emilio Romano, president of Telemundo, the network Diaz-Balart
helped form in 1987. "He is definitely one of Telemundo's biggest
This ability to move from one language -- and culture -- to the other has helped Diaz-Balart
land big roles in two languages, even simultaneously, and perhaps more
importantly move seamlessly across NBCUniversal news properties.
More often than not, the media tries to explain Jose Diaz-Balart using the well-worn
comparison than he is "the Brian Williams of Telemundo." But his
friend, and long-time colleague Ricardo Brown, begs to differ: "I'd rather
say that Brian Williams is the Jose Diaz-Balart of NBC."
In 2011 Diaz-Balart made television history when he did double duty on two NBCU
networks, hosting his nightly newscast Noticiero Telemundo at 6:30 p.m.
ET as well as filling in for Contessa Brewer on MSNBC Live at noon ET on
MSNBC, making him the first journalist on U.S. television to anchor both an English
and a Spanish-language newscast on two networks for one week straight.
He also appeared with Williams during a Republican primary debate last summer
to ask an immigration-related question. While well-intentioned, the brief
appearance made it to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where the host
made fun of NBC for bringing a Latino guy to ask a Latino- related question.
"Look, if you're going to do this, can you at least go the whole way and
at least get a guy with an accent?" Stewart said after showing a clip of Diaz-Balart
asking a question in perfect, accentless English.
"Jose is one of those journalists that are very difficult to find,"
said Alexandra Wallace, the senior vice president of NBC News, whose team works
close with the Telemundo news team. "If we didn't have [Jose], we would
have to make him up."
Wallace is a former executive producer of NBC Nightly News With Brian
Williams and a former colleague of Diaz- Balart during his time at CBS.
Talking to Diaz-Balart feels less like an interview and more like a lesson in
literature, politics and journalism. He knows his history and likes to pepper
his stories with quotes from Maimonides and Ortega y Gasset.
Friends say he is a great conversationalist, and rumor has it he has even begun
collecting material to write his first book.
"He is a closet intellectual," says Brown.
He is also a husband and a father of two girls, Katrina, 8, and Sabrina, 4,
whom he calls his "two biggest treasures."
These days, as the country enters the final, hectic days before the Nov. 6
election, Diaz-Balart is one busy soul. After covering both parties'
conventions back to back, landing two exclusive interviews with Romney and
Obama in mid-September and traveling each week from Miami to Washington, D.C.,
to host and produce Enfoque, he has started making the rounds on other
NBCU properties, including a special appearance on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow
Show on Sept. 25.
Asked about which newsmaker has made the greatest impression on him on his
nearly three decades as journalist, Diaz-Balart doesn't hesitate for a second:
"I'd say the thousands of regular individuals who lead their lives with
dignity, despite undergoing the worst: war, hunger, the loss of their loved
Very much like the old Dominican woman who once helped a young reporter make a
life-changing decision 28 years ago.