AS AN EDITORIAL WRITER AND columnist who also happens to be Mexican American, I have wrestled with how I should cover the campaign of Tony Sanchez, who is trying to be elected Texas’ first Latino governor. Can I be “objective?”
The question ceased to be theoretical when Governor Rick Perry ran a television ad that was designed to push people’s buttons. They pushed mine. The thirty-second spots accused Sanchez of laundering millions of dollars for Mexican drug lords. In a meeting with the Dallas Morning News editorial board, on which I sit, Sanchez angrily denounced the ads but resisted calling them racist. His consultants had probably warned him that playing the race card might mean conceding the pot. Able to recognize a white sheet when I see one, I wrote a column blasting the drug ads for exploiting the stereotype of Mexican corruption in a deliberate effort to frighten white voters away from Sanchez. Never mind that neither Sanchez nor his bank was charged with wrongdoing.
My colleagues, most of whom are white, didn’t see the ads in the same light. Because I am Mexican American, I have sensibilities and insights that differ from theirs. Of course, one man’s insight is another man’s absence of objectivity. So now I am under a microscope. Colleagues and readers are questioning whether journalists with Spanish surnames can be objective in offering opinions about somebody named Sanchez.
My answer is that as a journalist, I am defined by more than my color or culture. I am also defined by my profession. And so, delight as I do in seeing Mexican Americans break down barriers, I am more likely to be extra hard on such candidates than I am to give them a free ride. As for objectivity, I reject the premise. There can be no such thing as complete objectivity in journalism; anyone who thinks that journalists—of any race or ethnicity—approach their subject matter free of their own biases or prejudices is buying into a fantasy.
This is especially true of opinion journalists. Criticized for wearing her gender on her sleeve, former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen insisted that it could be illuminating for a woman engaged in opinion writing to apply her personal lens to her work rather than, as she put it, “do a bad imitation of a man.” Her reward: a Pulitzer prize.
Accusations of bias can arise before a word is written. When the story broke in Dallas about how dozens of drug cases against Mexican immigrants were being dismissed because the cocaine that was being used as evidence turned out to be ground gypsum that had been planted by the police, I insisted at an editorial board meeting that the district attorney’s office deserved a scolding. After several minutes of arguing otherwise, a colleague said, “You’re just sticking up for [the immigrants] because they’re Hispanic and you’re Hispanic.” I responded with a joke: “Hey, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.”
The irony is that a newspaper should consider itself fortunate to have on staff Latino journalists with a backstage pass to cover stories that might otherwise escape its notice. I have my pass. While Sanchez was still an unannounced candidate who was avoiding the press, he invited me to his ranch near Laredo. When I asked why he had made an exception to his no-press policy, he said he thought I and other Mexican American journalists would be more fair than our non-Hispanic colleagues.
If that sounds crude, consider that his response may have had as much to do with his generation as with his ethnicity. At 59, Tony Sanchez belongs to my parents’ generation of Mexican Americans. My mother is one year older. Born in Edinburg at a time when signs in restaurants warned, “No Dogs or Mexicans,” she and fellow Mexican Americans were pushed toward jobs in the fields, factories, and packing houses while her white classmates were encouraged to go to college. Sanchez doesn’t talk about being discriminated against when he was growing up, but if that is so, then he could well be the only Mexican American who came of age in Texas in the mid-twentieth century who wasn’t. Maybe that is why he expected a fair shake from one of his own. When I told my mom what he had said, she agreed with him: She would expect the same thing.
Ruben Navarrette, Jr., is an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News and a nationally syndicated columnist.