Commentary: Rick Sanchez's rollercoaster career

The Miami HeraldOctober 6, 2010 

He's been publicly buried so many times and has always clawed his way back out of the graves: an FBI investigation, a drunk-driving conviction, even being whipped in the ratings by Japanese cartoons. But can Rick Sanchez survive his meandering rant about Jewish control of the media, an ethnic slur that has already claimed his job?

The question was asked in broadcast studios and journalism classrooms all over the country Monday after Sanchez's weekend firing from his CNN anchor desk.

"I think his career is over," said Sam Roberts, a former CBS News producer and retired University of Miami journalism professor. "I think he's just radioactive now, and I don't think any TV executive is willing to brave it."

"You've seen Rick up, and you've seen Rick down, and he reinvents himself every time," countered Miami radio talk-show host Ninoska Perez. "I think we'll see him up again."

A wildly popular Miami anchor during the 1980s and '90s when he was one of the first Cuban Americans to make it on television, the 52-year-old Sanchez was fired Friday night from CNN after six years at the network.

His dismissal followed a satellite-radio interview in which Sanchez said he was the victim of anti-Hispanic prejudice by Jewish media bosses. Sanchez, frequently the target of derisive punch lines by Comedy Central host Jon Stewart, called Stewart "a bigot" and sneered at the suggestion that the Jewish Stewart has ever encountered discrimination.

"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?" Sanchez said, then added with sarcastic emphasis: "Yeah."

Sanchez's bitter complaints were anything but a momentary blurt -- the raw exchange with Sirius XM radio host Peter Dominick lasted more than 20 minutes. Dominick told the Hollywood Reporter Monday that he felt badly about the outcome of the interview but that Sanchez had entered the studio with "a live grenade in his mouth."

"If Rick didn't do it on my show, he would have done it somewhere else," Dominick said.

Practically everybody in TV news was talking about the Sanchez situation Monday, although almost no one was willing to be quoted by name.

Some television journalists and academicians said Sanchez's rant was all the more surprising because several other media figures have come to grief in recent months for hard-ball remarks on ethnicity:

• Actor Mel Gibson, once the hottest star in Hollywood, has become all but unemployable after multiple rants against Jews and blacks.

• Director Oliver Stone had to scramble to save his upcoming television series about American history, apologizing for telling a British newspaper that the U.S. media is preoccupied with the Holocaust because of "the Jewish domination of the media."

• Tough-love radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger announced her retirement from broadcasting following the controversy over her on-air use -- several times -- of a racial epithet.

"There are people in television who think they're smart because they're on television," Roberts said. "They think they don't have to think. And Sanchez is a victim of that. He really thought that what came out of his mouth was pearls of wisdom, and the stupidity just flowed. . . . Is he anti-Semitic? I don't think so. But he was very intemperate in his remarks, and he deserved to be fired."

Sanchez was born in Cuba and grew up in Hialeah. His scorching intensity and classic Latin good looks, familiar on South Florida's streets but not yet on its television screens, made him an instant sensation when he debuted on WSVN-Fox 7 in 1982.

But when FBI microphones picked up Sanchez partying with and accepting financial favors from Hialeah political fixer Alberto San Pedro during a 1986 investigation of influence peddling, his South Florida broadcasting career seemed finished. Sanchez went off to Houston, where he was a ratings flop.

He returned 18 months later, once again an instant success as he led a new tabloid-ish WSVN news format that became known as "if it bleeds, it leads." Even a drunk-driving conviction after an accident that left a pedestrian (who was also drunk) paralyzed didn't dent his popularity there.

But a shot on the national stage as an anchor at MSNBC was a ratings disaster and so was his return to host a WTVJ-NBC 6 talk show that was consistently whipped in the ratings by cartoons.

Sanchez's career finally seemed to have stabilized since he joined CNN, first as a reporter and then as an afternoon anchor.

"He's a very passionate guy, and that can maybe sometimes get the best of him," said Lisa Navarette, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic lobby. "But he was an important advocate within CNN for diversity and an important voice for lowering the heat on coverage of the immigration issue. . . . We were sad to see him go."

And, Navarette added, the anger over Sanchez's remarks about Jews is masking the truth of his complaints about discrimination against Hispanic reporters and anchors in the English-speaking television world.

But for Jews, Sanchez's words were just more salt in an ancient anti-Semitic wound.

"This is an old story, and there are left-wing and right-wing versions of it," said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor of sociology and journalism. "The intensity and ferocity and dementia of the claim transcend many normal political differences. . . . No sooner were the modern media born than we started hearing the accusation that not only do Jews control the media, but they do it invidiously, deploying newspapers and other media against other groups. It's one of the old arrows in the quiver of routine anti-Semitism."

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