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Breaking down barriers at MSNBC

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Ramon Escobar was one of the station’s youngest news directors when he worked at NBC-owned WTVJ-TV, Miami. Since last year he has been MSNBC’s executive producer of live programming.
At 32, Mr. Escobar finds himself becoming a role model for minorities-both as a rare high-ranking Latino and as an openly gay man in the news business. “I think it enhances [my experience] 100 percent-being a Hispanic, gay, from-the-South journalist,” Mr. Escobar said from his office at MSNBC’s world headquarters in Secaucus, N.J. “It’s really interesting. It gives me perspective on a lot of things.”
Breaking barriers is something Mr. Escobar has done since he was a child in Little Rock, Ark. He has a unique take on the world and on news stories. He maintains diversity is not just about race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. “It’s about good journalistic choice. If you’re going to reflect your community, don’t you want to look like your community?” he said.
Neither of Mr. Escobar’s parents went beyond elementary school. They came to the United States from Colombia seeking new opportunities in 1960. They were headed to New York, as many immigrants were, but a snowstorm changed their course.
“They were visiting relatives who were in medical school at the University of Arkansas. They stopped by to visit on their way to settle in New York,” Mr. Escobar said. “They got snowed in, and it was a pretty horrible snowstorm, and they ran out of money, and my dad got a job with the Catholic church. He basically did maintenance.”
The family settled in Little Rock during a time of racial tension in the South. “My parents talked about the civil rights and racism they saw on television, and that’s how they learned English, and it shaped what they thought this country was about,” Mr. Escobar said. “The reason I ended up in TV news was seeing the power television had on my family.”
But Mr. Escobar first thought he would end up in politics, as did another famous Little Rock resident-Bill Clinton. In his junior year, Mr. Escobar was in the American Legion program Boys Nation. Mr. Clinton had been in the same program two decades earlier and is shown in the now-famous photo of Mr. Clinton as a student shaking President John F. Kennedy’s hand. The American Legion may have affirmed politics as a career for young Mr. Clinton, but it opened the world of journalism to Mr. Escobar through a chance encounter with Sam Donaldson.
“In 1986 I went to Washington and met [President] Reagan,” he recalls, referring to an event held in the Rose Garden. “These
handlers came out to tell us about the protocol used. They said, `Please don’t rush the president.’ They also gave the kids pre-made questions. A couple of us asked, `What if we have our own questions?’ But they made the students stick to their pre-planned questions.
“I’m outraged. [I’m thinking] what is this, Cuba?” Mr. Escobar said, half-jokingly. “As we walked into the Rose Garden, Sam Donaldson was standing behind the press rope line. During this time, the whole issue with apartheid was a big deal. Sam Donaldson kept saying to each of us as we walked through to meet [President Reagan] in the Rose Garden, `If you want to get on TV, ask him about apartheid.’ Of course I looked at him, and I said, `We can’t ask him about apartheid because they told us we could only ask certain questions.’ It was at that point I wanted to do what he was doing. I didn’t want to do what Reagan was doing.”
Fluent in Spanish and armed with a broadcast degree received in 1991 from the University of Missouri, Mr. Escobar got his first job as a sports producer at Univision-owned WXTV in Newark, N.J. Three years later he went to rival Telemundo-owned WNJU-TV as executive producer of news. In 1994 he crossed over from Spanish-language broadcasting to WTVJ-TV as executive producer of special projects. He later became managing editor and then vice president and news director.
He arrived at MSNBC while the Elian Gonzales saga, the Concorde crash in France and the presidential election debacle of 2000 were going on. From Labor Day until the election, he spearheaded the “Last Mile” project at MSNBC, which was the last leg of the election campaign. MSNBC went to families in key states and profiled them in their living rooms, calling them “The Undecided.”
“During the campaign, we basically were on the air from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m.,” Mr. Escobar said. “We had three or four families total, and we would go back to these same families. Bush had a tax plan, and we would use the families and use their budget and come up with how much that family would save, and we would watch the debate with that family, and afterward we would ask if they were swayed.”
“The family we profiled in Michigan, [then-presidential candidate Al] Gore saw it and ended up going to meet them personally right before the election,” Mr. Escobar said. “They went to see him at a rally and he heard they would be there, and he brought them behind the podium and we caught it on tape. It was great.”
Mr. Escobar’s focus at MSNBC is on improving the depth of the network’s news coverage. He was instrumental in bringing longtime Miami anchor Rick Sanchez from Fox affiliate WSVN-TV, Miami, to MSNBC and building a daytime news program around him that is scheduled to launch at the end of June. With recent census figures indicating the large percentage of Latinos in the United States, the hiring of Mr. Sanchez was good timing.
“I’d watched him for almost seven years in Miami,” he said. “Rick is an interesting, smart, compelling anchor who has a history as a fantastic journalist. He really knows how to connect to the viewer and tell a story. He taps into an audience that is greatly underserved-the Hispanic audience. As a Hispanic American, it’s a unique voice that we don’t see on TV.”