Topic: Media

L.A. Love Story: the Mayor and the Reporter
(7/17/2007)

On June 8, Mirthala Salinas began L.A. Telemundo's newscast with the announcement that Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was separating from his wife. "The rumors were true," Salinas said (in Spanish). "Mayor Villaraigosa confirmed today that he is separating from his wife, Corina, after more than 20 years of marriage."

She did not then begin cheering, but perhaps she wanted to. Salinas was having an affair with the mayor, was "the other woman" who had long been rumored to be at the center of the mayor's marital problems. This she neglected to mention in her newscast.

Here are five ethical issues raised by this scenario (I'll omit the obvious sixth issue, the little matter of participating in an intimate and clandestine relationship with a married man, whether he is a mayor or not, and focus only on the professional ethics involved)…

  1. As a journalist, Salinas is bound to report the news, not influence it. If (as seems likely but has yet to be confirmed), her affair with the mayor began while she was covering his administration as a reporter, that was a serious ethical breach. She was obligated to maintain personal and professional distance from the object of her reporting, and did not.

  2. Once the relationship with Villaraigosa commenced, Salinas could no longer claim to be objective in her reporting, and could no longer maintain the integrity of her job or her employer's news operation. She should have immediately left the political beat. Even if she ended the relationship, there was no way for her to recover the appearance of objectivity.

  3. If she (improperly) stayed on the political beat, Salinas' next best course ethically would have been to publicly disclose her conflict of interest. Of course, because she was a willing participant in a secret, adulterous affair, she could not do this. As a result, she intentionally withheld information critical to the credibility of her reporting.

  4. The identity of the mayor's mistress was certainly news. If Salinas were an objective reporter who had discovered and confirmed the identity of the "mystery woman," she would have broken the story and divulged the woman's name. Well, she did know the identity (her), and chose not to divulge it because of personal needs rather than professional duty.

  5. Finally, she reported the story on the air herself, without revealing her own involvement.

Salinas, 35, has been placed on leave by Telemundo while it conducts an internal probe. The mayor's mistress has defended her actions, claiming that the investigation will clear her of any ethical lapses. As reported by the L.A. Times, she said, "I welcome Telemundo's decision to conduct a comprehensive review of the matter and respect their desire that I allow the review to be completed before returning to work," she said in a statement. I will cooperate with the station and appreciate their commitment to undertaking a thorough review of this situation. I am confident that when all the facts are analyzed it will be clear that I conducted myself in an appropriate way."

Her statement is ridiculous on its face. Salinas claims that she told station official about the affair and that they continued to allow her to report on matters related to Villaraigosa. She says she repeatedly asked to be relieved of any on-air reporting responsibilities regarding the mayor's marriage, and they told her to do the broadcast anyway. Station officials say otherwise. Even if Salinas' version is accurate, that does not mean that she conducted herself "in an appropriate way." It means she did exactly one thing right: she disclosed the affair to her employers. Big deal. Here's what she did not do right:

  • She didn't keep proper professional distance from the mayor in the first place.

  • She didn't refuse to cover him once the relationship commenced, regardless of what her employers said. If the station agreed to let a conflicted reporter pretend to be objective, they were simply approving unethical journalism. Unethical conduct doesn't become "appropriate" because your superiors agree to it.

  • She didn't divulge critical information in her possession relating to the news story she was covering, because of the likely consequences for her and her subject/lover.

  • She didn't do anything to avoid deceiving her television news audience, who would naturally assume from her words and demeanor while announcing the mayor's separation that she had no role in the event she was reporting.

There is nothing appropriate or ethical about any of this. If Salinas thinks there is, she is a blue ribbon journalistic ethics dunce, which seems to be a reasonable diagnosis. No respectable news organization should have such a person on its payroll.

And what of her soul-mate, the mayor? Villaraigosa commenced and continued a romantic relationship with a woman whom he knew was reporting on city affairs. The Scoreboard will assume the sincerity of his affections, but if he had set out to manipulate his press coverage, this would be a brilliantly diabolical way to do it: get some extracurricular sex and sympathetic coverage too! Needless to say, he should not have become involved in an intimate relationship with a reporter on the political beat, and once he had begun one, he should have insisted that she stop reporting on city affairs…er, matters.

These two are certainly well-matched in terms of ethics sensitivity. Given the recent success of similarly compatible couples in American politics, we would be wise to keep an eye on the relationship between Mayor Villaraigosa and his favorite reporter.

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