Latino advocacy group criticizes PBS treatment of newsman Ray Suarez

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A grass-roots organization that protested Ken Burns’s exclusion of World War II Latino soldiers’ experiences from his 2007 documentary The War is speaking out in the wake of PBS NewsHour Chief National Correspondent Ray Suarez’s resignation from the program.

Defend the Honor, headed by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sent an Oct. 31 email to its 5,000-member database saying it is “distressed that PBS has treated veteran journalist Ray Suarez so disrespectfully.” Suarez left the show Oct. 25 after nearly 15 years and subsequently told Fox News Latino in an Oct. 28 interview that he felt his contributions to the program had been minimized during his tenure. “I felt like I didn’t have much of a future with the broadcast,” Suarez said in the interview.

Contacted by Current, Suarez declined to comment on Defend the Honor’s statement.

“The real issue here,” the group wrote in its email, “is how many Latinos — in front of and behind the camera — does PBS NewsHour employ? And, more to the point, why does PBS think it can treat one of the country’s best journalists this way?”

Defend the Honor’s email contains several comments regarding Suarez’s exit compiled by the National Institute for Latino Policy, an advocacy organization that also protested the Burns film. Gilbert Sanchez, identified as a retired academic administrator, wrote that the NewsHour “has shown in the past that it was willing to be a beacon of enlightenment” with an on-camera team that represented the diversity of the country. “With Ray no longer there,” he wrote, “I just don’t see how you will fill that void.”

A Nov. 1 joint response issued by PBS and the NewsHour said in part that  Suarez “has been a highly respected member of the public media system, PBS and NewsHour. PBS greatly admires his talent, journalistic integrity and constant pursuit of excellence. We are very sorry to lose him and his stellar work and hope to work with him on future projects.”

PBS also said it was “very proud” to air Latino Americans, a miniseries that ran in September, and called it “an important collaboration with Latino Public Broadcasting.” The project “joins many other PBS projects that feature the talents of Latinos, both on-the-air and behind the camera,” the statement said.

Rivas-Rodriguez told Current that her organization was “insulted” that PBS and its president, Paula Kerger, “would link that documentary with Suarez’s resignation. That is patronizing — another example of how tone-deaf PBS and Kerger are,” she said.

In March 2007, Defend the Honor lead a coalition of civil-rights organizations, veterans’ groups and media activists representing Latinos in calling for a revision of Burns’s World War II series, noting that no Latinos were represented. Burns initially refused but by that July agreed to include the stories of three additional World War II combatants — two Hispanic Marines and a Native American — extending the series by just over 28 minutes.

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