Blue Jeans are not the only thing Jorge Ramos hides behind the anchor desk at Noticiero Univision, the U.S.’s most watched Spanish-language newscast. A flat screen sits at his feet, inclined upward to show what the other big networks–NBC, CBS and ABC–are doing each weeknight at 6:30 p.m. He tends to like what he sees.
“We’ve spent more than 10 minutes on Mexico and immigration,” he says on a recent Thursday after cutting to commercial midway through the news. “None of the other networks have done anything.” The show started with details of President Obama’s likely plan to provide work permits to as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. The competition led with winter weather and recent Secret Service failures. “It’s like parallel worlds,” Ramos continues. “If you are Latino, who are you going to watch?”
That question once mattered mainly to admen in Los Angeles and Miami. Today it is reshaping the American political landscape, with Ramos, a trim 56-year-old in a skinny tie and no camera makeup, forcing the issue. For his audience, he is not just a newscaster but also an advocate and agitator. For the rest of the American public, he is increasingly the face of a demographic wave–the man pollsters identify as the Latino community’s most respected and influential leader, with a Q score that places him somewhere between soccer magus Lionel Messi and pop starlet Shakira.
There were about 15 million Stateside Latinos when Ramos started working in the U.S. in 1984 as a cub reporter just arrived from Mexico, filing three stories a day from the Los Angeles streets. By 2055, nearly a third of the U.S., or more than 120 million people, will have Spanish-speaking ancestry. The Nielsen ratings have genuflected. A newscast most Americans cannot understand now beats the CBS Evening News nationally among adults under 35 and has been thumping all the major networks with the target demographic in seven major urban markets, including New York City, Dallas and San Francisco.
If language was what separated Ramos from the competition, his would be a business story, like salsa outselling ketchup. But the language is easy to overcome, a fact Ramos happily highlights as he broadens his reach through punditry on CNN and Fox News or English broadcasts on the emerging cable channel Fusion. The real difference is in how he approaches his audience and his interview subjects.
To Ramos, an undocumented immigrant is just a trabajador inmigrante (immigrant worker). The new President of Mexico is just another in a long line of political failures who must be exposed. And the leaders of the U.S., from the President down to a local Arizona sheriff, are disappointments in need of scrutiny.
You can see it here, in the Univision studio in Miami, on just about any day. As the show winds down, Ramos introduces a final piece, about two window washers–“dos Hispanos,” he says–who had been trapped by a broken support cable 69 stories in the air at One World Trade Center. While the segment plays, he looks up from the desk, and I ask him why he identified them by ethnicity in his introduction. “Who else would risk their lives like that?” he asks me in return.
The camera goes live again. “We were just commenting, Jorge, that it takes an Hispanic to dare to do a job like this,” says Maria Elena Salinas, his co-anchor, now speaking in Spanish to an audience of more than 2 million. Ramos doesn’t miss a beat. “Our great workers are invisible to the rest of the United States,” he says, “but they are there in the most dangerous jobs.”
By disposition and design, journalists are students of the unseen. But for Ramos, visibility is a passion that runs deeper than his profession. He regularly points out that Latinos now make up 17% of the U.S. population but hold only three seats in the U.S. Senate. “The idea of being invisible has been ingrained in our culture for too long,” he tells me after the show. “Now with the new numbers we are being seen. Our voice is being heard.”
He is talking about that day’s news report on Obama’s decision to use his executive powers to give legal status to millions of immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation. Ramos thinks the action is long overdue, and for years he has openly demanded a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. He has repeatedly hammered Obama’s Administration for deporting more people than that of any other President in history. His expectations for the coming executive action are high. As he told White House spokesman Josh Earnest after an interview in early November, the President would be seen as “too cautious” if he gives legal status to only 2 million when he acts.
Hidden in that remark is a veiled threat. Through his nightly newscast, weekly bilingual newspaper column and Sunday political show, Ramos has the ability to shape, as much as he reflects, Latino public opinion. How he receives the President’s actions will help set the political narrative going into the 2016 election. Indeed, Obama chose to announce his new plan in prime time on Nov. 20, at the very moment the Latin Grammys were due to start broadcasting on Univision; the network agreed to delay the show to take Obama’s remarks live.
In a recent broadcast for Fusion, a cable and digital-media company co-owned by Univision and Disney-ABC, Ramos said the southern border fence reminded him of the Berlin Wall, a comparison that put the U.S. Border Patrol on the side of the Stasi. “No government should be in the business of deporting children,” he declared last summer during the unaccompanied-minors crisis that yielded bipartisan calls for mass deportations. To him, these are just basic values, Latino values, immigrant values. “For Latinos, the mission is to go from numbers to power,” Ramos says of the executive actions. “President Obama is doing this not only because he is a nice guy. He is doing this because he’s been pressured.”
No other news anchor in America, save perhaps news comedians like Jon Stewart, would talk like this, nakedly championing the interests of an audience on an issue that divides the country. As a rule, broadcast news covers immigration as a political fight, giving equal time to Republicans who claim the President is thwarting both the people’s will and the Constitution.
But Ramos never wanted to be Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings. Ask him for a role model, and he points to Oriana Fallaci, the irascible Italian journalist who caused Iran’s Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini to walk out of an interview in 1979. With a sharp pen focused on oppressive regimes, she described questions as weapons and every interview as a war with only one winner. Ramos grew up in Mexico City chafing against the corrupt and undemocratic Mexican political system. He was in grade school when Fallaci was shot along with dozens of Mexican protesters during the 1968 military massacre of students. She survived three bullet wounds and filed her story.
Ramos arrived in journalism believing that irreverence was a prize, not an error, and that journalism was a craft best approached with “the relentlessness and rebelliousness of youth.” The question that cut the deepest was often the one that most needed to be asked. Ask the right question at the right moment, he says, and the journalist could “break” a world leader.
Just weeks before the 2012 election, Ramos conducted perhaps the toughest interview Obama has endured in office. He didn’t even begin with a question, just a reminder that Obama had promised to tackle immigration reform in his first year of office. “Before I continue, I want for you to acknowledge that you did not keep your promise,” Ramos said before a live audience in Florida. The President tried to explain away the delay by blaming circumstance and Republicans, but Ramos wasn’t satisfied. “I don’t want to get you off the explanation,” he said. “You promised that. And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise.”
Two years later, Ramos crashed a Capitol Hill news conference to ask House Speaker John Boehner why he was blocking a vote on immigration reform. The Speaker tried to dodge the question, redirecting the blame at the White House, but Ramos interrupted. “You could do it, Mr. Speaker, but you really haven’t done it.” The best the scowling Boehner could manage in reply was “I appreciate your opinion, thank you.”
In both cases, Ramos knew the answers before he asked the questions. “You do it simply to confront those who are in power,” he says. Evo Morales abruptly ended an interview after Ramos asked the Bolivian President about drug trafficking and pressed him to admit that Cuba’s Fidel Castro was a dictator. The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez flew Ramos to the Colombian border, surrounded him with supporters in a small-town basketball court and proceeded to denounce his questions as basura, or garbage. Long before Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was ensnared in scandal over a government contractor’s sale of a $7 million house to his then fiancée on initially undisclosed terms, Ramos asked him point-blank, “Are you a millionaire?” “I am not,” Peña Nieto replied, a clip that has found new life on social media in recent weeks.
The U.S. political scene is littered with Ramos zingers. Just before the 2012 election, Ramos asked Mitt Romney, “You said that God created the United States to lead the world … With all due respect, how do you know that?” His interview with Hillary Clinton this summer began, “Do you think you have a Latino problem?” He went on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show and said, “I see you criticize President Obama. But you didn’t do the same to President Bush. I saw your interview. It was weak.”
For Republicans, his approach, which slants left on the issues, is an unjust outrage. Al Cardenas, a former chair of the Florida Republican Party, has compared Univision’s editorial approach to “a plantation mentality,” the crooked assumption that the Latino community is monolithic on issues like immigration. (In a recent national poll by Latino Decisions, 1 in 4 U.S. Latinos approved of Republicans’ handling of immigration policy in Congress.) Isaac Lee, a former magazine editor who is Ramos’ boss at both Univision and Fusion, dismisses such claims. “I’m glad he is standing up for his community,” Lee says. “Nobody is going to get to the White House without talking to Fusion and Univision.”
Shortly after I sat down with Ramos in his office, I asked who he thought was winning our interview. He laughed, without offering an answer. Over the subsequent hour of conversation, he never objected to the questions, no matter how grating, though caution sometimes crept into his responses.
We began with the lines he has drawn between journalist and advocate, a tricky balance for which there are no written rules. How did he decide, for instance, that it would be “too cautious” for Obama to give legal status to 2 million people? “It is not what is expected from the community,” he answered. “And we have got to say that.”
Then what had he meant by comparing the southern border fence to the Berlin Wall? “The taboo issue of an open border should be tackled. Not now. Politically it is impossible even to discuss that,” he said. “But I don’t see why we can’t have in North America the same immigration system that they have within the European Union.” Was there a limit to how far a journalist should go in advocating for the interests of his audience? “The limit is, I am a registered independent. I would never say to whom I vote,” he said. He also tried to separate his various roles. He never offers the same sort of raw opinions on the nightly news that he gives on his weekly Fusion show or in appearances with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, another blue-eyed silver fox, who calls Ramos “my TV twin.”
In September, Ramos keynoted a Hispanic Heritage Month event sponsored by New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, whose daughter Alicia is a Fusion anchor. I asked Ramos about the conflict of appearing at a Democratic political event, even if other Latino broadcasters like Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart had done the same. “In my case, I just give speeches,” he said, noting that he would accept invitations from both parties and never accept compensation. “The most important thing is not to be partisan.”
But what about politics? A few years back, Ramos began quietly speaking to friends about whether he should leave journalism to become a candidate for public office. “I really had no plan,” he said. “I didn’t know honestly if it was going to be here in the United States or Mexico.” He holds dual citizenship, since naturalizing in the U.S. in 2008, and votes in both countries. In the end, he said, he concluded that he could accomplish more as a journalist than as a member of Congress, especially in the age of social media.
I tried to sharpen my point. Ramos’ employer, Univision, is owned in part by Grupo Televisa, the Mexican media giant that has been accused, by U.S. diplomats among others, of playing a nontransparent role in supporting Peña Nieto’s career with favorable news coverage. I asked whether he thought that was true. “What I can say is that Peña Nieto spent much more than all the other candidates,” he responded. “And that millions of Mexicans question if he won fairly.” He said the owners of Univision had never influenced his reporting.
Finally I asked, “What is the question that would break Jorge Ramos?” He smiled and asked for some time to think about it. About an hour later, he told me a story about being in line at a Publix supermarket in Miami. The couple in front of him were talking in Spanish about the latest rumor that Fidel Castro had died. The man turned to his partner and said, “Until Ramos says that, I won’t believe it,” unaware that the anchor could hear.
“What would break me is if people stopped trusting in me,” Ramos then explained. “I have to admit that with the political positions I have been taking lately, obviously I am running the risk of losing credibility. But at the same time, that’s our power.”
This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.