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Newscaster suspended over affair

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles television newscaster Mirthala Salinas was suspended without pay for two months -- but not dismissed -- Thursday from KVEA-TV Channel 52 for covering Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa while they were romantically involved, a relationship that journalism experts said damaged the station’s credibility.

Three of Salinas’ superiors with the Telemundo network also were disciplined, including the top two station officials. KVEA General Manager Manuel Abud was reassigned to another position, and News Director Al Corral was suspended for two months without pay.

The highest-ranking executive, Ibra Morales, who oversees the network’s 16 Spanish-language stations, was reprimanded in the unfolding scandal that Telemundo President Don Browne said flagrantly violated Telemundo’s journalistic standards.

In an internal memo to Telemundo staff members, Browne said that “while the content and accuracy of KVEA’s newscasts were not compromised, our news policy standards with respect to conflict of interest were clearly violated.”

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Salinas, 35, could not be reached for comment. She had been suspended with pay since the scandal erupted three weeks ago.

Villaraigosa, 54, did not comment on the merit of Telemundo’s decision, saying only that he wanted to concentrate on his job in its aftermath.

“I regret that decisions I have made in my personal life have been a distraction for the city, and I am deeply sorry that I have let so many people down, especially my family,” he said in a statement.

It is unclear when Villaraigosa and Salinas became romantically involved, but The Times traced their relationship to at least November of 2005. Salinas covered the mayor for an extended period while she was dating him.

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Media watchdogs assailed not only Salinas for her conflict of interest but her superiors for allowing her to continue reporting on the mayor after they knew of the relationship. One analyst predicted that the scandal would tarnish Salinas’ career.

“People will always remember her as the reporter who had an affair with the mayor, and that she got in trouble for that,” said Judy Muller, a former ABC network news correspondent and current NPR commentator who now teaches journalism at USC.

“That damages her credibility, and I don’t know where she goes from Telemundo,” Muller added. “A reporter only has her credibility, and once that’s sullied you have lost your value to your news organization.”

Telemundo is owned by NBC Universal, and that connection raised another thorny issue for the company and the mayor. Villaraigosa has been supporting a $3-billion development that NBC Universal is planning near its Universal Studios, and opponents have questioned whether that would color Telemundo’s decision on Salinas.

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In his memo, Browne said that KVEA management and Salinas agreed at the end of 2006 to reassign her from the political beat so that her job would not involve stories about the mayor because of “a friendship that had developed between the reporter and the mayor.”

Browne said that in April, Salinas was given the role of temporary news anchor, reading lead-ins and other material involving stories about the mayor and politics.

Seated in the anchor’s chair, Salinas reported on the 6 p.m. news June 8 that Villaraigosa and his wife, Corina, were separating after 20 years of marriage.

Three days later, Salinas was again in the anchor’s spot when the newscast reported on a Villaraigosa news conference in which he said he felt a “personal sense of failure” about the breakup of his marriage. His wife filed for divorce the next day.

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Browne singled out the two occasions as the most egregious examples of the conflict of interest, saying those involved showed a “lack of leadership and vigilance required to protect the credibility and reputation of our news product ....”

He added: “Her reading of copy during newscasts on June 8 and June 11 regarding the mayor’s separation from his wife was a flagrant violation of these guidelines. The failure to respond appropriately in the following weeks further compounded these errors.”

Until the scandal surfaced, Salinas had enjoyed a successful 10-year run at one of Los Angeles’ best-known Spanish-language stations. She anchored a newscast that won two local Emmy Awards and earned a Golden Mike broadcasting award as well. She started her broadcast journalism career in 1990 at a Phoenix radio station and eventually made her way to the Univision TV affiliate there before arriving at KVEA in 1997.

Her affair with Villaraigosa was an open secret in KVEA’s Burbank newsroom and in the mayor’s office at City Hall. Salinas also had dated Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) when he was divorced -- and before he remarried his wife -- as well as former Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, now a state senator.

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Telemundo network executives conducted the three-week internal review that culminated in Thursday’s discipline. But several employees at the Burbank headquarters of KVEA and KNBC-TV Channel 4 criticized the network, saying it let Salinas off too easy.

“There is a violation of job integrity,” one worker said as he pulled out of the Telemundo parking lot.

An NBC employee who works in technical operations predicted that the scandal would enhance Salinas’ career.

“It will probably make her more successful, ultimately,” he said. “It’s just publicity for her career.”

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Another Telemundo worker contacted by phone was more cynical: “They were trying to save face, and this way they don’t have to spend any money,” said the worker, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation. “They are just waiting for people to leave on their own.... They don’t like lawsuits, they don’t like to go to court, and they don’t like to spend money.”

Telemundo’s drawn-out review of Salinas created a form of political water torture for Villaraigosa, prolonging the life of a news story that began July 3, the day he confirmed that he had been seeing the anchor romantically.

Each day that the investigation dragged on turned into another day that Villaraigosa had to answer questions about Telemundo’s review, his long-term plans with Salinas (he was asked whether he intended to marry her) and the potential damage done to both of their careers.

With so much uncertainty, Villaraigosa, a man known for enthusiastically facing the camera, scaled back his public appearances. He did not fly up to Sacramento recently to speak out against proposed cuts in transit funding -- an issue dear to his heart and crucial to his public agenda. When Villaraigosa did venture out publicly to discuss traffic or even the opening of a new restaurant in Universal City, he faced persistent questions from reporters about his relationship with Salinas.

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The affair became the subject of monologues delivered by NBC comedian Jay Leno on national television. And it even became a punch line in a new play performed in Hollywood by the comedy trio Culture Clash -- a group that includes one member who serves as an appointee of Villaraigosa on the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission.

By the end of July, supporters of Villaraigosa privately wished that Telemundo would quickly wrap up its review. Some current and former aides to Villaraigosa voiced despair over the situation, saying the mayor’s administration had lost momentum and focus.

The problem has carried over to one of his signature public initiatives -- education. Villaraigosa was scheduled to appear with leaders from the Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday to announce a new partnership. But both sides agreed earlier this week to postpone the announcement.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

meg.james@latimes.com

Times staff writers David Zahnizer and Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

‘Our news policy standards ... were clearly violated’

TELEMUNDO’S STATEMENT

The following statement was released in a memo from Don Browne, president of Telemundo:

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“As many of you are aware, we have been dealing recently with a situation that raised the possibility that our news policy guidelines were violated at KVEA. The past several weeks have been spent gathering information regarding this matter. It has been a thorough investigation, which has included valuable input from faculty of the Poynter Institute, a leading independent authority on ethics in journalism. I’m writing to let you know that our investigation has been completed and we have determined the appropriate course of action.

“First, let me emphasize that while the content and accuracy of KVEA’s newscasts were not compromised, our news policy standards with respect to conflict of interest were clearly violated.

“At the end of 2006, KVEA management and the station’s political reporter mutually agreed that she should be reassigned to a beat that would not involve reporting on the mayor of Los Angeles or city politics. This decision, consistent with our guidelines, was made on the basis of a friendship that had developed between the reporter and the mayor. In April 2007, she was given the role of temporary news anchor and read lead-ins and other materials involving stories on the mayor and politics. This decision conflicted with our guidelines and with management’s prior decision. Subsequent to this, her reading of copy during newscasts on June 8 and June 11 regarding the mayor’s separation from his wife was a flagrant violation of these guidelines. The failure to respond appropriately in the following weeks further compounded these errors.

“In response to these violations and a lack of leadership and vigilance required to protect the credibility and reputation of our news product, we have taken disciplinary action affecting several employees. These actions include formal reprimands, job reassignments and unpaid suspensions.

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“Moving forward, we are taking steps at the station to re-emphasize the importance of strict adherence to our existing news policies and guidelines by engaging a well-respected journalistic organization to conduct mandatory training sessions at KVEA.

“It has been a difficult time for all involved in this investigation but I know it will result in our being a stronger news organization and leave no doubt about our commitment to journalistic integrity.

“We have a great organization that understands the public trust we hold as journalists. Our lesson here is that upholding our own high standards of conduct requires constant vigilance. I know this incident will not detract us from our commitment to excellence in journalism.”


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