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A trusted voice in Latino media finds her career on hold

Times Staff Writers

Mirthala Salinas was a rising star at one of Los Angeles’ premier Spanish-language television stations before she came to be known as the other woman in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s life.

A respected and aggressive journalist, she anchored a newscast that won two local Emmy Awards at KVEA-TV Channel 52 during her 10 years at the Telemundo station. She earned a Golden Mike broadcasting award as well.

“She was very smart and always had her finger on the pulse of the community,” said one former Telemundo executive, who recalled the 35-year-old newscaster as poised and articulate.

Now, Salinas’ career hangs in the balance as Telemundo executives decide as early as Monday whether to fire her for having a romantic relationship with Villaraigosa while she was covering him as a political reporter.

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Salinas’ relationship with Villaraigosa had long been an open secret in Telemundo’s Burbank newsroom, although it is unclear whether her colleagues were also aware she had previously dated Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) and former City Council President Alex Padilla, now a state senator.

The executives who are reviewing her case want to know whether Salinas, who is on paid leave, fully disclosed the nature of her relationship with Villaraigosa. They are also examining how station managers handled the situation.

In addition, they are investigating the decision that Salinas would deliver the June 8 news of Villaraigosa’s separation from his wife, Corina, when station managers were aware that she had been part of the story, according to a person familiar with the probe. They also want to know whether Salinas presented viewers any other news about the mayor after she was taken off the political beat about 11 months ago.

Salinas, a native of Mexico who broke into journalism 17 years ago as a radio reporter in Phoenix, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But in a statement issued when Telemundo placed her on leave July 5, she voiced confidence that the internal review would exonerate her.

Revelations about her relationship with Villaraigosa -- and the conflict of interest it raised for her -- have damaged what many viewed as a stellar television career that began in 1993 at KTVW-TV Channel 33, a Univision affiliate in Phoenix.

That’s where Salinas came to the attention of Carlos Jurado, then the station’s newly appointed news director.

Though Salinas was working as a part-time reporter while attending college, Jurado said he saw immense potential in her presence and delivery. She was slender, beautiful, bilingual and, above all, hardworking and hard-charging.

“She just projected really well in front of the camera,” Jurado recalled. “She was young, but she didn’t look like a rookie.”

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Jurado said he decided to take a chance on the newcomer and give Salinas a shot as co-anchor of the evening news. Response from viewers was immediate.

“People liked her,” he said.

For a time, Salinas co-anchored the news at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Between broadcasts, Jurado recalled, she would venture out to report a story.

Salinas also pursued a degree in broadcast journalism at Arizona State University. She left in 1997 before graduating, landing an anchor job in August of that year on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news at Channel 52.

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Salinas had ascended to the peak of local broadcast journalism. She would become a public face of a feisty news operation that wanted to appeal to younger audiences.

Though KVEA ranks behind its more dominant competitor, Univision’s KMEX-TV Channel 34, it still has an influential voice. It delivered higher ratings among key groups for its 6 p.m. local newscast than several area English-language stations, including its sister station, KNBC-TV Channel 4, and KCBS-TV Channel 2, according to Nielsen Media Research ratings for the May sweeps.

Salinas was an anchor of the 11 p.m. newscast that won two local Emmys in 2000, one for best overall news show and the other for coverage of a building collapse in Echo Park.

She also won a Golden Mike in 2004 for her reporting on the California wildfires.

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In the winter of 2005, she began working as a reporter and fill-in anchor on En Contexto, the 11 p.m. newsmagazine that combines late-night news with analysis. (The show has dealt with many elements of Villaraigosa’s agenda, including his recent trade mission to Mexico and one of his trips to Washington to lobby on immigration reform.)

In early 2005, Salinas also began covering the political beat, several months before Villaraigosa’s July 1 inauguration.

Their personal relationship dated at least to November 2005, according to reporting done by The Times that has not been disputed by Villaraigosa’s office.

Villaraigosa said at a recent news conference that Salinas decided around the summer of 2006 that their “friendship had grown to a point where it was necessary to inform her management that she shouldn’t cover me. She did that. And they agreed.”

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She later shifted from the political beat, and her responsibilities were expanded to include general-assignment stories and work as a backup anchor, according to Telemundo spokesman Alfredo Richard.

In the months before her disclosure, Salinas reported on several sensitive and high-profile stories about Villaraigosa -- including pieces on immigration, gang violence and the mayor’s efforts to win control of the Los Angeles public schools. She shadowed Villaraigosa beyond the city, interviewing him outside New York’s City Hall in March 2006 and on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento three months later.

Though the relationship with Villaraigosa did not land Salinas any major scoops, she did enjoy a competitive advantage on at least two occasions, according to people familiar with her coverage.

She reported in the spring of 2006 about a backlash against Villaraigosa after he gave what came to be known as the “we clean your toilets” speech in support of immigrant rights demonstrators in Los Angeles.

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Salinas gained access to a room inside the mayor’s warren of City Hall offices, where boxes of toilet brushes -- sent by angry anti-illegal-immigration constituents -- had been stored. In the segment, preserved on YouTube, Salinas picked through the implements and declared: “The cleaning brushes, of all sizes, textures and colors, keep arriving by the dozens. Mayor Villaraigosa says that despite their symbolic message, he isn’t offended.”

Then, in July 2006, Salinas and a cameraman were the only journalists at a West Los Angeles apartment building where Villaraigosa was paying a condolence call on the family of 16-year-old Ana Interiano, who had been killed in a gang-related shooting, according to her sister, Suyapa Waller, 27.

Waller said family members were being filmed outside the apartment when shots rang out nearby. The mayor was whisked away, but not without Channel 52 playing up the dramatic episode on its 11 p.m. newscast.

In an interview this week, Villaraigosa said he never gave Salinas or Channel 52 an advantage, adding that he regularly appears on many of Los Angeles’ television newscasts and provides almost unfettered access to reporters seeking one-on-one interviews.

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“I play more favorites with ... the L.A. Times than I have with anybody on this beat,” he said. “Honest-to-God truth.”

As a reporter and anchor, Salinas served as a conduit between local politicians -- including Villaraigosa -- and viewers of Channel 52 and its sister station, KWHY-TV Channel 22.

She again found herself in the anchor’s chair recently, a year after allegedly telling her employer of the relationship, delivering stories about Villaraigosa, including his response to the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force at a May 1 immigration rally in MacArthur Park and a decision that same month by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- where the mayor controls four board seats -- to raise bus and rail fares.

Whether Salinas gave Villaraigosa favorable treatment in her stories is among the central questions in Telemundo’s internal review.

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But Telemundo lawyers and human resource executives are treading carefully, wary of tarnishing the reputation of a TV station that, like its competitors, prides itself on its trusted public image, sources close to the investigation said.

For much of the last decade, Salinas has been one of the faces of that image.

“She is a community figure; people relate to her and respect her,” said Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, chief executive of Enlace, an L.A. communications marketing firm that specializes in Latino media. “Spanish-language news anchors are not just readers of the news. They are the voice of the community; they are advocates for the community and role models.”

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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meg.james@latimes.com

scott.glover@latimes.com

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.


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