Telemundo news anchor José Díaz-Balart might not remember what he had for breakfast this morning, but he’ll tell you with striking precision the moment, place and time of day when he realized journalism was his calling.
It was April 25, 1984, at around 6 p.m., when the then-24-year-old ended up sneaking in a humble house seeking refuge from gunfire during a violent street revolt in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
The young reporter was on his first foreign assignment, but wasted no time collecting the names and testimony of his impromptu hosts, trying to make sense of the deadly riots shaking the Dominican capital in those days of dire economic straits.
What made the afternoon so memorable, though, was not the excitement of covering a major incident in a foreign land, but the fact that the oldest member of the household where the journalist ran for cover thanked him profusely for listening and for his help letting the world know about the struggles of her family and her people.
“If there had been any doubt, uncertainty or intellectual search on my part about what I would do for a living, it evaporated that very moment,” Díaz-Balart recalled about that moment in his early 20s when, covering the riots for United Press International, his life took a definite turn.
The year 1984 was also the start of a fruitful career that has taken the Cuban-American journalist to cover civil wars and military dictatorships in Central America; hurricanes in the Caribbean; a deadly earthquake in Mexico; a peace accord in Moscow; the death of a princess in Paris, a drug lord’s funeral in Colombia and coups d’état all over. In the process, he interviewed every major political figure imaginable, from Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama last month.
At a time when mainstream news outlets are scrambling to capture the attention of an estimated 50 million U.S. Hispanics, NBCUniversal and Telemundo are doing so in part by tapping into the bilingual fluency of newsman José Díaz-Balart, who moves comfortably from Spanish to English in broadcast and cable, flagging the issues that are important to a demographic that is growing in numbers — and influence.
Díaz-Balart, 51, an Emmy Award winning journalist, Telemundo’s news anchor, MSNBC contributor and host and managing editor of public-affairs weekly program Enfoque, will be presented with the 2012 Award for Outstanding Achievement in Hispanic Television by Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable on Oct. 3 at the 10th annual Hispanic Television Summit in New York.
José Díaz-Balart was 23 when he graduated from New College in Sarasota, Fla., with a double degree in history and social sciences. The third of four brothers, he had considered following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and going to law school. In the meantime, he took a summer job at Sarasota radio station WQSA, where he was charged with opening the station at 4 a.m. and turning on the equipment.
The gig was far from exciting, but there was something that fascinated the young graduate: A machine that would go “dingding- ding” every time there was breaking news. It was the UPI Teletype machine, sending out special wires to the nation’s broadcasters that were known as “rip and read,” since they were fresh from the machine and ready for air.
Díaz-Balart’s fascination with the contraption was such that, on his next trip to Miami, he knocked on the door of UPI and asked to take a closer look at the operation. Soon enough, he was offered a job and barely a few months later, he was on his way to the Dominican Republic as UPI’s only Spanish-speaking staffer at the time.
His coverage from Santo Domingo for UPI rapidly attracted the interest of Spanish International Network — now Univision — which, in 1984, appointed the relatively inexperienced journalist as chief of its Central America bureau in San Salvador, El Salvador.
“I had never seen a TV camera, and had never been to Central America before, but of course, I jumped on the opportunity,” Díaz-Balart said.
From his post in San Salvador, he covered mostly civil wars in the region, but also some crucial events in Latin American history, including the U.S. embargo of Nicaragua, the end of Guatemala’s military dictatorship and Mexico’s devastating earthquake in 1985.
As history would have it, Díaz-Balart’s trip to Mexico City to cover the earthquake coincided with the assignment of another budding journalist, Jorge Ramos, then a reporter with SIN’s Los Angeles station and later a Univision anchor andf the 2008 recipient of the Hispanic Television Summit’s lifetime achievement award.
“The best journalistic coverage of Mexico’s 1985 earthquake was done by two young Hispanic journalists: Jorge Ramos and José Díaz-Balart,” said Ricardo Brown, a veteran Cuban-American journalist who has known Díaz-Balart for decades.
José Díaz-Balart was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Cuban parents, Rafael and Hilda Díaz-Balart, who left Havana in 1959 to start a new life in the U.S. with their two young sons, Rafael and Lincoln.
Upon arriving in Florida, the Díaz-Balarts settled down and soon gave birth to their third son, José, who was born on Nov. 7, 1960, the day John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president of the United States.
A younger brother, Mario, was born a year later.
The Díaz-Balarts are well known in Florida as an influential family with strong ties to politics. Lincoln Díaz- Balart is a former U.S. congressman; youngest brother Mario currently serves as one.
Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart are strong Republicans and staunch opponents of the Castro regime, which comes as a bit of an irony, considering the brothers were actually related to Fidel Castro by marriage at one time. [A sister of Rafael Díaz-Balart Sr., Mirta, was Castro’s first wife. They married in 1948, had a son and divorced in 1955.]
Díaz-Balart’s father, Rafael Díaz-Balart y Gutiérrez, was a prominent Cuban politician, businessman and diplomat; a man who was larger than life and instilled his four sons with a sense of passion for work.
“My father used to say: ‘I don’t care what you do for a living, as long as you embrace what you do as if it were secular priesthood,’ ” said Díaz-Balart, who along with his three brothers sat by their father’s bedside until he lost a battle to leukemia in May of 2005.
Throughout his career and while maturing as a journalist, Díaz-Balart has managed to stand his ground, mostly keeping his personal and political views to himself. Like his father and brothers, he will be critical of the Castro regime, but he is also known for asking tough questions to Republicans as well as Democrats.
“José is one of those people who can be truly native in two worlds,” said Emilio Romano, president of Telemundo, the network Díaz-Balart helped form in 1987. “He is definitely one of Telemundo’s biggest assets.”
This ability to move from one language — and culture — to the other has helped Díaz-Balart land big roles in two languages, even simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly move seamlessly across NBCUniversal news properties.
More often than not, the media tries to explain José Díaz- Balart using the well-worn comparison than he is “the Brian Williams of Telemundo.” But his friend, and long-time colleague Ricardo Brown, begs to differ: “I’d rather say that Brian Williams is the José Díaz-Balart of NBC.”
In 2011 Díaz-Balart made television history when he did double duty on two NBCU networks, hosting his nightly newscast Noticiero Telemundo at 6:30 p.m. ET as well as filling in for Contessa Brewer on MSNBC Live at noon ET on MSNBC, making him the first journalist on U.S. television to anchor both an English and a Spanish-language newscast on two networks for one week straight.
He also appeared with Williams during a Republican primary debate last summer to ask an immigration-related question. While well-intentioned, the brief appearance made it to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where the host made fun of NBC for bringing a Latino guy to ask a Latino- related question.
“Look, if you’re going to do this, can you at least go the whole way and at least get a guy with an accent?” Stewart said after showing a clip of Díaz-Balart asking a question in perfect, accentless English.
“José is one of those journalists that are very difficult to find,” said Alexandra Wallace, the senior vice president of NBC News, whose team works close with the Telemundo news team. “If we didn’t have [José], we would have to make him up.”
Wallace is a former executive producer of NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams and a former colleague of Díaz- Balart during his time at CBS.
Talking to Díaz-Balart feels less like an interview and more like a lesson in literature, politics and journalism. He knows his history and likes to pepper his stories with quotes from Maimonides and Ortega y Gasset.
Friends say he is a great conversationalist, and rumor has it he has even begun collecting material to write his first book.
“He is a closet intellectual,” says Brown.
He is also a husband and a father of two girls, Katrina, 8, and Sabrina, 4, whom he calls his “two biggest treasures.”
These days, as the country enters the final, hectic days before the Nov. 6 election, Díaz-Balart is one busy soul. After covering both parties’ conventions back to back, landing two exclusive interviews with Romney and Obama in mid-September and traveling each week from Miami to Washington, D.C., to host and produce Enfoque, he has started making the rounds on other NBCU properties, including a special appearance on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show on Sept. 25.
Asked about which newsmaker has made the greatest impression on him on his nearly three decades as journalist, Díaz-Balart doesn’t hesitate for a second: “I’d say the thousands of regular individuals who lead their lives with dignity, despite undergoing the worst: war, hunger, the loss of their loved ones.”
Very much like the old Dominican woman who once helped a young reporter make a life-changing decision 28 years ago.
JOSÉ DÍAZ-BALART: AT A GLANCE
1960: José Díaz-Balart is born on Nov. 7 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
1983: Graduates from New College in Sarasota, Fla.
1983: Joins UPI as broadcast editor
1984: Joins SIN - now Univision - as Central American bureau chief
1987: Joins Telemundo
1996: Joins CBS News as anchor of CBS This Morning, becoming the first Cuban-American to anchor a network news broadcast
1998: Rejoins Telemundo
2006: Receives Silver Orchid Award for "Best News Anchor in the U.S."
2009: Replaces Pedro Sevcec as anchor of Noticiero Telemundo
2010: Becomes anchor and managing editor of Enfoque
2010: Receives the Silver Circle Award from the National Television Academy
2012: Lands first post-convention interviews on Spanish-language TV with President Obama and Mitt Romney