The first time I met Rick Sanchez, I was a guest commentator on his CNN program. During a commercial break, I walked onto the set, fiddling with my clip-on microphone as I tried to remember a few talking points. At the anchor desk, Sanchez looked up from his notes and burst into a wide smile. "Raulito!" he exclaimed. He jumped up and threw his arms around me. He was handsome, friendly and a little over the top. He was, I thought, perfect for cable news.
After that, whenever I went on Sanchez's show, I enjoyed talking with him. Once he mentioned he felt underappreciated by his bosses. "They don't get me," he said, in Spanish. I just nodded, wondering how he could have problems with what seemed like a dream job.
As we all know, that dream job is long gone. Last fall, Sanchez was axed by CNN after making anti-Semitic remarks in a satellite radio interview. He called Daily Show host Jon Stewart a "bigot," then termed him "prejudicial." After mentioning Mr. Stewart's Judaism, he said, "Everybody that runs CNN is a lot like Stewart... And a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart."
Now Sanchez has resurfaced. In an interview with The Daily Beast, he termed his choice of words "careless, "mangled, and "sloppy."
He might have added, indefensible. But I still maintain that Sanchez didn't deserve to be booted off the network.
Consider CNN's history of tolerating extreme views by its on-air talent. For years, Lou Dobbs was allowed to rail against undocumented immigrants as "invaders." He spread blatant falsehoods about immigrants carrying leprosy, supported the "Birthers," and warned of the coming "reconquista" of the U.S. by Mexico. After a "Dump Dobbs" campaign was launched by a national coalition of Hispanic advocacy groups, CNN bought him out of his contract for a reported $8 million.
Then there's Glenn Beck, formerly of CNN's Headline News. In November 2006, he said to Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives: "I have been nervous about this interview with you, because what I feel like saying is, "Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies."
Was Beck fired for insulting a congressman to his face? No. Did he apologize for disrespecting a role model for U.S. Muslims? No. Two years later, he left CNN of his own accord.
Last March, CNN announced that RedState.com's Erick Erickson would be joining the "most trusted name in news." According to the watchdog site Media Matters for America, Erickson is known for "violent incendiary, sexist, and racially charged commentary." He has called Michelle Obama a "Marxist harpy" and referred to Supreme Court Justice David Souter a goat-f--ing child molester." In April 2010, on his radio show, Ericksen threatened to "pull out my wife's shotgun" if a Census worker came to his door.
So all of these extreme viewpoints are overlooked, and only Sanchez was summarily fired? I see a double standard here (and I suspect Juan Williams might too). If CNN wants a zero-tolerance policy on bigotry and hate speech, terrific. Yet it seems as though it was selectively enforced at the expense of one of the most visible Hispanics in broadcasting.
As the host of Rick's List, Sanchez spotlighted Latino issues, and was willing to take on immigration hardliners like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Russell Pearce, author of SB 1070. He was one of the few Latinos sitting in the anchor chair on primetime, contributing to CNN, CNN International, and CNN En Espanol.
Nothing excuses his insensitive remarks. But racism and anti-Semitism are like a virus. They need to be continually subjected to scrutiny, so we can see how ugly and powerful they are. Banishing Sanchez did nothing save derail his career. CNN should have suspended him or made him apologize on-air. Sanchez, a man who has been tasered and locked in a submerged car on camera, would've no doubt risen to the challenge.
Sanchez now admits that his anger at being ridiculed on-air by Stewart, night after night, led to his thoughtless rant. Maybe someday he will understand that Stewart, like himself, has indeed faced his own struggles with discrimination and acceptance. For proof of this, he need look no further than their birth names, which they both changed in order to succeed. Ricardo León de Reinaldo, meet Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz.