BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The popular host of a Spanish news talk show called Under Fire says three New York members of Congress used their political power to suppress his political views. Gerson Borrero was fired days after his station managers and a representative of the parent company, the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, held a meeting with the elected officials. Borrero says they threatened to prevent the station from renewing its broadcasting license if he didn't tone down his drive-time show on W.A.D.O. a-m or "Wahdo." As On the Media's Marianne McCune reports, Gerson Borrero chose not to comply.
GERSON BORRERO: The way media works in my community is that they're very respectful--; they get an interview on radio, on, or on television and their like [MIMICKING] Oh, thank you Mr. Congressman! Thank you, Miss Congresswoman! [BLOWING KISSES] You know, and it's kissing -- you know - it, it's disgusting!
MARIANNE McCUNE: If Gerson Borrero doesn't get what he considers an honest answer from a politician, he calls him a "Culipandero" -- one who sways from side to side. If he believes Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx isn't taking a clear stance on the status of Puerto Rico, Borrero accuses him of lacking political testicles. New York Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez has no political ovaries.
GERSON BORRERO: I think that that's an appropriate choice of words.
CONGRESSMAN ROBERT MENENDEZ: Well, I, I, I don't think it's a job of journalists to talk about people's body parts.
MARIANNE McCUNE: That's Congressman Robert Menendez of New Jersey who along with Jose Serrano and Nydia Velasquez met with station brass. He's one more among dozens of targets Borrero has aimed at, both from his perch as editor in chief of the popular Spanish-language newspaper El Diario La Prensa and from behind his Wahdo microphone.
CONGRESSMAN MENENDEZ: Wahdo used to be called "La Campeona" which in Spanish means "The Champion," and it was the champion of the Hispanic community. It promoted its interests. It promoted its unity. And we believe that it's no longer La Campeona; it's lost its way.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Congressman Menendez says Borrero is divisive; that he looks to pit one group of Hispanics against another. Borrero once slammed the first ever Puerto Rican Congressman as an ex-Puerto Rican, but that congressman, now New York mayoral candidate Herman Badillo, doesn't flinch. He says the Hispanic community can handle internal debate.
HERMAN BADILLO: I have every confidence that the Hispanic community can discern what is good and what is not good for the community. That is the nature of the reporting process! That's why we have the kind of radio programs we do -- so that people can decide what they believe is good for the community.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Borrero believes the thousands of new listeners he's attracted to Wahdo are deciding he's right, and that's why congressmembers want him off the air.
GERSON BORRERO: So instead of saying I will never be on his program, I will never listen to him -- they're saying get him off the air or I'm going to mess with your licensing. That, that is - to me that is a, a-- that is corrupt! That is dictatorial; it's tyrannical; it is not a democracy then if we allow them to do this!
MARIANNE McCUNE: Actually that does happen in a democracy, says Jane Kirtley, professor of media, ethics and law in University of Minnesota, whether or not the details of this particular story are as Borrero describes.
WOMAN: I think the only thing that's really surprising about this is the fact that this kind of thing doesn't happen more often.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Broadcast media are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and although the FCC is supposed to be impervious to political pressure, she says Congress can and does get involved. Elected officials lobby commission members. They file letters of complaint or support, and they also act pre-emptively by stating their positions to heads of media outlets.
WOMAN: I think it would be [LAUGHS] appropriate for members of Congress to resist, but I think human nature is such that if you have power, it takes a, a pretty big, strong, tall person to resist the impulse to do that!
MARIANNE McCUNE: Jane Kirtley, like Gerson Borrero, believes it's up to broadcasters to stand up for themselves.
GERSON BORRERO: I was so incensed that they would sit there and be subjected to verbal insults and threats-- which I think constitute a corrupt act on the part of these three elected officials who are looking out for their self interest.
MARIANNE McCUNE: But what if that's not exactly the way it happened? Congressman Menendez says Wahdo called the meeting to ask for his and his colleagues stamp of approval on a new programming idea.
CONGRESSMAN MENENDEZ: If you come to me and you ask me to support programming at your initiative and I tell you no, and you ask me why and I tell you why I won't support it, then I think that's prob--exac-- you know, certainly proper! And that's the nature of the circumstances that took place here.
PROF. JANE KIRTLEY: Certainly I don't have any problem with them saying we don't like what you're doing.
MARIANNE McCUNE: As long as it's not couched in a retaliatory threat, says professor Jane Kirtley.
PROF. JANE KIRTLEY: You know we don't like what you're doing and by the way we're members of Congress and by the way -- we may have some input into your license renewal, so it would be good for you -wise of you to stay on our good side. I mean that is an -- obviously a more subtle form I suppose of, of, of censorship.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Did you say we may not support the renewal of your license in 2006?
CONGRESSMAN MENENDEZ: I don't recall specifically saying that. I do recall saying that, you know, we are free as is the constituency we represent to consider raising our concerns at any given point in time both with the station and in the future should they go ahead and-- you know-- have a, a licensing process!
MARIANNE McCUNE: Wahdo representatives passed on some version of that message to Gerson Borrero, and when Borrero made it clear he planned to tell his listeners all about it, he says they fired him. None of the Wahdo representatives present at the meeting have returned repeated phone calls. They have only released a statement saying the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation does not comment on situations, relations, internal matters or negotiations with employees and/or former employees. For On the Media, I'm Marianne McCune in New York.