An American tragedy on the streets of the capital turned out to be a life-changing event for a young Mexican journalist. when John Hinckley, Jr., wounded president Ronald Reagan in a 1981 assassination attempt, radio reporter Jorge Gilberto Ramos Avalos — better known as Jorge Ramos — was sent to the U.S. to cover the story.
The youngest journalist on staff, Ramos seemed an unlikely choice, but he beat out his coworkers for two reasons: he could speak English, and his passport was in order.
Within a few weeks of the shooting, Ramos was hired as a writer for Antena Cinco, one of Mexico’s most renowned news programs. Soon he would be working in front of the camera, first as a reporter in Mexico and then at KMEX, the Univision affiliate in Los Angeles. By the time he was 28, he was anchoring national news, for Univision’s Noticiero SIN.
Throughout his distinguished career — he appeared on Time magazine’s 2015 list of the 100 most influential people — Ramos has interviewed world leaders and covered events around the globe. He is currently seen on many programs, including Noticiero Univision, Al Punto (Univision’s weekly public-affairs program) and AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program on Fusion.
Ramos was interviewed in May 2015 for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television by director Jenni Matz . The following is an edited excerpt of that discussion; the entire interview may be viewed at TelevisionAcademy.com/archive.
Q: As a young man, what did you study?
A: I didn’t study journalism. I didn’t want to be a journalist. I didn’t want to cover the news — I wanted to be the news. At some point, I thought that I wanted to be a politician, which was the way to change the world. And I thought that the only way to do that was to get involved in politics. So I studied a lot of political science and psychology.
Remember, I was growing up in a very poor country with a lot of corruption, with no democracy, and as a young student, there are many things that I wanted to change.
Q: Your first professional job was at Televisa radio in 1978 — how did that come about?
A: We were five kids in my family. I was the first one going to college, and we needed money. I got a scholarship for the first semester, and then we had no money to keep paying. So I started working in a travel agency.
A couple of years into college, somebody told me that they were offering an internship at the largest radio station in Mexico. I applied and they took me. I started helping the writers and journalists. I also tried to be on the air, but the news director told me that he didn’t like my voice and that I never would go on the air in radio. I didn’t say anything, but I knew he was wrong.
Q: You set out to correct that….
A: Absolutely. […Then] there was the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan. The news director called everyone into the newsroom and asked, “Among all of you” — I think we were 20 to 30 people — “who speaks English?”
Ten people raised their hands. I had studied English for a couple of years in elementary school, so I remembered a little bit. Then he asked, “And who has their passport ready?” I was the only one.
I was sent from Mexico City to Washington, D.C., to cover the assassination attempt. I had no experience whatsoever. I had never been on the air. I had never been a correspondent. I had never been a writer — and I was sent to cover one of the most important stories in that decade. I tried to do my best.
Q: How did that experience change your goals?
A: It changed everything. I realized it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to be where the world was changing — and Washington was the place. I wanted to get to know the people who were changing the world, and journalism gave me that opportunity.
Mexico was not a democracy. Mexico was a very repressive place with a lot of censorship. I realized that journalism was going to save me. And, in the end, of course it has saved me.
Q: How did you transition to television when you returned?
A: It was very clear that television was the place to be. That’s where the power was, where the influence was, so I moved from radio to television as a writer, working for a newscast. Eventually there was an opening on a show in Mexico called Sesenta Minutos, which is “60 Minutes.”
Q: That’s not the same 60 Minutes as here in the U.S….
A: It’s not, though they try to do something similar. I thought it was fantastic. I was hired as a television correspondent. I was 23. But life was not great, because I was working for a network that was completely censored by the government.
For my third report, I decided to do a story about how the president was chosen in Mexico and what Mexicans thought about that process. It’s called dedazo, which means, basically, a finger — a president chooses who’s going to succeed him [by beckoning] with a finger, saying, “You’re going to be the one following me.”
There was no democracy. So I thought, “Great. I’m going to do real journalism. Let’s denounce what’s going on in Mexico.”
Q: How did that go over?
A: By the end, I was forced to voiceover the report, which had absolutely nothing to do with my original reporting. So I quit. I didn’t want to be a censored journalist. It was not a difficult decision.
I still remember that letter of resignation as probably one of the bravest moments in my life. It was a badge of honor. Thanks to that, I became the journalist that I am right now. I had no future in Mexico. Nobody would hire me after that. I applied to UCLA Extension in Los Angeles. They accepted me for a one-year program in television and journalism, and with that I moved to the United States.
Q: How did you get your job at KMEX?
A: UCLA Extension gave me the opportunities that I really needed. After one year — with a certificate in my hand — I was able to apply, as a student, to work for one or two years in this country. That’s when I applied to KMEX, Channel 34, the Univision affiliate in Los Angeles. That was the best workshop in the world.
There were only two reporters, and each had to do three, sometimes four reports a day. By the end of two years of working for KMEX as a street reporter, I’d produced thousands of reports. That was the best schooling that I ever got. Not only in journalism, but also in American life and in how to make an impact on people.
Q: What did you learn about storytelling?
A: When it was a complicated story, I would go to the news director, Pete Moraga, and admit, “I don’t know how to tell this story. I don’t know exactly how to explain it.” He would say, “Tell me what you see.”
Television is such an artificial medium, that to be natural is probably one of the most important things. You have to tell a television story as if you’re telling it to your best friend, and in the easiest way possible. You only have one shot. If [viewers] don’t understand it the first time, they won’t understand.
Q: And at 28, you were offered a role at Noticiero SIN ….
A: While I was doing the morning news in Los Angeles, somebody from Univision watched me. They wanted to produce a morning show for the network, and they saw me improvising. They offered me the job. I was in my second year on American television, and to go from local reporter to national anchor was great. Of course, I said yes.
Q: Did that job offer new opportunities?
A: For the first time in my career I was able to talk to important people — presidents, mayors, senators, people who had influence. What I hated to do was the entertainment part of television, things like cooking segments… and I had to dance. I think they wanted me to sing, but I never did. It was not easy. However, I knew that it was going to give me exposure and experience.
Q: In 1988 you were in the crossfire, covering stories in places like El Salvador….
A: We were covering Latin America as if it was local news. That was really important back then — in the early 1980s, Central America was the center of the world. The Soviet Union and the United States were fighting ideological wars. So it was important to be with the rebels, to understand what they were going through, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
It was important to also represent the U.S. point of view. That balance was crucial. It was important to have access to all the people involved in these wars.
Q: You’ve witnessed some horrific scenes in your reporting. How do you personally cope with that?
A: Just imagine going to a war zone, a disaster [site] or New York after 9/11 — and then, when you’re on the air, you cannot express [your feelings]. I’ve said many times that I was not hired to cry on the air and I was not hired to complain personally on the air. I was hired simply to report.
To do that you have to say, “My job is to report, and I’ve got to do it now.” You think you can go home and nothing’s going to happen, but it isn’t true — everything that you covered is inside you.
Q: What was it like covering 9/11?
A: I covered the first moments of 9/11 here in Miami, then we rented a car and drove to New York City. By the time I got to where the Twin Towers were, you could [still] access the area very easily. I still remember the smell and the dust and the sense of chaos. And of course, I was breathing everything.
I went with the cameraman through all the destruction surrounding the towers. When I went back to the hotel, I realized that all my clothing had a specific smell — the smell of destruction and death and chaos. I got rid of my clothing and then realized I had been breathing all of that for hours — it was inside me.
Beyond the physical experience, it was a very emotional experience, to understand that inside me were parts of that building, of the people who died. That’s when I realized that as a reporter you can never put a distance between yourself and the story.
After 9/11, I became much more open and personal and emotional on the air. I tried to explain to viewers what I was going through. I think my professional style changed a lot because of that experience.
Q: When you interview someone like a U.S. president for the first time, how do you prepare?
A: There’s nothing like going to the White House and talking to the most powerful man on earth. Television thrives on conflict. If you can confront a president, it’s great to have the opportunity to ask tough questions.
Of course, you’re nervous and you don’t know exactly how it’s going to go, so I do this trick: I think of them naked, going to the bathroom. I know it’s silly. But when you think of presidents and dictators as human beings, it’s much easier to do an interview.
After many years of doing interviews with presidents, I realize that they also get very nervous. They don’t know all the answers, but they should be accountable for their actions.
When you’re doing an important interview with someone in power, there have to be two attitudes. First, you have to think of it as your last interview with that person, because otherwise you’re going to be softer with them. Second, don’t look around for someone else to ask that question. It is your responsibility.
Q: During an interview you did on Al Punto with Lou Dobbs, he used the term illegals . Can you talk a bit about that, and why vocabulary is important?
A: Words matter. If you start a debate using the word illegals, you’ve already lost that debate. No one is an illegal human being. No one, absolutely no one.
Not only Lou Dobbs, but other conservative columnists and journalists tried to create a new name for undocumented immigrants in this country. But we never use the word illegal — we use undocumented or unauthorized .
Q: Tell us about the Fusion network.
A: The original idea was to produce programming for young Latinos in the United States. And then, fortunately, we didn’t do it. We did a lot of research and realized that young Latinos didn’t want to be put aside in a different box. Young Latinos, being born in the United States, want to feel part of America.
So we said, “We have to be a network for all the young people in this country, including Latinos,” and that’s where Fusion was born. The idea was that millennials needed a voice, a new network to discuss politics, diversity, entertainment, music, art — and that Fusion was going to be that network.
Q: And your part in it…?
A: For me, it was a great opportunity. After 30 years of doing interviews and reporting only in Spanish, finally I had the opportunity to do a television show in the United States that didn’t need a translation — and the impact and the influence were immediate.
I kept asking the same tough questions, having the same interviewing style, but instead of doing it in Spanish, as with Noticiero Univision and Al Punto, I was able to do it on Fusion — and something marvelous happened. I went from being completely unknown to the rest of America to having people know what I was doing. It was wonderful.
That crossover was the conclusion of a very long career in which I could finally say that I can work in the country both in English and in Spanish. This country gave me the opportunities that my country of origin couldn’t give me.
Q: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
A: The fact that what I wanted to do as a child — travel the world — and then, as a young student — to get to know people who changed the world and be in the places where the world was being changed — I have been able to do that. Journalism has given me the opportunity to have an incredibly intense life.
Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize winner, said this is the best profession in the world, and it really is, because it keeps you young forever. That I’ve been able to live so long as a journalist and that I can define myself as a journalist and that I have been in touch with what’s important in this world — that has no price.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017