Villaraigosa's Media Affair

{mosimage}THERE WAS ONLY ONE television station to watch on the day in mid-June when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa first broached the subject of his marriage — a disastrous event where he summoned reporters to discuss his split with Corina Villaraigosa, then demanded privacy from those same reporters when they asked about his affairs. That channel was, of course, Telemundo, whose weekday 6 o’clock news is anchored by Mirthala Salinas, the raven-haired beauty who secretly dated the mayor even as his marriage fell apart.

By then, the blogosphere was on fire with rumors that Salinas, a reporter and anchor for KVEA Channel 52, had a long-term relationship with the married mayor. And so it was surreal to see Salinas on the 6 o’clock news introducing the segment on Villaraigosa’s breakup, looking away from the camera while a tiny screen showed Villaraigosa also looking down.

You had to wonder: Was Salinas upset? Did she feel weird announcing the end of the mayor’s 20-year marriage? And most importantly, was this the news or a telenovela? (Oh, right. Those come an hour later. Zorro, anyone?)

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Daily News finally got confirmation of Villaraigosa’s romance with Salinas, a political reporter who had already dated former council President Alex Padilla, among others. Daily News reporter Beth Barrett, with help from an interpreter, brilliantly went to the most obvious source, Villaraigosa’s mother-in-law, who said that the mayor told his wife that questions about his missing wedding ring were “none of her business.”

And yet despite the salacious details, information about the timing of the romance remained frustratingly fuzzy. After all, the woman dating the mayor had, as a reporter, covered Villaraigosa during many of his high-profile endeavors: staking out a position on illegal immigration, showing up on the scene of a gang shooting and, perhaps most notably, attempting to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Salinas made her biggest splash last year when, camera operator in tow, she got a rare peek at the stash of toilet brushes sent to Villaraigosa after he delivered his famous “We clean your toilets” speech to a crowd of immigrants. (The speech prompted listeners of KFI-AM to mail the toilet brushes to City Hall.) Salinas received a personal tour of Villaraigosa’s office during that segment, which lived on for months on, disappearing only as the marital rumors got hotter and hotter.

A rising star in Spanish-language journalism, Salinas made her way to Sacramento last summer, interviewing the mayor as he pushed a bill to strip the school board of its powers. And just three weeks ago — months after she had supposedly shifted away from daily reportage — Salinas could be seen conducting interviews with teachers-union bigwig A.J. Duffy, broaching the topic of dropout rates in a segment on school reform. Of course, the man pushing the issue of dropout rates is also the man Salinas is seeing.

Salinas did not return six calls made by the L.A. Weekly over the past three weeks. But Villaraigosa called Salinas a “consummate journalistic professional,” saying she informed her bosses roughly a year ago that she would need to stop covering the mayor. “When [she] decided that our friendship had gotten to a point where it was necessary to inform her management that she shouldn’t cover me, she did that,” Villaraigosa said at his press conference.

Confronted Tuesday by a swarm of reporters at downtown’s Music Center, Villaraigosa refused to specify how long the two had been dating, saying the relationship had evolved “over time.” “I don’t believe that the details of my personal life are relevant to my job as mayor,” he declared.

Villaraigosa batted away a question about whether he had gotten Salinas pregnant, yet another rumor ricocheting around the blogs, calling the question “outrageous.” And he dismissed the notion that Salinas ever got special access to his administration as a result of their affair.

Villaraigosa contends that the public is interested in how he does his job, not how his marriage fares. And in reality, the romance poses more of a professional danger to Salinas, not Villaraigosa, putting her in risky territory. Salinas couldn’t exactly pull a Maria Shriver, graciously bowing out of the spotlight while the object of her affection hogged the attention. After all, she was the other woman, not the first lady.

BUT BY NOW, YOU DIDN’T NEED a press conference to know that Villaraigosa had climbed into bed with Telemundo, a Spanish-language network owned by NBC Universal. While the mayor’s behind-the-scenes squeeze introduced news segments on him, Telemundo gave the mayor even more gratuitous airtime, repeatedly running public-service announcements that featured — who else? — our city’s mayor.

One PSA that ran throughout the month of May — and regularly on Telemundo’s 6 o’clock news — featured Villaraigosa gushing about the importance of reading at the “Feria del Libro,” a children’s book fair. Another showed Villaraigosa seated in an overstuffed chair — think Alistair Cooke on Masterpiece Theatre, albeit en español — talking about the danger of earthquakes.

Villaraigosa used the latter spot to plug “Ready L.A.,” an emergency-preparedness program. But in reality, he was plugging himself, snaring lucrative airtime on the network’s dime. The 6 o’clock news, anchored by Salinas, even managed to show both PSAs — double billing for Villaraigosa! — during one 30-minute broadcast, a virtual gift of media to a politician obsessed with his own poll numbers.

Telemundo executives would not comment on the relationship, saying the channel does not discuss the personal lives of its employees. But Victor Franco, the station’s vice president for community relations, defended the PSAs, saying they contain information that is “important to our viewers.”

And in a way, Telemundo’s subtle promotion of Villaraigosa isn’t all that different from other media en español. Univision — the network whose longtime figurehead, Jerrold Perenchio, poured $1 million into the mayor’s L.A. Unified takeover bid — runs its own weekly news segment with the mayor called “A Su Lado.” The phrase translates into “On Your Side” in English. With such a friendly title, what viewer wouldn’t conclude that the mayor is firmly in his or her column?

Even La Opinión, a strong voice for the city’s Spanish-speaking newspaper readers, can’t resist running “Alcalde, Yo Pregunto . . .” — a weekly column that translates loosely into “Mayor, I Wanna Ask You.” Villaraigosa’s mug appears right on the newspaper’s home page advertising the column, which gives him a free soapbox to describe his initiatives. La Opinión wouldn’t dream of having such a column for the hapless mayors of, say, Maywood or Bell Gardens. But Villaraigosa, larger than life, somehow elevates himself above politics, getting closer and closer to the vehicles that cover him.

In one recent La Opinión column, the mayor received softballs about traffic and gangs — letters that allowed him to promote a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., and his drive to synchronize traffic signals. Then there was the toughie from Lesbia Paera, a letter writer who grilled him with this stunner: “Como le hace para estar en todo?” Or to put it another way: “How do you manage to get around so much?”

Mi energía deriva de la pasión que le guardo de mi trabajo,” the mayor answered gallantly, or roughly translated: “My energy comes from my passion for my work.” Aw shucks, ma’am. Just doing my job!

City Hall gossips were dying to see whether Salinas would anchor the 6 o’clock news Tuesday night — announcing the very story that now focuses exclusively on her. (The L.A. Weekly went to press an hour before that broadcast). But even if someone else anchors Telemundo’s news for a day or two, l’affaire Salinas is the logical endgame in an increasingly chummy L.A. media circle. After all, once things get intimate in print and on the screen, a romantic, possibly even marriage-destroying, relationship between a politician and a journalist seems like just another day at the office.


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