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Navarrette: The Halperin-Cruz teaching moment

May 12, 2015 at 11:27 p.m.


Latinos, especially immigrants, are well-known for doing other people's chores for them — cutting their lawns, cleaning their homes, cooking their food.

So it was refreshing to see Mark Halperin step forward recently to do a couple of things for us.

First, in a wince-inducing April 30 interview of Ted Cruz, Halperin assigned himself the weighty task of being an ethnic arbiter, responsible for determining who is authentically Latino and who isn't.

Then, this week, in a carefully worded but half-hearted apology — which admitted no fault, showed no contrition, offered various excuses, and read like it was written at the urging of the public relations folks at Bloomberg Politics, where he is a managing editor and hosts the online show "With All Due Respect" — Halperin decided for Latinos that we should stop being offended and move on.

The PR folks made sure that, as one of the first journalists to criticize the interview, I got a copy of the apology along with a link to Cruz's far more gracious statement accepting it.

The message was clear: "This is over. Nothing to see here."

No way, José. How about we let the aggrieved party — in this case, Latinos — decide when the offender is out of the doghouse? What a radical concept that would be.

In fact, some Latinos have said that Halperin should apologize to the entire community. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

There is more to this story than a simple case of media gotcha. It's one thing to ask a candidate what newspapers she reads, or whether he can identify the president of Mexico. It's quite another to set out to show that the candidate isn't who he says he is because he doesn't meet your subjective standard for determining who's who and what's what.

Actually, as should be obvious to anyone who has watched the clip, this was no interview. It was an interrogation.

Journalists conduct interviews to obtain information. That's not what Halperin did here. He was on the attack, quizzing Cruz about his Cuban-ness to make the 2016 Republican presidential hopeful look like a phony.

With Halperin firing off at Cruz superficial questions about his favorite Cuban dishes or Cuban music, and then pressing him for specifics, it's no wonder that so many people described the exchange as "tacky," "ignorant" or "racist."

It was all three of those things. It also was a teaching moment that tells us some important and troubling things about the media, politics and Latinos — and how they all intersect — especially during a presidential year when there are two viable Latino candidates and both are Republicans. Who would have thought it?

With regard to the media, other journalists who missed this story for more than a week have demanded to know how I caught it, in a column that went viral thanks to Twitter. Simple. As a journalist of color, I have antennae for a story like this.

If you want to pick up on a condescending bully trying to harass someone by proving that he's not ethnic enough, it helps to be someone who has been told he's not ethnic enough — in my case, because I don't follow the script laid out by the Latino left. It's not just that I've seen this movie before. I've been cast in the lead.

As for politics, like everyone else, journalists have learning curves, and they're especially obvious when navigating unfamiliar waters. Clearly, for some, the idea of a Latino Republican who is making a serious run for president will take some getting used to. Until that happens, some will stumble, perhaps even by grilling that Republican to find out whether he is really Latino. It's hard to imagine that a Latino Democrat would ever be treated so shabbily.

As far as Latinos go, we've had enough. To be one of the estimated 54 million Latinos in the United States — a group that spends about $1.5 trillion annually and supposedly decides presidential elections — is to be simultaneously courted and disrespected.

When Hollywood casts Ben Affleck, who is not Latino, to play Latino CIA agent Tony Mendez, or when television networks gather white and African-American panelists on Sunday morning to talk about the Latino vote, we tolerate it. Someone is always deciding for us what our agenda should be, what issues we should care about, what leaders we should follow.

It stops now. There is nothing more personal than one's identity. Treat it with respect. Handle it with care.

— Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.

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