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In late April, Susana De León was contacted by Kristin Stinar. The KSTP (Channel 5) investigative reporter informed De León that she wanted to interview her about immigration issues. When they met a few days later, De León says, she again pressed Stinar for information about the subject matter of the station's upcoming report. The answer: state and federal legislation relating to immigration.
De León didn't see any reason for concern. As an immigration attorney, University of Minnesota instructor, and native of Mexico, De León is routinely sought out by journalists to discuss immigration matters.
But after the camera was rolling, the interview took a strange turn. Following an initial general query about immigration issues, De León recalls, Stinar began talking about how heated and emotional discussions around the subject can get. "That's when I thought, where are you going with this?" De León says. "Then she asked me about Owatonna."
The report that eventually aired on May 2 had nothing to do with state and federal legislation regarding immigration. Instead, it was solely about De León and purportedly controversial comments that she made at an immigrants' rights rally in Owatonna nearly two months earlier.
"Just one day after immigrants and their supporters rally across the country, there is a new twist tonight on the immigration debate here in Minnesota," co-anchor John Mason said, introducing the piece. "A U of M teacher is accused of making racist comments, loudly, shouting them at a rally in Owatonna."
De León was then shown on a grainy, jerky videotape, speaking into a megaphone. "People from Europe are wetbacks, man," she shouts, with floating subtitles added by KSTP. "Their backs so wet because they had to cross an ocean to get here." De León was also shown cursing and tussling over a sign with an anti-immigration activist.
The report went on to quote two white men from Albert Lea who explained how scarred they were by her remarks and were demanding that she be fired by the University of Minnesota. "I was extremely offended," Nathan Smit, an anti-immigration activist who shot the videotape, told Stinar. "It actually almost hurt my feelings."
The report then goes on to accuse De León of lying about her relationship with the U of M, where she has taught Chicano studies part-time since 2001. When asked on camera about her teaching career, De León states that she is a professor at the university. However, Stinar then relates, a KSTP "investigation" revealed that she is actually a "teaching specialist." (Apparently it was lost on KSTP that people who teach college courses are often generically referred to as professors, even if that's not their exact title.)
These revelations about De León were evidently so explosive that they demanded a second day of coverage. "Regardless of which side you're on, people are talking," Stinar informed viewers the next evening. As evidence, the station aired a clip of Ian Punnett's talk radio show on WFMP (FM 107.1) with various callers weighing in on the issue. Of course, no mention was made that WFMP is owned by the same company, Hubbard Broadcasting, as KSTP.
The station's report attracted national attention. Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin mentioned it on her blog. The grand pooh-bah of anti-immigration theorists, Bill O'Reilly, even referenced the controversy on his television show.
De León, understandably, was flabbergasted by the coverage. "That presentation blew my mind," she says. "I can't believe an ABC affiliate can operate like that. I'm appalled."
Stinar refers City Pages to a statement from Chris Berg, the station's news director, in response to a written complaint to KSTP and the Minnesota News Council from De León. In the seven-point missive, Berg denies that Stinar engaged in any deception in obtaining an interview. "This was not a 'gotcha' interview," Berg notes. He goes on to deny further claims of misrepresentation from De León.
Still, De León's sentiments are echoed by others. "I suspected it was going to be biased, but I was pretty horrified at the degree to which they went out of their way to present this in a provocative and irresponsible manner," says Louis Mendoza, chair of the Chicano Studies department at the U of M and the person who hired De León.
Even the diversity consultant that KSTP quoted in the report, Vivian Jenkins Nelson, is upset with how her comments were portrayed. "I didn't have any idea that this thing had taken place so long ago," she says of the rally, which was on March 11. "That just blew me away when I found out." Nelson called De León after the piece aired to make clear where she stood. "I really wanted her to know that my comments weren't against her or anything like that," says Nelson. "I wanted her to hear that from me."
De León grew up in Mexico, just over the border from Laredo, Texas. "Part of my family lived in Texas," she says. "My cousins were in the Marines." She says she legally immigrated to California when she was 18 and eventually became a U.S. citizen. By 1989, she moved with her future husband, Bruce Nestor, to his home state of Minnesota. At 27, De León enrolled at the University of Minnesota, earning a degree in Chicano studies. She then went on to William Mitchell College of Law, graduating in 2001.
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