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White Noise

Menace to society? Susana De León claims she was the victim of a journalistic hit piece
Kris Drake

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.

De León and Nestor run a small private practice, specializing in immigration law, out of a pink building at the intersection of 36th Street and Cedar Avenue in south Minneapolis. Part of their work is funded through the Racial Justice Collaborative, a nationwide effort directed at curtailing discrimination. In partnership with Centro Campesino, an immigrants' rights group based in Owatonna, the De León & Nestor firm received a two-year, $150,000 grant to primarily assist immigrants in rural areas. The grant, however, runs out this month. "We want to create change, not just sue people and make money," says De León.

"It's good to see someone from the legal community who's actually an activist," says August Nimtz, a University of Minnesota political science professor who was at the Owatonna rally. "A lot of times people in the legal world will see the courts simply as their arena of activity. She's willing to do work in the courts, but also in the streets."

As De León tells the story, there were roughly 100 people at the Owatonna rally in March. There were also six to ten anti-immigration activists who showed up. As De León's group joined hands to form a prayer circle, some of the counter protesters broke through the ring. De León says that they were muttering racist slurs, saying things like "wetback," "speak English bitch," and "go home."

Mendoza, who was also at the rally, echoes this report. "They were breaking through the circle of people and yelling and being completely disrespectful," he says. "I'm surprised, quite frankly, that it didn't lead to more physical aggression."

Nathan Smit, the amateur videographer who was so disturbed by De León's comments, offers a different description of the day's events. "Most of the people were just standing there watching them," he insists. "There wasn't anything inappropriate."

Mendoza and others argue that the KSTP piece was a particularly egregious example of the poor and sometimes inflammatory coverage of immigration issues by the media in recent months. Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, argues that the press has given too much credence to anti-immigration forces in the state. "In the name of trying to be fair I think there were times that the media covered the marches of those against immigrant rights as much as they covered the marches of those for immigrant rights even though the numbers that turned out for those were dramatically different," he notes.

An April front-page story in the Star Tribune, for instance, about the state's anti-immigration forces stated that the movement was holding its "first major rally" that weekend at the state Capitol. The turnout, according to news reports? Roughly 80 people. Meanwhile similar rallies aimed at showcasing support for immigrants' rights have routinely attracted thousands of participants.

De León's supporters also take issue with the media's embrace of the term "illegals" when discussing undocumented immigrants. "Those words can be very inflammatory," notes Rosenthal. "When you call someone illegal I think people get an impression in their mind that we're talking about criminals. People that are here without documentation are not criminals."

Immigration activists are hoping that some good can ultimately come out of the De León incident and what they feel are other misleading reports on these hot-button issues. In recent weeks, Mendoza and a couple of colleagues from the U of M have visited the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune to speak with staff members and push for more thoughtful coverage of immigration. But they haven't bothered with similar outreach to KSTP. "We felt like there was no productive way to engage them because of the angle they had taken," says Mendoza.

In fact, perhaps the only way to get the attention of KSTP may be through a third party. De León has filed a complaint with the Minnesota News Council citing six instances of alleged misconduct by the station. Among other things, the complaint states that KSTP misled viewers about the date of the Owatonna rally, misrepresented comments by diversity consultant Nelson, and unfairly maligned De León's character. In KSTP's response, Berg claims, "If you'd like to have any further discussion on these issues, we'd be happy to meet with you."

If the issue cannot be resolved amicably by the two parties, then a hearing is expected to be held before the Minnesota News Council in August. A panel, made up of both journalists and non-journalists, will then decide whether De León's complaints have merit.

 

For her part, De León says that she warned Stinar at the time of their interview that she would retaliate against any attacks. "If you portray me in any light that is not consistent with my character, I'm going to come after you," she recalls telling the reporter. "You come after me, I'm going to come after you."


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