One Thursday in July, CNN’s Rick Sanchez received an e-mail from network president Jonathan Klein.
“I need a hard-throwing righty out of the bullpen,” to fill in for Paula Zahn as anchor for a week in the crucial 8 p.m. weekday time slot, Mr. Klein wrote, according to Mr. Sanchez. “Can you be in New York by Monday?”
It's less than a thousand miles from Atlanta to New York, but the distance between his gig as a weekend daytime anchor for CNN, and the new show must have felt much greater*. This was the big leagues: If only for a week, the energetic, 49-year-old Cuban immigrant would go head-to-head against Fox’s fed-up conservative, Bill O’Reilly, and MSNBC’s liberal sophisticate, Keith Olbermann.
He threw a few suits in a bag, jumped on a plane and covered for Ms. Zahn for a week. Things went well. So well, in fact, that the following week, after CNN announced Ms. Zahn was leaving the network, Mr. Klein asked: “Can you do another week?”
That week, too, went well.
“So then he says, ‘Can you do a month?’” Mr. Sanchez remembered, in an interview at his new office in the Time Warner Center. Next, he remembered, it was, “Can you go through Labor Day?” Then: “Can you go through November?” And now, said Mr. Sanchez, “We’re going through February,” when the network’s new star hire, Campbell Brown, will step into the slot.
And so, in the strangely ad hoc way that most things in this business seem to happen, he’s getting the biggest audition of his career.
His past couple of months as the host of Out in the Open, the opinionated 8 p.m. news-and-debate program he leads until Ms. Brown arrives, has gotten him lots of attention. Some cable-news insiders think Mr. Sanchez has his eye on the 7 p.m. time slot*. At present, CNN’s prime-time lineup is a little screwy: Mr. Blitzer is on the air from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., then comes Lou Dobbs’ Lou Dobbs Tonight from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Then Mr. Blitzer—again—from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. How much better to start a new franchise in that hour!
Mr. Sanchez won’t be drawn out on his ambitions at CNN.
“For me it’s just a wonderful opportunity to be able to showcase what we can do,” he said, carefully. “And to show that there is a huge audience out there that probably needs to be spoken to as well.”
CNN knows that well enough. During Ms. Zahn’s tenure, the network had fallen into a distant third place among cable news networks in the 8 p.m. time slot, behind Fox and MSNBC.
Mr. Sanchez’s six month tryout pins the young buck with a straight-shooting style and a reputation for daredevil reporting up against the O’Reilly’s and Olbermann’s of the world. And it’s an opportunity to test out a new voice for the network that just might have something going for it.
Mr. Sanchez’s parents fled Cuba for South Florida when he was 2, and it was in Miami that he got his start, hosting a Spanish-language radio show while making his name as an English-language anchor for the city’s Fox affiliate, WSVN.
Lately he’s been aggressive about staking out his territory with the other guys. Out in the Open has developed its own cause—the struggles of Hispanic immigrants—that fits well with his own story, and pushes a political hot button.
“We really want to fight for the little guy,” Mr. Sanchez said, an uncharacteristically somber look flashing, for the moment, over his boyish, unlined face. “And, in this case, I think, the littlest of guys in this country right now is the Mexican immigrant.”
Of course, the direction makes strategic sense for CNN, especially as it continues to figure out how to counter conservative icon Mr. O’Reilly. As Mr. Sanchez himself puts it: “For a long time, cable news has said either, ‘We’ll just stay right here in the middle and not say a whole lot,’ or, ‘we’ll go way over to the right and say a lot.’ But there’s a whole other audience out there … America really is a melting pot.”
“I know it sounds a little hackneyed,” he said, “but defending the little guy is hard these days, and it’s not something that anybody wants to do, and I do it because—not just because I’m a minority—but because I frankly feel what it’s like to be these people who are really downtrodden right now, you know, to be a Mexican immigrant. Because I know what it’s like to be poor.”
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bill!
And Mr. Sanchez has no fear of confronting his rivals directly.
On his Sept. 19 show, Mr. O’Reilly told viewers: “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks.” Later, during a discussion with a correspondent, he added, “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-F’er, I want more iced tea.”
Mr. Sanchez saw his opportunity. He called Mr. O’Reilly and asked for an explanation, then dedicated a segment of his show to a debate over the Fox News–man’s words. Mr. O’Reilly fired back, and the blogs buzzed the next day with talk of the skirmish.
CNN has found that the sweet-faced Mr. Sanchez does well in a controversy, and despite Mr. Klein’s much noted 2005 decision to cancel Crossfire, after Jon Stewart famously accused the long-running political shoutfest of “hurting America,” studio debates on race and homosexuality have become a key part of the programming for Out in the Open.
That Mr. Sanchez will do a lot to get a big story was well-known already. At various times in his career at CNN, he has submerged himself in a car that was sinking underwater to show viewers how best to escape; been intentionally left at the top of a snow-covered mountain to convey the difficulties of surviving the elements; and been tasered at a Florida police academy.
The move towards more attitude—from an ideological perspective or not—makes a certain sense. As Ms. Zahn found out, no one wants straight news in that time slot any more.
“By 8 p.m., everyone kind of knows what’s going on,” Mr. Sanchez told The Observer.
It must be a sign of something that Mr. Sanchez’s tormentors are significantly higher on the media totem pole than the ones who tormented him back in Miami.
In the 1990’s, he won the title of “Least Credible News Personality” from Miami New Times, the city’s alternative weekly, so many times in succession that the paper named the award after him.
Mr. Sanchez had already survived what would ordinarily be a career-killer*. While leaving a Miami Dolphins game with his father in 1990, Mr. Sanchez struck a drunken pedestrian, who later died of his injuries. According to police, Mr. Sanchez’s own blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit, and he left the scene before returning. He ultimately pleaded no contest to a D.U.I. charge, but avoided jail time, and even remained on the air.
Asked about the incident, Mr. Sanchez’s Ron Burgundy jocularity vanished in an instant. “I don’t see where that has anything to do with anything,” he said, and called the inquiry “a hatchet question.”
He soon regained his cool though. “Was it an unfortunate experience? Yes. Was it a learning experience? Absolutely. Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Of course,” he allowed. “I was wrong, because I had a couple of cocktails, because I was over the legal limit,” he went on. “It could have happened to anybody. … There were probably a lot of other people leaving the stadium that had had a couple of beers as well.”
Somehow, Mr. Sanchez weathered all of that long enough to attract the attention of cable-news upstart MSNBC. In 2001, the network pulled Mr. Sanchez out of Miami and gave him his own daytime news and talk show. But the critical reception was underwhelming—an industry newsletter called him “a tabloid-bred brickhead,”—and the ratings were abysmal.
By 2003, Mr. Sanchez was back in Miami hosting another daytime show for NBC affiliate WTVJ. Had he scotched his big break? No, in fact, for the following year, CNN came calling, recruiting him to fill a daytime host slot alongside Daryn Kagan.
And there, he has flourished enough to get roasted in the greatest roasting pit of American media. On the Daily Show earlier this year, Mr. Stewart seemed to take special pleasure in mocking his taser segment.
“Jon Stewart can make all the fun he wants of me, but that was an important story,” Mr. Sanchez said earnestly.
You’re almost there, Rick!
“We feel the buzz, we hear the buzz, we’re getting the e-mail,” he said, getting himself excited. “We’re laughing all the time when we get together in editorial meetings. It’s really a great feeling—and it would be wonderful if somehow we could make it last.”
*This sentence has been changed from an earlier version.