Miami-Dade County

How Rick Sanchez, a Miami kid raised to hate the Soviets, ended up working for Russian TV

Rick Sanchez is back on the air!

Rick Sanchez is back on the air. He is host of his own show, The News With Rick Sanchez, on RT America, the Russian state-funded television network.
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Rick Sanchez is back on the air. He is host of his own show, The News With Rick Sanchez, on RT America, the Russian state-funded television network.

Rick Sanchez is back on the air! His viewers are back on the edge of their seats! But Miami’s famously flamboyant anchorman isn’t broadcasting news from his famously factious hometown. Sanchez hosts a prime-time show which would seem completely at odds with his staunch anti-communist upbringing: He is now a TV star for RT America, the state-funded Russian network that media analysts and U.S. intelligence officials have derided as a propaganda tool for the Russian government.

So how did a guy born in Cuba and raised by factory-worker parents in Hialeah to hate Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union wind up earning his paycheck from the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia?

Don’t rush to any knee-jerk conclusions. Sanchez has not gone over to the “dark side” and allied himself with America’s arch enemy, an evil empire he and his generation were taught to distrust and fear during the Cold War.

“I am an American,” Sanchez said. “I love this country that opened its doors for my family and made me who I am. To do right by my country I have to tell the truth. I’ve never received communication from the Kremlin, never visited their embassy, never spoken to Putin — and I’ve criticized him on the air. There is absolutely no editorial, political or ideological pressure coming from Moscow. Zero.”

His program, “The News With Rick Sanchez,” presents “thoughtful, spin-free reporting based on respect for the viewer and journalistic independence, providing an alternative to divisive establishment media,” according to the show’s promotional material.

“I’d put our show up against anything on TV right now, especially the boring U.S. cable news stations,” he said. “I never thought I’d take this job but I’m having more fun than ever. I’m like a kid in a candy store.”

Sanchez’s show focuses on U.S. and international news, and not from the mother country. Each weeknight he covers a variety of topics, plays segments from reporters in the field and interviews guests. Lately, he’s covered the trade feud with China, the U.S. ban on Chinese tech company Huawei, corruption in Brazil, the war in Yemen, the Middle East, Venezuela’s troubles, Julian Assange, the future of Mars flights. He’s also commentated on “U.S. hegemony” and the “U.S. war and weapons industry that must have enemies to stay in business” and how U.S. saber-rattling against Iran could backfire “the same way I grew up hearing how Fidel used U.S. threats as a rallying cry and made himself into a kind of romanticized hero saying, ‘They’re going to attack us any moment and I’m going to protect you.’”

“I’m in a better place here, because if I was working for CNN and Fox, all I’d be talking about day after day, hour after hour is Trump, Trump, Trump,” Sanchez said of President Donald Trump. “OK, we get it, even those of us who consider him a vile human being. What else you got? They’re ignoring so many stories that affect the American people and the rest of the planet.”

A refined Rick Sanchez style is on display compared to the one who catalyzed WSVN-Channel 7’s “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage during the tumultuous 1980s and ‘90s in Miami. He is still assertive, with his trademark bombast bubbling up now and then. He speaks theatrically, uses his hands to make a point, tosses in autobiographical asides. But Sanchez is no longer squatting over a huge floor map of Iraq, holding a toy Scud missile to explain the Gulf War to his Miami viewers as he did in 1991. Sanchez, 60, is a more sophisticated leading man, worldly, smarter and humbler. His show has been rated No. 1 on RT America for eight weeks and gets 2 million YouTube hits per week. Two of his videos each topped 2 million in recent weeks, which he says indicates he is engaging “more young viewers in the key demographic than I ever did at CNN or MSNBC.” The network averages 700,000 regular viewers.

“When RT first called me, I said, ‘Nah,’” he said. “But they assured me total editorial autonomy — and I’m getting it. I write every word. Our editorial meetings are robust. Our staff is diverse. CNN and Fox weren’t exactly beating down my door, but my passion to be a TV news storyteller has never waned.”

RT’s Russian-owned production company was forced to register as a foreign agent by the U.S. Department of Justice despite protests from the network and free speech rights advocates. Sanchez gets ribbing that he’s working for the country accused of meddling in the 2016 election.

“’Oh, you’re working for the communists.’ Well, no, they are actually incredible capitalists,” Sanchez said. “Jeb Bush gave me grief at the airport. ‘You’re working for the Rooskies?’ The assumption is that Rick works for Russia, therefore Rick is bad.

“The irony is that it’s taken a Russian TV network to allow me to do a refreshing show. I could not do that at our U.S. competitors because of corporate infiltration and influence that prevents the asking of certain questions and the airing of certain viewpoints. I have more freedom here than I would at CNN or NBC or Fox, which have to maintain a specific place on the spectrum for their audience and their advertisers.”

Rick Sanchez was a news anchor at WSVN Channel 7 in the 1980s.

Sanchez recently ran a story on the advancement of 5G technology and its possible health risks, a story that other mainstream media have covered. The New York Times then ran a story dismissing RT’s 5G coverage as favorable to Russian interests. Sanchez shot back with a report on the Times’ ties to Verizon and challenged the Times to send a reporter to his show to discuss the newspaper’s “hit piece” and “blatant lies about us.”

“Russia is a foil to the New York Times,” Sanchez said on the air. “Any story they want to knock down they just tie it to Russia.”

RT reporter Dan Cohen added: “Like it’s a nefarious plot by Putin to get inside your brain.”

Working for RT America has given Sanchez mind-expanding perspectives on geopolitics, not just the ones spouting nonstop from the dominant domestic networks, or the “Miami ideology” he grew up hearing. He’s learned a lot just going out for beers with his Russian, Mexican, Colombian, Saudi Arabian and European colleagues.

“Russiagate is a phase, based less on facts than a new McCarthyism,” he said. “I’m sure Russia wanted to interfere with the election and damage Hillary Clinton. I’m sure they meddled, like many other countries. Maybe they do have bad taste in politicians, but Americans voted for Trump, so rather than scapegoat Russia and Putin let’s take a hard look at ourselves and why Trump was elected.

“We screwed up this country. Let’s talk about why Americans are hungry and feel left out and left behind. Why we elected a monster as president. So if it takes working at a Russian network to make America better and more honest about itself, why not?

“I am not a Putin apologist, Russia is not blameless, but I think our fascination with Russia is getting the best of us in terms of doing good journalism about what really matters.”

Sanchez works a half block from the White House at RT America’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. He commutes home regularly to be with his wife and four children in Pembroke Pines and does occasional broadcasts from RT’s “Southern bureau” studio on Brickell Avenue. He looks like he’s barely aged.

RT America used to be called Rossiya Segodnya — Russia Today — but the name was altered to position the network as an alternative to U.S. media. It features a disparate lineup of hosts. Larry King has two shows, Politicking with Larry King and Larry King Now — and King helped Sanchez craft his mission statement (“It’s time to do news again”) by insisting to Sanchez, “Ricky, CNN just doesn’t do news anymore.”

In “The World According to Jesse,” the former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura tackles “government hypocrisy and corporate deception.” Mike Papantonio is “America’s Lawyer” exposing “untold truths” in corporate and environmental cases, bad lawyers and corrupt judges. Chris Hedges’ “On Contact” program listens to “dissident voices” and the “black sheep of the establishment.”

Lee Camp’s “Redacted Tonight” posits that with “reality now seeming like a Shakespearean comedy, perhaps only comedy can truly bring the truth to the people.” Prominent soccer manager Jose Morinho hosts “On the Touchline.”

But U.S. intelligence agencies describe RT as something more sinister. Former CIA director James Clapper called it “a mouthpiece of Russian governmental propaganda” closely tied to Putin. A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said RT and Russian radio network Sputnik served as “a platform for Kremlin messaging” to demean Clinton and boost Trump during interference with the 2016 election. The report said RT’s coverage is tilted to undermine the U.S. as a surveillance state plagued by abuse of civil liberties, police brutality, drone spying, poverty, injustice, government corruption and corporate greed.

Sanchez, who was hired six months ago, two years after the election, has seen no evidence of such influence.

“RT is growing and it’s cool,” he said. “I feel like we’re in between CNN and Fox and better than both.”

Miami remembers Sanchez as a popular and polarizing figure on screen. Never subtle, Walter Cronkite he was not.

Sanchez made his name as a reporter and anchor when Miami was “Paradise Lost” and “murder capital of the country,” besieged by race riots, the Mariel boatlift, crooked politicians, rogue cops, cocaine cowboys and the crack epidemic. Sanchez’s animated, energetic, aggressive style was perfectly suited to the gruesome, chaotic news of the day — and a groundbreaking method of presenting the news.

As a young reporter straight out of college, he was out on the streets, always moving, gesticulating, asking questions, crafting a narrative instead of reciting news-speak.

“I was first on the scene, I knew all the cops, I put myself in the middle of the dirt of Miami, where there was a cocaine deal going down every five minutes and I was holding a bag of cocaine in my hands to prove it,” he said. “I created a persona who was passionate, glib, free-thinking, free-talking, not stilted, not conventional. I’ve always had an ability to grab a mic, look into the camera and speak comfortably. It wasn’t great journalism. I certainly was no Walter Winchell or Edna Buchanan. I was a hustling street reporter, in the neighborhoods. I loosened my tie, rolled up my sleeves. I didn’t use tripods because I was constantly walking — downtown, Miami Beach, Liberty City: ‘Let me show you where police say the murder occurred.’

“At times it became a little caricaturish, which I apologize for. But we did start a bold new era in newscasting. Channel 7 was the hottest, trend-setting station in the U.S. We were live, breaking news and had 60 percent of Miami watching us every night. My persona, the Channel 7 persona and the Miami persona meshed at exactly the right time.”

Sanchez moved on to NBC in New York and reported on 9/11, then CNN in Atlanta, where he led Peabody Award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 election. He had previously been honored by President George Bush with a 1,000 Points of Light award for coverage of Hurricane Andrew and was named Florida Broadcast Journalist of the Year.

“In Miami, I was a news actor. At CNN I became a news professional,” said Sanchez, who pioneered use of social media and earned high ratings for his show, “Rick’s List.” He also filmed segments in which he was Tasered by police (“It hurts,” he said, practically falling down) and jumped off a boat into the ocean to demonstrate how the Coast Guard rescues people stranded at sea.

But Sanchez was fired by CNN in 2010 when he made controversial comments about Jon Stewart and Jews during a Sirius radio interview. While Stewart himself complained that CNN overreacted, it didn’t help that CNN’s president, Sanchez’s chief advocate, also left the network.

Sanchez apologized, returned to Miami and found himself stuck in the broadcasting wilderness. At one point he held down four jobs simultaneously: FIU football broadcaster, WIOD radio host (sandwiched between shows by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity), American Heritage High School teacher and co-founder of a managed healthcare company. He was also a contributor to Fox News Latino and worked for a tiny Spanish-language outlet, America TeVé.

“I worked seven days a week and rediscovered grass roots Cuban Miami after drifting away from the soul of Miami,” he said. “I worked so hard to remake myself by having to stretch myself and evolve.

“Now, I’m a much better journalist, a much better storyteller. Tune in. You can tell I’m having a blast.”