Rick Sanchez: The anti-Anderson Cooper

Eleni Gage Contributor
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Tweet. Tweet. That’s not the sound of baby birds celebrating the first day of spring. Some would say it’s the future of news journalism in this country.

At least that’s one explanation for Rick Sanchez’s rapid rise at CNN, where he evolved from an anchor and contributor who joined the network in 2004 to the host of his own live, two-hour daily show, “Rick’s List,” where he blusters about spreading news and infotainment from 3 to 5 p.m. every weekday. His Twitter skills are a reason CNN execs themselves tout when asked what Sanchez — whose reporting style differs so noticeably from the traditional CNN talking heads – brings to the network.

“Rick is passionate about the topics he chooses,” Bart Feder, senior vice president of current programming wrote in an e-mail. “He engages with viewers through Twitter and social media, he takes on challenging interviews and pushes back when necessary to make sure the viewers are getting real answers.”

That passion and pushback may be what gets him viewers — it’s also what gets him parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and pilloried on “The Daily Show.” His antics have included getting Tasered to explore the effects of the tool, simulating a police chase and submerging himself underwater — not once, but twice (the first time to demonstrate what happens when you fall off a cruise ship by jumping off a motorboat, and the second to show how to safely get out of a sinking car).

Even a simple interview is a spectacle when Sanchez is involved — Jon Stewart recently acknowledged Sanchez’s passion by saying, “Rick Sanchez delivers the news like a guy at a party who’s doing a lot of coke and traps you in a corner and explains really intensely how an ant is the strongest animal on earth.”

Sanchez’s high-energy broadcasts and oversized reaction shots make him the ideal fantasy to be the subject of a biopic starring Jim Carey. There are plenty of cinematic plot twists in Sanchez’s past to fuel a film. Born in 1958 in Havana, Cuba, Sanchez came to Miami with his parents as a young boy, won a football scholarship to Moorhead State University in Minnesota and went on to study journalism at the University of Minnesota. (Just think of the possibilities of Carrey-as-Sanchez interacting with extras with Fargo-esque accents.)

As a journalist he has covered September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, and returned to Cuba several times, even interviewing Fidel Castro (imagine the music swelling, the tear in Carrey’s eye as the exiled boy returns triumphant to his lost island).

Despite a stable family life with his wife and three children, there is drama in Rick’s personal life for Carrey to chew on as well; in 1990, leaving a Miami Dolphins game, he hit a pedestrian, Jeffrey Smuzinick, with his car and drove off, returning to the scene later. Smuznick died of his injuries after several years and Sanchez pleaded no contest to a charge of drunk driving, but never served time. In 2007, he told a reporter for the New York Observer, “I was wrong, because I had a couple of cocktails, because I was over the legal limit … 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.”

The incident has come back to haunt Sanchez in the blogosphere, where his fans and detractors show the passion Feder credits to Sanchez himself. When he tweeted “do u know how much money I’d make if I’d sold out as Hispanic and worked at fox news, r u kidding, one problem, looking in the mirror,” one blogger responded, “If I were Rick Sanchez, I’d take a long look in the mirror over driving drunk, hitting a man, fleeing the scene …” and on in the same vein.

The tweeting chirps both ways. For every rabid detractor, there’s an accolade, whether it’s Sanchez hosting the Twitter awards or the proud declaration on Sanchez’s official CNN bio that “in 2008, he became the first national anchor to regularly incorporate social media in his news gathering and broadcasts.”

Being el Rey de Twitter keeps Sanchez busy. Too busy to learn geography — after the recent earthquake in Chile, he pointed to the Galapagos islands on the map and said, “Here’s Hawaii.” Too busy to learn the metric system – covering the same disaster, he asked an expert what nine meters was “in English.” And too busy with his new show, which launched in December, to be interviewed for this profile, a request his reps declined or postponed repeatedly.

Feder, commenting on what Sanchez brings to CNN, e-mailed, “Rick’s enthusiasm is genuine and people can tell that he is authentic and extremely knowledgeable.” Extremely knowledgeable may be a stretch, but authentic is right on the money. “He is who he is; it’s not a persona for TV, he’s really that hyper and excited,” said a CNN producer who doesn’t work with Sanchez and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You can tell what’s a Sanchez story, and that must make producing for him really easy.” It makes watching him easy and, to some, comforting, too; you know exactly the kind of Taser-ing, deep-sea-drama show you’re going to get when you tune in, and that keeps viewers coming back in an era where, the producer said wistfully, “no one makes an appointment to watch TV anymore.”

When asked what Sanchez added to CNN, the producer said, “Two things: Hispanics and Twitter.”

Hispanics aren’t just tuning in to support an immigrant-made-good; Sanchez, who appears on both CNN and CNN en Espanol, often interviews subjects in Spanish, while doing live, simultaneous translation into English for the viewer, a valuable use of his manic energy, and one that adds to the viewer’s sense of being involved in the story.

As for the Twittering, it’s an odd hybrid of personal opinion, Sanchez’s diary, and a news feed. And while it may be disheartening to think that we’re becoming used to getting our news from a medium which could be embodied by Tweetie the cartoon bird, several producers I spoke to said twittering was the wave of the future — that Sanchez is part of CNN’s effort to make news more interactive.

Maybe the viewers Sanchez brings in — and engages — offset his gaffes, but whatever the case, the same fast-on-the-draw, larger-than-life style that makes Sanchez a Twitter machine is what contributes to the man’s antic, often-amusing reporting style. Following Sanchez’s Chile coverage, Jon Stewart commented, “See, that’s the thing about news in a disaster – you need information that’s fast and inaccurate,” which may characterize not just Sanchez (and Stewart was commenting on his on-camera performance, not a tweet), but on Twittering itself.

One wonders what the eminences grises of CNN — those gray-haired, deep-voiced purveyors of information such as Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper – think of the tweeting bloviator in their midst. Are they embarrassed to be in his company? Envious of his success? Or simply cognizant of the fact that he might just be the future of television news? As for the anti-Anderson, Sanchez himself, one suspects he’s not too troubled by bloggers laying blame or pundits lamenting the end of reliable news coverage. In his brave new world of media, he who tweets loudest tweets best.