Whether he’s reporting for MSNBC, NBC News, or Noticias Telemundo, José Díaz-Balart is a groundbreaking Latino journalist. But before he was a household name, Díaz-Balart says he was just an inquisitive kid.
“I have always been curious about the world around us,” he says. “I think the more one knows, the more one realizes that one doesn’t know a lot.”
It was curiosity that led a 23-year-old Díaz-Balart to show up unannounced to United Press International’s (UPI) Miami offices in the 1980s. After asking the bureau chief for a tour, he decided to take a writing test for a job. He passed and was later hired as editor of “rip and read,” a way of taking news off of the wire and often condensing or expanding it into a story. In 1984, he was assigned to cover riots in the Dominican Republic.
“Because I was the only Spanish-speaking correspondent in the Southeast, I was sent to the scene,” Díaz-Balart says.
When he arrived, he encountered people rioting on the streets and buses burning. “There were machine guns, people running and dropping,” he recalls. “It was a violent situation. I heard bullets and ran, barging into a metal zinc door leading to a one-room house with three generations of mostly women.”
As Díaz-Balart took cover, he conversed with an elderly woman sheltering alongside him. She cupped his face with her hands and told him that all of her life she had prayed that sometime, somewhere she could have someone know that she existed.
“She said, ‘God is answering my question and I can die in peace,’” he recalls. “It was like a punch, an affirmation of what one can do as a journalist.”
Díaz-Balart says the chance encounter has defined his career. “That moment is seared in my memory and in my soul,” he says. “It’s not about me. It’s about the extraordinary privilege of being a journalist and of what journalism can do. Speak to power, but also to shine a light on those who are often in the darkness. Give a microphone to those who are silent or silenced.”
Today, Díaz-Balart does just that as the host of José Díaz-Balart Reports, his English-language show on MSNBC that airs weekdays at 10 a.m. to more than 3 million viewers each week. Come the weekend, he is the anchor of NBC’s Nightly News Saturday. But one language isn’t enough for Díaz-Balart; he also reports to viewers in Spanish, regularly contributing to the Noticias Telemundo Network, where he anchored the nightly weekday newscast for a dozen years. (Fun fact: Díaz-Balart is the only journalist to regularly anchor two nightly newscasts in Spanish and English for national networks.)
“José is one of the most trusted names in journalism, and his keen ability to connect with viewers through storytelling is unmatched,” says Rashida Jones, president of MSNBC. “He brings humanity to every story he covers and elevates important issues affecting communities of color on all platforms—whether it’s NBC News, MSNBC, or Noticias Telemundo.”
Over the years, Díaz-Balart has reported at the scene of historic events and power meetings. He has interviewed prominent figures from around the world, including every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan. But he’s also covered stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
“It is the privilege of my professional life to be able to do what I am doing now in my career,” says Díaz-Balart, who has won seven Emmy Awards, the George Peabody Award, and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, among other prestigious journalism accolades.
The Power of Politics
Curiosity is just one factor in Díaz-Balart’s success; his appreciation for the way politics can shape individual lives has also played a key role.
Díaz-Balart’s family tree has deep roots in public service. His grandfather was the mayor of the Cuban town of Banes. His father served in the Cuban house of representatives, was Deputy Secretary of the Interior, and later founded La Rosa Blanca, the first anti-Castro organization. (The law school building at Miami’s Florida International University is named for him.)
When Fidel Castro and his allies overthrew President Fulgencio Batista’s government in 1959, the Díaz-Balart family’s home was looted and burned. As political refugees, his parents fled to Madrid, Spain (and later to Miami) to start new lives.
But even as Díaz-Balart branched away from the family political tradition, he says he’s taken lessons from all of it. “What happens in Washington, D.C., Tallahassee, Broward County, or Miami-Dade, from federal to state to local, has a direct impact on every person’s life,” he says. “There has never been a more important time to be involved and informed about politics. The days of people thinking that politics don’t have a relationship with their personal existence are over.”
For Díaz-Balart—whether he’s reporting on politics or profiles—his parents’ sage advice has served as a guiding force in his life and career: “Only through the exchange of different ideas can the light of knowledge begin to emerge.”
As a student, promoting the exchange of different ideas intrigued Díaz-Balart. He got his first taste of broadcasting at Sarasota’s New College of Florida, where he was frequently tapped to speak about international affairs and Latino issues on-air at WQSA-AM radio station.
After graduation, he was hired to work the station’s morning shift. “This job changed my life in the sense that if something happened in Afghanistan, all of a sudden it appeared in my local radio closet,” he says. “I wondered how that worked, which was the spark for me to become a journalist.”
That fascination with newsgathering lead him to his visit to UPI, setting in motion the path to his career and passion. “It was during that coverage [in the Dominican Republic] that I realized the importance of journalism,” he says. “It [is] what I was meant to do.”
By late 1984, the Spanish International Network (SIN)—now Univision—had hired Díaz-Balart to run its Central American bureau. He moved to El Salvador to cover everything from civil wars to earthquakes to elections.
After returning to Miami two years later, Díaz-Balart was one of a handful of journalists who left SIN to found the then-startup Telemundo Network in 1987. He eventually took a reporting gig with WTVJ in Miami. But in 1996, he made the jump from local to national news when he was named anchor of CBS News’ This Morning—making him the first Cuban-American to helm a network news broadcast.
Whether the coverage is local, national, or international, Díaz-Balart is focused on community. “I serve all of the communities in the same way, with respect, passion, and compassion,” he says. “I am always conscious of giving voice to those who are silent or have been silenced, voices that are often in the shadows.”
In 2000, he returned to Telemundo, hosting programs including Etta Mañana, Hoy en el Mundo, and Enfoque con José Díaz-Balart, before anchoring the network’s nightly news in 2009. Since Telemundo is owned by NBC Universal, Díaz-Balart was often asked to do fill-in reporting for NBC and MSNBC—eventually taking over The Daily Rundown on MSNBC in 2014 and being named anchor of the Saturday edition of NBC Nightly News.
In 2016, Díaz-Balart was tapped to moderate a Democratic presidential town hall featuring Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Three years later, he was a co-moderator for the first Democratic presidential primary debate on NBC and Telemundo.
With all those gigs, something had to give. So in 2021, Díaz-Balart stepped down from anchoring the weeknight editions of Noticias Telemundo, though he continues to cover breaking news, report on special events, and host monthly specials for the network.
“José is a former colleague and a dear friend who continues to be a model broadcast anchor to all in the industry,” says Maria Elviva Salazar, a 30-year journalist for Telemundo in Miami and now the U.S. Representative for Florida’s twenty-seventh district. “While I was a journalist, I looked up to him as a role model. He has made major contributions to both English and Spanish news media and is a symbol of pride for Miami’s Cuban-American exile population. Our community and nation are better because of his contributions, both on television and for the cause of liberty.”
Díaz-Balart says he’s fortunate to have served so many diverse communities of people during his career.
“I can speak two languages, I think in two languages, I dream in two languages, and I exist in two worlds,” he says. “Sometimes I say, ‘Gosh, I’m living in another world that is so different from the other world that I get a chance to live in.’ And to be able to actually professionally have that experience is only because of NBC Universal. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”