The cascade of major news in Puerto Rico

David Begnaud, lead national correspondent for CBS This Morning. Photo courtesy of CBS News.

In mid-July, Dennis Costa, an editor at El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s highest-circulation newspaper, offered to start writing stories in English for the paper’s website. The island was on the brink of a major governance crisis. Two former senior officials had been arrested on corruption charges by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The same week, incriminating messages—leaked from a group-chat involving senior aides and Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s governor—surfaced in the island’s media. Soon after, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (“the Center for Investigative Journalism”) obtained and published 889 pages of the chat, which contained derogatory language about women and LGBTQ people and offered evidence of possible corruption at the highest levels of Puerto Rico’s government.  

Many in Puerto Rico considered this one of the biggest stories in a decade, which is saying something. Corruption and cronyism have menaced Puerto Rico for years. The island’s economy has been in sharp, long-term decline, exacerbated by the rapid accumulation of debt. In 2016, Puerto Rico was functionally bankrupt and declared a state of emergency, appealing for help from Congress, which established an oversight board to clean up the financial mess. The board imposed severe austerity measures—cutting pensions, school budgets, and employee bonuses. Residents, who don’t have the right to vote in federal elections, were furious; creditors were, too, as the amount owed them surpassed $70 billion. And then Hurricane Maria hit.

RELATED: Paying attention to Puerto Rico’s problems

Costa, who had experience writing for English-language outlets, wanted to help El Nuevo Día reach outsiders about the latest news. Initially, he was thinking about serving the Puerto Rican diaspora in the US, many of whom speak primarily English. Beyond that, he says, “I thought that the story would eventually receive plenty of attention in the US mainland, and figured that, as Puerto Rico’s news outlet of record, we should be among the first ones out there with a worthwhile English-language article.”

In the days after the chats became public, Costa and others observed, attention from mainstream American outlets was predictably patchy. “It’s not like they are looking into Puerto Rico closely, to follow up on things or do features, besides when it’s sexy,” Carla Minet, executive director of the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, says. Even so, the lack of interest was striking—especially when compared to the immediate, wall-to-wall coverage news organizations lavished on the governance crisis this year in Virginia, where cascading scandals embroiled politicians all the way down the state’s chain of command. “When it comes to Puerto Rico, the US media usually comes very late,” Minet says. She has a few explanations: “the fact that Puerto Rico is not part of the continental US, the fact that most of our media is in Spanish, the fact that it is a territory that is not given the importance that the states are.”

“It’s no secret that getting Puerto Rico stories on television can sometimes be difficult,” David Begnaud, of CBS News, says. When the latest news broke, “It was tough trying to ring that bell, and say, ‘This is important, if this was happening in front of a Statehouse in the States it would be the front page and top story everywhere,’” he adds. “If I’m being honest, that was frustrating.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

It is an interesting time for us to reevaluate our role and our relationship with the government, in the sense that we cannot take everything that the government tells us as gospel.

 

Many US newspapers and networks simply overlooked the brewing crisis in Puerto Rico; others struggled to demonstrate why it was so important. First, there was the problem of despair fatigue: “I have never covered a story where a group of people have just been inundated by one major shoe dropping after another, like the people of Puerto Rico have,” Begnaud says. Second, the sheer complexity of the drama proved difficult to explain: at one point, it looked as though Puerto Rico’s recently-installed education secretary—the fourth person in the territory’s line of succession—would replace Rosselló. Yesterday, Rosselló nominated Pedro Pierluisi as secretary of state, a vacant post; that move would make Pierluisi heir to the governorship. (At the time of this writing, Puerto Rico’s legislature is meeting to consider Pierluisi’s appointment while protesters prepare to gather outside.) Watching the action early this week, Bloomberg’s Michael Deibert tweeted, “I recommend that anyone who thinks they know anything about the mechanics of popular mobilization and internecine, Shakespearean political plotting come down to Puerto Rico right now for a postgraduate course.”

And then there was the fallout for the Puerto Rican media. Benjamín Torres Gotay, a columnist who works with Costa at El Nuevo Día, found his own name in the leaked chats—he was, along with several other journalists who had been critical of the administration, described in insulting terms by Puerto Rico’s top leaders. “I felt saddened, shocked, and worried to see how hostile attitudes toward the media are at the highest levels of government,” Torres Gotay says in an email. “What preoccupies me is the attitude towards the free exercise of the press.” Here, too, the picture was rococo—full of possible, as yet unconfirmed, connections between media executives and politicians that, at least one journalist has alleged, undercut efforts to report on Rosselló from the time he took office. 

Reading the early coverage in mainstream US outlets, Costa was underwhelmed. “Because it’s Puerto Rico, and because there’s so much graft and corruption going on, it’s like, ‘So, what else is new under the sun?’ That was the initial reaction to it,” he says. The English-language articles he began publishing covered the possible criminal activity in the chat; the short-term damage to tourism; potential long-term effects on Puerto Rico’s receipt of federal funding; and calls for Rosselló’s ouster from within his own, pro-statehood party. “It is an interesting time for us to reevaluate our role and our relationship with the government, in the sense that we cannot take everything that the government tells us as gospel,” Costa says. “We’ve learned that everybody lies, and the government especially.”

As protesters filled the streets day and night—and Rosselló’s grip on power eroded—major news organizations, from the mainland and further afield, began to wake up to the historic nature of the situation. Some of the best coverage was provided by Dánica Coto, of the Associated Press, who is based on the island permanently, and Tanzina Vega, whose pieces for WNYC consistently focused on Puerto Rico in context-rich segments; Begnaud of CBS and Adrian Florido, of NPR, were among the first to leap on the scene. Still, much coverage has centered on the character of Rosselló. Once he leaves office, local observers fear, the press will dissipate again. “I have no doubt that the US media outlets will leave after Rossello’s substitute has been chosen,” Torres Gotay says. “It has been our story for quite some time.” 

Costa hopes that mainland journalists can learn to appreciate the intricacy of the story, and enlighten more Americans about why it matters. “Just get down here, and get a taste of the people and the culture, specifically,” he says. “It’s a very complex web that’s going on here.”

RELATED: Puerto Rican journalists struggle to find work on the island, a year after Maria

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.