The Media Today

After new death toll report Friday, Sunday TV ignores Puerto Rico

June 4, 2018

Following a study published last week that pegged the estimated number of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria north of 4,500, the Puerto Rican government released Friday for the first time official mortality figures showing at least 1,400 deaths. Whatever the actual number, the natural disaster, and the human failure in its aftermath, is one of the worst in American history. Yet it continues to be sidelined in coverage.

“On the major Sunday talk shows—the purest distillation of what the media and political establishments consider worth discussing—not once was Puerto Rico mentioned,” The Washington Post’s James Downie writes in a Sunday evening opinion piece. “A estimated death toll this large—and the fact that the bumbling response to the hurricane probably increased that toll—should be top-of-the-hour news for days.”

One of the few mentions the story did receive on Sunday TV was not a political show, but on CNN’s media analysis program Reliable Sources—an irony that speaks to the problem. “Why is it that Puerto Rico has been shortchanged by the press?” host Brian Stelter asked his panel, as part of the three and a half minute segment on the topic. Democratic strategist Maria Cardona argued that “if these were 5,000 American citizens stateside and if they weren’t brown and if they didn’t speak Spanish, I think we would be talking more about this.”

Puerto Rico has been undercovered since Hurricane Maria first made landfall. Individual outlets and reporters—CBS’s David Begnaud, NPR’s Adrian Florido, the Associated Press’s Danica Coto, among others—have provided consistent coverage, but when compared to the attention given other stories, especially by commentators and pundits, Puerto Rico remains an afterthought for too many major outlets. The firestorm around Roseanne Barr’s comments overwhelming news of a shocking new death count provided a striking contrast, but this has been an issue for months.

RELATED: Puerto Rico’s devastation takes a backseat to Roseanne coverage

It probably doesn’t help that mentions of Puerto Rico have been absent from President Trump’s Twitter feed, the main driver of newscycles in 2018. Celebrity is easy to cover and viewers reward outlets who do it. Reporting on the administration, and the investigations into its actions, is obviously vital. And it can be difficult to find a news peg amidst a slowly unfolding catastrophe in an industry forever focused on what’s new. But by any measure, Puerto Rico deserved more, and the media has consistently failed to deliver.

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Below, more on the reckoning with Maria’s aftermath in Puerto Rico.

  • A sobering memorial: NPR’s Adrian Florido reports from San Juan, where a memorial has formed in the wake of last week’s report. The impromptu display—hundreds of sneakers and dress shoes and high heels and baby slippers—was at once a somber memorial to Puerto Rico’s dead and a quiet yet visually arresting protest against what many islanders see as their government’s bungled accounting of the loss of life that the hurricane inflicted,” Florido writes.
  • How many dead?: The Harvard study referenced in many reports estimated the number of additional deaths caused by Maria at 4,645. The island’s department of health now says at least 1,400 died. The official estimate until last week was 64. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler attempts to explain the discrepancies.

  • The shame in Puerto Rico: The New York Times Editorial Board argues that the chief reason for the slow and inadequate response to Maria’s devastation “has been the perception in Washington, and especially in the White House, of Puerto Rico as a second-class United States territory where poverty, hardship and shoddy government are accepted as the norm.”


Other notable stories

  • The big subject on the Sunday shows was the president’s legal strategy. On Saturday, The New York Times reported on a confidential memo, sent by President Trump’s lawyers to Special Counsel Robert Mueller in January in an attempt to head off a possible subpoena. “Mr. Trump’s lawyers fear that if he answers questions, either voluntarily or in front of a grand jury, he risks exposing himself to accusations of lying to investigators, a potential crime or impeachable offense,” write the Times’s Michael S. Schmidt, Maggie Haberman, Charlie Savage, and Matt Apuzzo.
  • More troubling revelations about Facebook’s data policies from The New York Times’s Gabriel J.X. Dance, Nicholas Confessore, and Michael LaForgia. They report that the tech giant gave phone and other device makers access to vast amounts of its users’ personal information. “The partnerships, whose scope has not previously been reported, raise concerns about the company’s privacy protections and compliance with a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission,” the Times
  • The Daily Beast’s Andrew Kirell and Maxwell Tani examine Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo’s journey from relatively apolitical financial journalist to “leading booster of all things Trump.” While Bartiromo still covers the markets, Kirell and Tani note that she has “adopted an overtly friendly tone” toward Trump.
  • CNN’s Hadas Gold reports that President Trump intends to nominate Michael Pack, a conservative documentarian and Stephen Bannon ally, to lead the Broadcasting Board of Governors. “The board controls US government-funded media outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and is considered the country’s largest public diplomacy program,” Gold writes. “It reaches an audience of 278 million in more than 100 countries and 61 languages.”
  • From our new print issue: Gabriel Snyder sits down with Kurt Andersen, Erica Cerulo, Choire Sicha, and Elizabeth Spiers to discuss whether journalists make good entrepreneurs. All four made the leap into running their own businesses, but they stress that it’s not an easy transition.
  • BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg writes that reporting on the White House is getting more difficult. “Trump’s inner circle has solidified, and the president is increasingly acting on his own,” Perlberg writes. “Meetings are getting smaller, reducing the number of people with proximity to information.”
  • Raju Narisetti, most recently the CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, is joining the Columbia Journalism School faculty and will serve as the new director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economics and Business Journalism.

ICYMI: Do we need journalism schools?

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.