Paying attention to Puerto Rico’s problems

Puerto Rico is in crisis. One week ago, Julia Keleher and Ángela Ávila-Marrero, formerly senior government officials on the island, were arrested by the FBI on charges that they steered public contracts to associates unqualified to execute them. Meanwhile, screenshots began to circulate from a private chat group in which Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s governor, exchanged scandalous, derogatory messages with aides. On Saturday, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, an investigative nonprofit, published 889 pages of them. The ensuing scandal—known, in some quarters, as “RickyLeaks”—has driven thousands of citizens into the streets, to protest and to call for Rosselló’s resignation.

No luck so far. Yesterday, Rosselló finally addressed assembled reporters at a press conference about his future. David Begnaud, of CBS News, asked eight questions of Rosselló and streamed the answers to his followers. “What you did, governor, was the final straw for a lot of people,” Begnaud said. “What I hear from you is, it’s business as usual. It seems somewhat tone-deaf, with all due respect. Your response?” Rosselló contested the description, and said he has to focus on the business of governing. He also said that an analysis found nothing illegal in the chat messages, and that certain extracts doing the rounds had been doctored; per Begnaud, Rosselló did not provide evidence for either claim. The press conference did nothing to mollify Rosselló’s critics. Officials expect 20,000 of them to rally in San Juan today.

ICYMI: Norah O’Donnell’s promising start

Begnaud isn’t just covering this story: he’s part of it. Officials in the chat discussed plans to discredit his past reporting about crime on the island, out of concern that it could dampen tourism. Rosselló and his inner circle also singled out bloggers Jay Fonseca and Sandra Rodriguez Cotto, and used a homophobic slur to describe Benjamin Torres Gotay, a journalist with El Nuevo Día. They didn’t just target journalists: Rosselló personally used a misogynistic slur against Melissa Mark-Viverito, the former speaker of the New York City Council, and said she should be “beaten up”; aides said they were “salivating to shoot” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, used homophobic language about the singer Ricky Martin, and joked about dead victims of Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017. The chat’s implications for the press, nonetheless, are worrying. According to El Nuevo Día’s Dennis Costa, officials outlined efforts “to manipulate public narrative through mass media, influence public polls to favor the administration, and operate a ‘troll network’ to discredit negative press coverage.”

Last week, Puerto Rico’s concurrent crises scarcely featured in mainstream US media. Since the weekend, that’s started to change. Begnaud, for example, has reported dispatches for CBS’s morning and evening news shows since his arrival on Sunday; NPR’s Adrián Florido arrived the same day and has since patched into All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Reporters such as CNN’s Leyla Santiago and the AP’s Dánica Coto have been on the ground, too. On the whole, however, major outlets have downplayed the story. When I checked this morning, Puerto Rico was nowhere to be seen on the homepages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, or The Wall Street Journal. Others featured stories about a cruiseliner canceling a stop in San Juan.

This is a major crisis of governance on US soil. Yet compared to political scandals on the mainland—the mess earlier this year in Virginia, for example—the coverage feels an order of magnitude less prominent. Sadly, there’s nothing unexpected in that. As my former colleague Pete Vernon wrote last year, numerous analyses showed that Hurricane Maria and its aftermath got less coverage than severe weather events in the continental US, apart from when they became a Trump story. Last summer, the cancellation of Roseanne got significantly more play than a new report pegging the death toll from Maria at 70 times the official count. The following weekend, the Sunday shows did not mention the report once. These failures are doubly worth remembering because Maria’s devastating consequences reverberate through Puerto Rico’s latest crisis. The hurricane added to existing financial woes. Austerity imposed by a federally appointed oversight board has destabilized the island’s politics and pushed many Puerto Ricans to their limit.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

On Monday, Tanzina Vega centered some of this context as she opened The Takeaway, her show on WNYC, with the Puerto Rico story. Vega asked Michael Deibert, who reports for Bloomberg from San Juan, about public fears that reports of poor governance on the island could provide the Trump administration with a pretext to withhold post-Maria aide payments. Deibert said that wouldn’t surprise him.

Yesterday, the administration put out a statement saying the current crisis has validated many of Trump’s “concerns” about Puerto Rico’s leadership. The statement stressed that federal officials “remain committed” to the island’s recovery. We should do better in holding them to that. We could start by paying more attention to this week’s tipping point.

Below, more on Puerto Rico:

  • “Putting Puerto Rico first”: In a column for the Post, Julio Ricardo Varela, who co-hosts the podcast In The Thick with Maria Hinojosa, outlines greater background to these week’s protests and calls on Rosselló to resign. Puerto Rico’s “debt crisis, as much as Wall Street is at fault, needed its accomplices,” Varela argues. “Rosselló was part of that political class and culture—the cool kids who thought they were smarter, better and entitled to put their personal interests ahead of Puerto Rico’s.”
  • High-profile interest: In a video posted to Twitter last night, Ricky Martin confirmed that he plans to attend today’s anti-Rosselló protests in San Juan. Puerto Rican artists Residente and Bad Bunny are expected to join, too. Will celebrity involvement boost coverage?
  • A depleted media scene: Last September, CJR’s Zainab Sultan found that journalists in Puerto Rico were still struggling to find work one year after Maria. “Dwindling advertising revenues that plagued media operations for years had worsened after the hurricane,” and so many made cuts, Sultan reported. “While the media outlets have somewhat recovered, the individuals who lost their jobs in the process still struggle to regain their footing.”

Other notable stories:

  • In Washington yesterday, the fallout from Trump’s weekend tweets telling four Democratic Congresswomen of color to “go back” where they came from got even uglier. Andrew Feinberg, a reporter for Breakfast Media, asked Kellyanne Conway about the tweets; Conway asked back, “What’s your ethnicity?” CNN drew heat for inviting Richard Spencer, a white supremacist, to discuss the far-right reaction to the tweets. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said (again) that Ilhan Omar “despises the United States,” and called her “pompous.” (Omar and the other Congresswomen targeted by Trump sat down with Gayle King, of CBS, for a joint interview that airs this morning.) And in the evening, the House of Representatives voted to condemn Trump’s tweets as racist in a session that devolved into a “bitterly partisan brawl,” the Times reports.
  • Earlier this year, a judge restricted what Roger Stone, who is being prosecuted on charges brought by Robert Mueller, could say about his case on social media after Stone posted an image of the judge overlaid with crosshairs. (Stone said the crosshairs were actually a Celtic cross.) Yesterday, the judge banned Stone from using Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, period, after finding that he violated the earlier order, BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman reports. Stone is “determined to make himself the subject of the story,” the judge said. His behavior “has more to do with middle school than with a court of law.”
  • Johnson Publishing, the former owner of Ebony and Jet, will today sell the magazines’ combined photo archive at a private auction, the Times’s Julie Bosman writes. The future of “the most significant collection of photographs depicting African-American life in the 20th century” is thus uncertain, Bosman says. “Historians, alarmed by the potential sale, say that the collection is full of cultural treasures that should be opened to the public.”
  • For CJR, Nick Pinto spoke with Dan Taberski, who dedicated the third season of his podcast “Headlong” to examining the cultural impact of the TV show Cops. Taberski “confirms the impression anyone who’s watched a handful of episodes has likely had: Cops emphasizes the lurid, the violent, and the action-packed,” Pinto writes. “The show over-represents violent crime by nearly a factor of four, drug crimes by nearly a factor of three, and prostitution by nearly a factor of 10.”
  • The administration announced yesterday that it is tapping Monica Crowley, a former Fox News contributor, as a Treasury Department spokesperson, The Hill’s John Bowden reports. Crowley, who currently serves Treasury as a public affairs adviser, was slated, in 2017, to become press secretary for the National Security Council, but withdrew after CNN found her book, PhD dissertation, and columns for The Washington Times were partially plagiarized.
  • Quibi—a “quick bites” streaming service for smartphones founded by entertainment veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman—will partner with NBC on a twice-daily news show when it launches next year, The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reports. The BBC will partner with Quibi to provide international news.
  • In Turkey, a court acquitted Reporters Without Borders representative Erol Önderoğlu, human rights defender Şebnem Korur Fincancı, and writer Ahmet Nesin, who had been charged with spreading “terrorist propaganda” in 2016 after they guest-edited a Kurdish newspaper that was subsequently shut down by the government. It’s not all good news though: Önderoğlu faces a separate trial on similar charges in November.
  • And after major news organizations failed to describe Trump’s racist tweets as “racist,” The Daily Show With Trevor Noah came out with a “Trump Racist Euphemism Headline Generator.” Examples include “Trump plants seeds of race-adjoined faux pas” and “Trump scales summit of racially moist boo-boo.” Try it for yourself.

ICYMI: Just say ‘racist’

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

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.