Blackouts in Puerto Rico. Again.

Late last month, following a series of blackouts in Puerto Rico, hundreds of residents gathered in San Juan to protest mismanagement by Pedro Pierluisi, the governor, and luma, the private energy company that has overseen the island’s grid since last year. For most of the day, “the atmosphere was more block party than direct action,” Carlos Edill Berríos Polanco, who covered the protest for Latino Rebels, wrote, but in the evening, protesters pushed against a police barricade and threw bottles and rocks, and police responded with pepper spray and tear gas. One officer fired pepper spray directly at Berríos Polanco, even though he was wearing a helmet with press emblazoned across it in big white letters. He was temporarily blinded. At least four other reporters were attacked the same night, including a student journalist who was hit with a baton. (Police later apologized to at least one of the journalists and pledged an investigation.)

This was not the first protest against luma, over both blackouts and sharply rising energy rates. (luma maintains that it inherited a dysfunctional system.) While they attracted some coverage in US national media, they barely scratched the surface of the political news cycle: according to a tool maintained by Stanford University, there were scarcely any discussions mentioning “Puerto Rico” on major cable networks in July and August, and those that did often concerned stories like sexual harassment allegations against Ricky Martin and National Piña Colada Day; CNN aired a timely report, by Leyla Santiago, on the devastating impact of the climate crisis on the island, but even that didn’t mention the blackouts or energy protests. On Sunday, another blackout in Puerto Rico attracted a greater degree of national attention—because it was triggered by a hurricane, Fiona, barreling into the island, shutting off its power supply entirely and bringing dangerous winds and rain. The day before Fiona hit, Pierluisi had briefed the media on the expected impact. As he did so, the lights in the room where he was speaking went out.

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If the hurricane and fresh blackout brought a greater degree of national attention to Puerto Rico, it was far from undivided—and, as Monday dawned, major-media interest coalesced elsewhere, around the queen’s funeral. Critics, many of them journalists, noticed the discrepancy. “The US media should be covering Puerto Rico more than the Queen’s funeral,” Nina Turner, a Democratic politician and ally of Bernie Sanders, wrote on Twitter. “The diaspora here deserves to know what’s happening on the island. Journalism > ratings.” On In the Thick, the podcast that he hosts with Maria Hinojosa, Julio Ricardo Varela was equally scathing, if not more so. “I woke up this morning in the United States of America, I turned on my television…and I’m like, Maybe they’ll say something about Puerto Rico,” Varela said Monday. “I changed every channel—CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, everything—they were running Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Puerto Rico had, at the time, no power, water issues, and everyone’s in London and not in San Juan. That, to me, says it all about how second class American media views Puerto Rico.”

Not everyone was in London; CNN, to cite one example, had Santiago on the ground in Puerto Rico as Fiona made landfall. Since then, coverage has become more visible in national US media. The New York Times put a photo of Fiona’s impact above the fold of its front page on Monday, and the story made Tuesday’s front page, too; yesterday, the Wall Street Journal made it the subject of the paper’s daily news podcast, while NPR—whose correspondents Luis Trelles, Adrian Florido, and Greg Allen have been on the ground in Puerto Rico—included Fiona among the top three stories on its Up First podcast on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Still, the impact of Fiona has had to jostle for attention with other stories—not only the queen’s funeral, but the latest twists and turns in the interminable Trump-records story and the ongoing fallout from Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s migration stunts (a story literally designed to distract the press)—and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that US national media would have treated it as a much bigger deal had Fiona hit pretty much anywhere on the mainland. And, ultimately, the frustrations of Varela and other observers have deep roots in a pattern of mainstream-media neglect when it comes to coverage of Puerto Rico. The queen’s funeral was just the latest example of erasure by displacement, even if it was exquisitely on the nose.

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As it happened, Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria hit the island. (The anniversary fell on Tuesday.) That storm, and the devastation it wreaked, did attract major US media attention—vastly more so than Fiona has so far, if the Stanford tool is any guide—with everyone from Univision, which sent at least twenty-five staffers, to Education Week, which sent two journalists to chronicle the impact on Puerto Rico’s schools, scrambling to cover it. Even then, though, Maria only became a really big national story on a delay, as CJR’s Pete Vernon reported at the time, and it continued to attract less coverage than comparable recent disasters on the mainland before interest started to fade. In the months that followed, important updates to the story got downplayed. In May 2018, the cancellation of the sitcom Roseanne (remember that?) decisively drowned out coverage of a new report estimating that the true death toll from Maria could have been seventy times higher than initially thought. The following weekend, the Sunday shows didn’t mention the report at all.

As Vernon also reported, some journalists at major national publications—Santiago, of CNN; David Begnaud, of CBS; Frances Robles, of the Times; and others—made it their “mission” to stay on the story after the initial interest died down. NPR’s Florido relocated to Puerto Rico for a time; Dánica Coto, of the Associated Press, was already based there. Even the AP, though, has shrunk its permanent bureau on the island in recent years. And, if stories explicitly concerned with the long aftermath of Maria struggled to cut through the national news cycle, stories about other aspects of Puerto Rican politics had an even harder time, even when they were highly consequential (and fascinating). In 2019, the corruption arrests of two former officials, and the near-simultaneous mass leak of offensive texts (including about Begnaud and other members of the media) sent by then-governor Ricardo Rosselló and his aides, were downplayed for days by national media—“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,’” Begnaud told me at the time—and though mass protests and Rosselló’s eventual resignation piqued interest, that, too, quickly dissipated, at least at the top levels of the news cycle. When earthquakes hit the island in 2020, there was, again, some coverage, but it was, again, relatively sparse. They didn’t come up at all in a contemporaneous presidential debate.

In recent times, the stories that have needed amplifying about Puerto Rico have often involved the island’s financial plight and its infrastructure problems, not least around energy supply. Again, dogged journalists at major national outlets have covered these issues, but that coverage has rarely, if ever, risen into big story territory across the breadth of the mainstream-media landscape. When Fiona took out the island’s power this week, it wasn’t an Act of God that smote an otherwise functional system but a crisis smashing into a crisis, as some of this week’s national headlines—“Even before Fiona, Puerto Rico’s power grid was poised for failure”; “Puerto Rico power grid no match for Fiona; residents unsurprised”; “Puerto Rico’s Long Struggle to Keep the Lights On”—attested. We should, collectively, have shined a brighter light on this story sooner, not after the fact. Major news outlets have always been better at giving big play to sudden events, like hurricanes, than to structural problems. In Puerto Rico—with its “second class” media status, where even the former doesn’t always happen—that’s especially true.

Hurricanes Maria and Fiona haven’t just been linked by a quirk of timing, but by a continuous story of mismanagement and neglect—one that is separate from major media’s own neglect of the island, but mirrors it, and has been driven by some of the same forces. Numerous local reporters in Puerto Rico, it should be said, know that all too well and have stayed on the story. On Monday, Berríos Polanco, the journalist who was attacked by police at the protest in August, appeared on Hinojosa and Varela’s podcast; he had initially been invited to talk about the anniversary of Maria, but ended up discussing his Fiona coverage as well. Before Fiona, Berríos Polanco had been working on a piece for Latino Rebels in which he had intended to explore whether Puerto Rico was ready to handle the next big hurricane after Maria. “We had to scrap it,” he said, of the story. “Because today and yesterday have shown that we absolutely are not.”

Below, more on Puerto Rico:

  • Shining a light: Last week, before Fiona hit, the superstar Puerto Rican musician Bad Bunny, who has recently been outspoken against luma, released “El Apagón,” meaning “The Blackout,” a music video that doubled as a documentary. The video intersperses verses with reporting by Bianca Graulau, an independent journalist, explaining the situation with the island’s grid. “It’s a music video that turns into a news documentary,” Graulau said on TikTok. “I’m honored Bad Bunny thought of me and that he had the crazy idea to give us this platform.” The Post’s Bethonie Butler has more (and Alana Casanova-Burgess and Monica Morales-Garcia profiled Graulau for Latino USA).
  • Puerto Rican media: Maria was economically devastating for media in Puerto Rico, with local outlets making cuts and journalists who were laid off struggling for months to find new jobs, as CJR’s Zainab Sultan reported in 2018. But that hasn’t stopped the island’s media sector from evolving in recent years; some prominent journalists became independent bloggers, while the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, an investigative nonprofit, obtained and reported on the leaked messages that would eventually bring down Rosselló. The leaks revealed incestuous ties between some corporate media and officials, but Mario Roche Morales, a communications professor, told Danny Jin for CJR in 2019 that “the options that are emerging in the digital sphere are giving more options to the public to obtain information from sources without ties with the government.”
  • Chicago: Earlier this month, at least one TV station in Chicago reported that a Puerto Rican festival in the city had been shut down by police after a shooting on the grounds, but in fact a fistfight was to blame and the festival resumed the next day. Afterward, the Puerto Rican cultural center that organized the event criticized local media for “inaccurate and biased” coverage. The center “invited the media to showcase the best of our culture, but no major news outlets came to cover these wonderful events,” it said. “Instead, news outlets have published false headlines.” Block Club Chicago has more.
  • Diasporican: For KQED, Luke Tsai spoke with Illyanna Maisonet—a food writer who became the first Puerto Rican food columnist in the US, at the San Francisco Chronicle, and helped trigger the reckoning over racism in food media at Bon Appétit in 2020—about her forthcoming debut cookbook, Diasporican: A Puerto Rican Cookbook. The book “documents Maisonet’s experience as a Puerto Rican living in the diaspora here in Northern California—and the way the mix of cultures here has informed her cooking,” Tsai writes. “It’s a book that deals with grief and childhood trauma and the long-reaching effects of American colonialism.”

Other notable stories:

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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.

TOP IMAGE: Protesters near La Fortaleza in San Juan, Puerto Rico on August 25, 2022. Energy company Luma took control of the Puerto Rican energy grid in 2020, with blackouts increasing and prices rising since. (Photo by Collin Mayfield/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)