Early on Thursday morning, a residential condo collapsed in Surfside, a town just north of Miami Beach, in Florida. Joey Flechas, a reporter for the Miami Herald, was quickly on the scene, since he lives ten minutes away from the building. “I’m a member of this community who has talked to some of these first responders, politicians and neighbors before,” he said. “And I’m just one of many of us who can say the same thing.” Since the collapse, Flechas and his colleagues have worked tirelessly to cover the story—the state of the rescue mission; the identities of the deceased and the missing; the fact that, as far back as 2018, an engineer had flagged “major structural damage” linked to drainage issues on the pool deck—in English and also in Spanish, for readers of the Herald’s sister title, El Nuevo Herald, in the Miami area and far beyond. The Miami Herald has updated its website with a series of huge banner headlines: “COLLAPSE,” “HEARTBREAK,” and, as of early this morning, “SEARCHING”; El Nuevo Herald’s homepage was still on “ANGUSTIA,” meaning “anguish.” Meanwhile, the confirmed death toll rose to one, then four, then five, then nine. More than a hundred and fifty people are still unaccounted for.
As Flechas noted, the collapse has been deeply personal for many journalists in the Miami area. Two of the named victims, Gladys and Tony Lozano, were the godmother and uncle of Phil Ferro, the chief meteorologist at 7News, a local TV station. “My cousin called me. He was basically in tears. I still couldn’t believe it, until we got the surveillance video that showed the building collapsing. And that kinda… it kinda breaks your heart,” Ferro told his station yesterday. “They were found together. And so we’re all going with the thought that they never knew what happened. They fell asleep, and that was it.” While living it, reporters in the area have also run into the typical obstacles that come with covering a story of this magnitude—access issues; navigating interviews with traumatized survivors and relatives—as well as more specific challenges, like thick smoke at the collapse site, and bad weather. The Surfside collapse is not the first major tragedy they’ve faced in recent times: they’ve had to cover the pandemic, mass shootings—including at a high school in nearby Parkland in 2018—and even a prior infrastructure disaster, when a pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed the same year, killing six people. Many Miami journalists must be exhausted. Now they’re up at night wondering if their buildings, like the Surfside condo, may somehow be unsafe.
National and international media outlets, of course, have been on the scene, too. NBC’s Lester Holt and CBS’s Norah O’Donnell flew in to anchor their respective evening newscasts from Surfside on Thursday night; CNN sent a variety of its top talents, including Wolf Blitzer, Chris Cuomo, and Anderson Cooper; MSNBC sent Ali Velshi. Print and radio reporters, too, have congregated both at the collapse site, and at a reunification center a few blocks away. Surfside may be next to a bustling metropolis, but it is itself a sleepy town, and thus unaccustomed—like so many other American locales that have been thrust, ill-fatedly, into a harsh spotlight down the years—to life at the epicenter of a global news story. As Martin Vassolo reports for the Herald, town staff have worked “around the clock, answering phone calls from family members, reporters, and residents with unrelated concerns”; the clerk’s office “received scores of record requests from media outlets, including the Miami Herald, which has requested construction permits, blueprints and architectural plans, and records of any building inspections or code violations logged by the town related to the collapse.” The effect has been overwhelming.
The coverage has extended far beyond those who are on the ground. Some national outlets have moved the story forward in meaningful ways: NPR, for example, obtained the minutes of a meeting, in the wake of the engineer’s report about the condo in 2018, at which a local official apparently told residents that the building is in “very good shape.” NPR got wind of the meeting from Susana Alvarez, a resident and survivor of the collapse who gave a heart-rending interview to Lulu Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition and recalled being told that the condo was safe. Alvarez spoke about having to leave her cat behind, and hearing the screams of other residents; afterward, Garcia-Navarro said that “in my many years talking to survivors, I’ve never experienced a conversation that was so intimate and open.” The collapse led some of the Sunday shows yesterday, including Meet the Press, whose host, Chuck Todd, himself a Miami native, interviewed Daniella Levine Cava, the mayor of Miami-Dade County; that soon gave way to fluffier fare on Biden, bipartisanship, and infrastructure wrangling in Washington, but later in the hour, MSNBC’s Joshua Johnson brought the story back round—noting, correctly, that “Florida is one big infrastructure project, right?” On CNN, Cuomo compared the collapse to 9/11. The front page of yesterday’s New York Post splashed the faraway story and drew the same local link.
This morning, the collapse is still the top story on the front pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times, illustrated, respectively, by photos of rubble, and of two people reading Hebrew psalms on the beach, the sun glinting off the sea. The Times’s lead story reports that the collapse may have started at or near the base of the condo, but the precise cause remains a mystery; add the painstaking progress of the search, and, as CNN’s Brian Stelter put it overnight, “there’s very little actual news to report”—in terms of those central facts, at least. On Friday, Bianca Padró Ocasio, a Herald reporter who, like Flechas, lives close to the condo, told PRI’s The World that, “as the hours pass by, I think that people feel less and less hope about the news that they’re going to get. Sometimes, time makes things feel like they’re a little further away, but now it’s the opposite—it’s kind of like, as the hours pass by, it feels like it’s gonna get worse.” Padró Ocasio added, “everyone just feels really on edge, and really unable to sleep.”
Below, more on Surfside:
- The victims: The Herald has been among the outlets to profile some of the people who are confirmed to have died in the collapse, and those who remain missing. “They all had different reasons for being there that night,” Carlos Frías wrote. “But their stories intersect with a thunderclap and a roar in the dark.” One of those who remains missing is Graciela Cattarossi, an Argentine national who worked as a photographer. Her parents, sister, and seven-year-old daughter, Stella, are missing, too.
- Media criticism: Verónica Soledad Zaragovia, a reporter with WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station, called on TV news stations not to air interviews with people saying that buildings collapsing is the sort of thing that happens in “third-world countries,” not the US. “When someone is in pain and angry, you don’t need to air everything they say,” Zaragovia wrote on Twitter, “certainly not hurtful and untrue comments.” Among those to have made such remarks is Charles Burkett, Surfside’s mayor.
- Media praise: Garcia-Navarro’s NPR interview with Alvarez won praise yesterday from Barry Jenkins, the movie director. “I myself question the efficacy of placing survivors of such unprecedented disasters before the public. And yet, Lulu is SO present and gentle here, it becomes clear that Ms. Alvarez needs to be heard as much as we desire to listen,” Jenkins (who is also a Miami native) wrote. “You can hear Ms. Alvarez processing her grief in real time, turning it over in her mind and moving through it, releasing it in bursts… In this interview journalist and counselor are one and the same.”
Other notable stories:
- At a press conference on Friday, Merrick Garland, the attorney general, announced that the Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia over new election laws that, he said, deny or abridge “the right of Black Georgians to vote on account of their race or color”; Garland also pledged to tackle threats against election officials nationwide, and praised the news media for bringing the scale of the problem to his attention. At the same presser, Garland backed the idea of legislation that would protect reporters against federal subpoenas for their records—though he said that he was speaking “personally,” raising the question as to whether the Biden administration as a whole is on board.
- For a forthcoming book, ABC’s Jon Karl interviewed William Barr, Garland’s Trump-era predecessor, and shared a preview, in The Atlantic, quoting Barr referring to Trump’s election-fraud claims as “bullshit.” Journalists including Joan Walsh, of The Nation, characterized the article as the first stop on Barr’s reputational “rehabilitation tour,” and urged readers not to fall for it. Rick Hasen, a prominent election-law expert, called the piece “flattering”; Karl, he wrote, failed to mention Barr’s own pre-election fraud claims, and “buried the lede” about the partisan post-election calculations of Mitch McConnell.
- Adam Serwer, of The Atlantic, has also written a book, named for his famous observation that for Trump and the Republican Party, The Cruelty is the Point. It comes out tomorrow. In a preview for the Times, Serwer describes the GOP’s reigning ideology—reinforced by right-wing media—as “a politics of cruelty and exclusion that strategically exploits vulnerable Americans by portraying them as an existential threat,” and sees depriving such people of their fundamental democratic rights as “praiseworthy.”
- Paul Farhi, of the Washington Post, profiles Mary Schmich, a Pulitzer-winning metro columnist who, along with many of her colleagues, recently took a buyout from the Chicago Tribune after nearly thirty years at the paper, following its takeover by the cost-slashing hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Amid the broader retrenchment of local news in America, Farhi writes, “columns like Schmich’s are becoming nostalgia items.”
- Ali Breland, of Mother Jones, spoke with a dozen reporters about “manipulative and sometimes deceitful behavior” on the part of press staffers at Amazon. “Almost all of the journalists told me they found that Amazon press relations was either the most or among the most clawing and deceptive corporate communications team that they had dealt with,” Breland writes; one said Amazon is the only company to have directly lied to them.
- On Friday, the federal government finally released a long-awaited report on UFOs. The conclusion? Inconclusive. For the Times, Chris Carter, who created The X-Files, writes that he expects the report to “come and go, and with it the mainstream chatter around UFOs”—though more broadly, he says, the conspiratorial thinking that defined his show is now “a fact of life.” (ICYMI, Lauren Harris recently assessed UFO coverage for CJR.)
- The USA Today Network is selling a non-fungible token, or NFT, inspired by an edition of Today—now Florida Today, a paper belonging to the Network—that the astronaut Alan Shepard took with him to the moon in 1971. For the NFT, Pat Shannahan, a visual journalist, recreated the cover of the edition as an “interactive mosaic”; the image comprises hundreds of smaller images from the Network’s history of space coverage.
- A trio of stories from the UK: Matt Hancock, the health minister, resigned after The Sun newspaper obtained private footage from his office showing him having an affair; officials are investigating both the leak and the placement of the camera. A member of the public found classified defense documents at a bus stop and gave them to the BBC. And climate protesters dumped manure outside a building that houses several newspapers.
- And Mike Gravel, the gadfly former Alaska senator and presidential candidate (who made my all-time favorite political ad), has died, at the age of ninety-one. He backed the Vietnam War for electoral reasons, but became a vocal opponent of the conflict. In 1971, after courts moved to stall the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the Times and the Post, Gravel read long portions of the documents into the Congressional Record.