The media today: A curtain lifts on Puerto Rico’s dire straits

A hurricane strikes, millions of Americans are in danger, and news crews descend with wall-to-wall coverage. That’s the way things usually play out during the late summer and early fall storm season. But that’s not what’s happened over the past five days in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island on September 20, but the scope of its devastation is only now becoming clear. Yesterday, Puerto Rico’s governor said the island was on the brink of a “humanitarian crisis” and pleaded for resources from officials in Washington.

Puerto Rico’s electrical grid has been completely knocked off line, and many areas of the American territory are without water or cell phone service. The Washington Post’s Samantha Schmidt and Joel Achenbach wrote a harrowing dispatch on residents nearing the point of desperation from the island’s central mountains, where people remain “isolated, alone, afraid.

Media coverage drives attention and resources, and millions of Americans are suffering without power, shelter, or basic supplies. With Trump’s NFL comments and the healthcare debate receiving lots of attention, reports from Puerto Rico, as well as the hard-hit US Virgin Islands, haven’t broken through the noise. Media Matters reports that, collectively, the five major Sunday shows spent less than one minute of total air time on the story.

ICYMI: What ABC, WashPo, NYTimes and many other news outlets struggled with as they covered Trump/NFL fiasco

Last night, that began to change, at least somewhat. NBC led with Lester Holt reporting from San Juan, but the Puerto Rico’s story didn’t appear until the third segment on both ABC’s World News Tonight and CBS’s Evening News. CBS had David Begnaud on the ground, while Eva Pilgrim reported from Puerto Rico for ABC. Holt and his crew made a daylong journey by military transport to get to Puerto Rico. “There is devastation everywhere,” Holt opened, saying the reporting is like “a curtain is slowly being lifted on this disaster, revealing more and more of the suffering and the dire straits on this island.”

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Trump, who had remained silent about the crisis, finally tweeted about the island last night, but included a bizarre reference to Puerto Rico’s “massive debt” that “must be dealt with.” Reporting from the island, where airports and ports have been damaged, is difficult, but if the situation in Puerto Rico were replicated on the mainland, you can bet coverage would be nonstop. Hopefully Trump’s belated attention corresponds with an increased urgency in media coverage.

In the meantime, more on an unfolding crisis on American soil.

 

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