The people of Puerto Rico woke up on the morning of September 19 only to relive a nightmare. Two days before Hurricane Maria’s five-year anniversary, on September 18, Hurricane Fiona made landfall on the island’s southwest coast. The storm caused widespread flooding, landslides and power outages. At least 16 people have died as a result.
In online spaces on September 19, many in the Latine community called attention to the lack of coverage by national press: The funeral procession of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, taking place the same day, seemed to take precedence over Puerto Ricans facing dire circumstances in the aftermath of Fiona.
According to a Nexis news database search of coverage from the six major corporate national TV outlets (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News), there were far more segments featuring the queen than Fiona and Puerto Rico from September 18 to 19: 127 news segments mentioned the queen and only 63 named Puerto Rico. Yet the discrepancy was really much wider than even these numbers suggest, as most of the networks devoted hours of coverage on September 19 exclusively to the queen’s funeral. CNN, for instance, offered live coverage from London from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. that day, in addition to its many other segments mentioning the funeral.
The hurricane coverage the networks did air, rather than approaching the story as an opportunity to hold power to account, tended to sensationalize, emphasize “resilience” and obscure who was responsible for the island’s plight.
NBC News (9/18/22) provided some on-the-ground news coverage of Fiona as it made landfall on the island’s southern coast. Viewers watched as the wind whipped and floodwaters swept an entire bridge away in the central mountainous region of Utuado.
A later story noted that the bridge was temporary and built after Maria (NBC News, 9/19/22); however, both reports failed to question why this, like so much of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, was still crippled five years after the last major storm.
Separately, NBC News national correspondent Gabe Gutierrez (9/19/22) updated viewers on the devastation in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. He concluded the segment while standing in front of a downed tree, telling viewers what Gov. Pedro Pierluisi had to say about recovery efforts.
Gutierrez asked the governor hard questions about the government’s ability to meet constituents’ needs in the wake of Fiona. He also acknowledged Puerto Ricans’ growing frustration with Luma Energy, the private company that took control of the archipelago’s transmission and distribution system in June 2021. Luma has been the subject of numerous protests for imposing higher rates on several occasions (Floricua, 6/30/22) and failing to provide reliable electricity for customers throughout Puerto Rico.
Although Gutierrez makes it clear that outages and public outcry have “intensified” since privatization, absent from the segment are any mentions of Luma’s price hikes and their subsequent impacts on the people of Puerto Rico. As a result, Gutierrez’s attempts to hold Luma accountable are limited.
Nor did Nightline (ABC, 9/21/22), which described Puerto Rico as “reeling from another deadly blow,” manage to figure out why the archipelago still hasn’t recovered from Maria. ABC correspondent Victor Oquendo astutely noted that Fiona has exposed
the lingering infrastructure problems that have plagued the island for years, even after billions of dollars in vows to improve the fragile power grid after Hurricane Maria.
But the program obscured how disaster capitalism has exacerbated existing challenges tied to colonialism and exploitation.
Although Oquendo interviewed several non-governmental sources, Nightline attributed “the failures of Puerto Rico’s power grid” to no entity in particular. This language makes it seem like the electrical grid had been failing in a vacuum—not because of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which has been saddled with a questionable multi-billion dollar debt (Latino Rebels, 3/17/22, 9/30/22), or Luma, which has sparked charges of corruption among at least four prominent government officials with ties to the company (Latino Rebels, 11/17/21, 9/13/22).
“Puerto Rico has become a microcosm for the worst kind of experiment on capitalist ideas,” Julio López Varona, co-chief of campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy, told CounterSpin’s Janine Jackson (9/30/22):
We’ve seen those ideas be translated into extreme privatization, like what’s happening right now with the electrical grid, which still is not able to provide electricity to all Puerto Rican families, like 12 or 13 days after Hurricane Fiona.
‘Enough of the resilience narrative’
Steering clear of pointed criticism in an attempt to procure a silver lining, CBS News (9/22/22) softened the blow of an impactful story by CBS Mornings correspondent David Begnaud, running with the headline “Puerto Rico’s Resilience.”
The nine-minute package demonstrated how Puerto Ricans come together when disaster strikes, and put the power of community organizing on display. Not only did Begnaud speak with organizers, he let key moments from his interviews with political anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla and trailblazing independent Puerto Rican journalist Bianca Graulau drive the story. He even asked Graulau if Puerto Ricans rely less on the government than ever before.
This depiction of community organizing in Puerto Rico is edifying, but it’s warm to a fault. The segment ended with the correspondent saying that Puerto Rico “wants to be less reliant on a government that has consistently failed them and promised to consistently deliver.” Begnaud only scratched the surface here. He hinted at the many reasons why Puerto Ricans have to fend for themselves, their loved ones and fellow community members during times of crisis, but he refrained from explicitly seeking accountability from the government of Puerto Rico, the federal government and the US-imposed Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB).
Many in the Latine community have bemoaned the narrative of “resilience” that national corporate media have followed when reporting on crises affecting Puerto Rico. One of those people is Julio Ricardo Varela, an MSNBC opinion columnist and the president of Futuro Media.
“Enough of the resilience narrative,” Varela said (Twitter, 9/25/22). “The cameras and attention need to turn to the US imperialism.”
He echoed Andrea González-Ramírez, an award-winning Puerto Rican journalist who directly responded to the package online in a since-deleted tweet (9/22/22):
I know this story is meant to be empowering but it truly isn’t. Why are we celebrating Puerto Ricans’ “resilience” instead of calling out our institutions for abandoning them over and over again?
“There’s too much resilience being asked of people,” Alana Casanova-Burgess, host and producer for the award-winning podcast La Brega: Stories of the Puerto Rican Experience, said on the Takeaway (9/23/22).
Territory or colony?
Austerity politics and gentrification tend to slip into the background when it comes to legacy media reporting on Puerto Rico. PBS NewsHour (9/22/22) called Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States “unusual” in an interview with Yarimar Bonilla. But is that how most Puerto Ricans would describe the prevailing arrangement between the two countries?
Puerto Rico is a colony as much as it is a territory of the United States. News media are in a position to demystify the complexity of its colonial condition. Normalizing the use of “colony” as a descriptor (MSNBC, 9/22/22) and taking a closer look at the root causes of Puerto Rico’s debt (CounterSpin, 9/30/22) have the potential to shift the conversation around the archipelago’s future and impacts of corporate greed on human beings.
Instead of sensationalizing chaotic scenes of palm trees buckling over from rainy, forceful winds, like NBC; omitting context that would otherwise illustrate the nefariousness of privatization under a disaster capitalist regime, like Nightline; or beguiling viewers with ostensibly empowering stories, like CBS, news media have an opportunity to move the needle when it comes to telling Puerto Rico’s story.