Thursday, May 31, 2018


We just learned that the hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico last year was massive, and the press assumes we don't care:
On Tuesday, Harvard researchers published a study estimating that approximately 5,000 deaths can be linked to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The same day, ABC canceled Roseanne Barr’s eponymous show Roseanne after Barr sent a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to former President Barack Obama. Cable news covered Barr’s tweet and her show’s cancellation 16 times as much as the deaths of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico.

... The May 29 broadcasts of MSNBC combined with the network's flagship morning show the next day spent 21 minutes discussing the findings. CNN followed with just under 10 minutes of coverage, and Fox covered the report for just 48 seconds.

By contrast, cable news spent over 8 and a half hours discussing a tweet from Barr describing Jarrett, a Black woman, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes and the subsequent cancellation of her show.

It's easy to say that the press's indifference to the plight of Puerto Rico is because Puerto Rico is Hispanic. But if we're comparing disasters, Katrina's most visible victims were black, yet the coverage was extensive. And in the Roseanne Barr story, there's a black target and a white villain.

(On the other hand, New Orleans was a cherished playground for comfortable white Americans, although not the parts of New Orleans that took the greatest hit from Katrina. Puerto Rico is a much less beloved tourist spot.)

The coverage of Katrina was anomalous. In retrospect, it resembles the coverage of Vietnam and Watergate -- in all three cases, the media seemed to be discovering the government's capacity for misconduct as if for the first time. And in all three cases, comparable subsequent events weren't covered with the same sense of outrage -- the Iraq War wasn't really covered as a debacle until long after it clearly was one, and Iran-contra was covered as if it couldn't possibly be as bad as it sounded.

Katrina happened at a moment when there began to be widespread acknowledgments of George W. Bush's failings -- after the failed attempt to privatize Social Security, after the unpopular intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, and after two and a half years of failure in Iraq. By contrast, much of America already thinks Donald Trump's presidency is a horrorshow (and the rest of America thinks Trump can do no wrong). When Trump malignantly neglected Puerto Rico, there was no "America lost its innocence" moment. (See also Vietnam and Watergate.)

And note that Trump has diverted attention away from Puerto Rico simply by not bringing it up. He feuded with the mayor of San Juan briefly, but since his visit to the island on October 3, 2017, he's barely mentioned it. He's tweeted about Puerto Rico only once since the visit, and that was the following day.

Like many other terrible things the Trump administration has done -- on immigration, deregulation, court-packing -- the betrayal of Puerto Rico happened in the shadows.

That's no excuse for inadequate coverge, of course -- the news media should have pursued the story anyway. But the media pays more attention to effective manipulators of the news cycle. Trump is one. Roseanne Barr is another. So of course she got more coverage.

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