I have written enough books about how media cover politics to know that the story of a racist celebrity losing a TV show, like that of a racist president’s response to the cancellation of the show he once told supporters was “about us,” was going to trump the story about the dramatic loss of life on the island of Puerto Rico.
But that does not change the fact that the news of the actual death toll on the islands after they were hit by Hurricane Maria matters more. It matters more than Roseanne Barr’s self-inflicted wounds, and it matters more than Donald Trump’s self-absorbed interpretation of the news. I’m not in the camp that says we should be unconcerned with entertainment-industry meltdowns or presidential tweets. We have to cover it all; and we have to look for the meaning in it all—for those revelations of awful truth that are found at the intersection of Roseanne’s downfall and The Donald’s delusional response to it (a tweet griping that former White House aide Valerie Jarrett got an apology from ABC while he did not).
What we must be very conscious of, however, is that the incredibly high-profile Roseanne Barr fiasco unfolded as we were learning that—while the “official” line had until this week suggested that Hurricane Maria killed 64 Puerto Ricans—a Harvard University study now estimates that more than 4,600 people died during and after this natural disaster.
According to the Harvard study, Puerto Rico experienced a 60 percent increase in mortality in the months following last fall’s devastating storms. More than 30 percent of the deaths were linked to the inaccessibility of medical care following power cuts and a breakdown in transportation links.
To the extent that a death toll serves as a rough measure of the severity of a natural disaster, we learned on Tuesday that a part of the United States experienced a disaster that was as much as 70 times more severe than had been reported—or understood by most Americans. San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz made a vital point when she said Tuesday, “These deaths and the negligence that contributed to them cannot be forgotten. This was, and continues to be, a violation of our human rights.”
Yet, according to Media Matters, the nation’s cable networks had trouble focusing on the staggering news about Puerto Rico because they were all wrapped up with Roseanne. “Cable news covered Roseanne for over 10 hours. They covered Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico for just over 30 minutes,” explained a review by the group, which noted that Fox News devoted a mere 48 seconds to the news from Puerto Rico.
Our media now has information that provides far more perspective on an ongoing human catastrophe.
This information can and should alter our thinking with regard to policies for addressing that catastrophe—and for rebuilding an American territory that has been neglected for far, far too long. But the rethink will happen only if this report gets the attention it merits.
That’s the reason why coverage of the full story of the death toll in Puerto Rico is so needed.
Serious, ongoing, and intensive media scrutiny is vital for Puerto Rico, as the islands suffer from a democracy deficit that denies them full representation in Washington.
Because Puerto Rico is not a state, its residents are have never been permitted to vote in November contests for the presidency. Nor are Puerto Ricans allowed to elect voting members of the US House and the US Senate.
That means that the 3.3 million Americans living on the islands have no real say with regard to federal policies that, in many cases, have life-or-death consequences. It is unimaginable that Puerto Ricans would have chosen the austerity policies that they are now subjected to—or the antidemocratic oversight regime that was concocted by House Speaker Paul Ryan and his Republican allies as part of a scheme for forcing people who have just suffered overwhelming trauma to address a lingering debt crisis. And it is hard to believe that Ryan and his Wall Street–friendly compatriots would have gotten away with imposing brutal austerity if there were at least five House members and two senators providing full representation to Puerto Rico in Washington. (Indeed, the two senators—no matter what their partisan labels—might well have been able to align with the chamber’s 49 Democratic caucus members to upset the austerity agenda that Ryan promotes and that and Mitch McConnell facilitates.)
In the absence of representative democracy, media attention is essential. It can influence the debate, stir a public outcry, charge hearts and minds, and perhaps change policies. But when there is insufficient attention to horrifying news about the deaths of thousands of US citizens, the likelihood increases that the response from federal officials to an American tragedy will continue to be insufficient.