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.”