Monday, October 16, 2017

[Column] The Puerto Rico tragedy in the U.S. media

By on October 10, 2017

No one has to tell a Puerto Rican the tragedy he or she is living. And, of course, it has been a big story on U.S. and world media.

But I am surprised by how big. I was in New York last week and it seemed that the name and image of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Ortiz was everywhere – front page of newspapers, TV. Walking in the Times Square – Rockefeller Center area, I looked up and saw her name repeatedly on one of those electronic billboards going around a big building with news headlines.

Carmen Yulín became the voice of desperation crying for help. And when President Trump attacked her, as they say here, she went “viral.” A week later, sitting in my nephew Edwin Maldonado’s house in Frederick, Maryland, watching the news on the big-screen TV, there she was. Change channels, and there she was.

Or take print media. At random, I pick the October 6-8 weekend issue of USA Today, the nation’s largest newspaper with a daily circulation of 1.8 million and digital circulation of 1.4 million.

The front-page headline: “Puerto Rico’s health system hovers ‘on life support.’ Patients face death as transportation and communications remain crippled” over a large photo of the devastation.

A man walks past horses and damaged trees in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The long story reports: “Patients are dying because of complications related to the primitive conditions and transportation difficulties.” It describes the patient of Dr. Oscar López de Victoria in Adjuntas. After operating on her, she had to be transferred to a San Juan hospital, but there was no gasoline, so she died. The doctor, the report states, is “the only cardiothoracic surgeon still on the island.”

On page one, there is another story and photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and on the front page of Section D another large photo of Lin-Manuel with the headline: “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love lifeline to Puerto Rico.”

The long story reports Lin-Manuel’s big efforts with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to raise relief funds for Puerto Rico. With many entertainment stars: Rita Moreno, Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Camilia Cabello, Dessa, Luis Fonsi and many others, they are making a new track, “Almost Like Praying”—from the West Side Story love song, “Maria”—to raise millions.

A fourth story is on the front page of Section B: “Erasing Debt may hurt Puerto Ricans,” with a large photo of Trump with first lady Melania in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico

Marine One helicopter carrying President Donald Trump surveys areas impacted by Hurricane Maria, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, near San Juan, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The story points out that 40 percent of Puerto Rico’s debt is owned by Puerto Ricans, so erasing it would seriously hurt “Puerto Ricans who are already struggling financially…you’re wiping out a lot of their savings.”

The story goes on that when Trump suggested that the debt be axed, “the island’s bonds tumbled to an all-time low.” Trump later rescinded the suggestion.

Puerto Rico, as we know, has been much in the news in the U.S. and the world since 2015, when the government declared it could not pay its monstrous $73 billion debt. This was a big story, not only because it shattered the old image of Puerto Rico as a land of rapid economic growth, of politicians who knew what they were doing, but because the island’s bankruptcy had a huge impact on the entire U.S. municipal bond market.

As the USA Today story points out, “More than 40% of U.S. municipal bond funds held Puerto Rico debt.”

And now the massive coverage of the Puerto Rico disaster, much of it being reported in heartbreaking detail and images, has reinforced the image of the island as a disaster zone.

We know in Puerto Rico that it is.

And we feel it in our bones that it will never be the same again.

Early Monday morning, October 9, the big story in the U.S.: Trump: “Nobody could have done what I’ve done for Puerto Rico with so little appreciation.” Trump’s tweet includes a video of U.S. relief efforts and his visit to the island with his commentary, “What the fake news will not show you in Puerto Rico.”

Those of us who have seen through the years how much of the U.S. reporting on Puerto Rico has been inaccurate, misinformed: how many times we have felt: They tried in good faith to get it right, but they got it wrong.

No, this is not fake news. This time the U.S. media got it right. Heartbreakingly right.

–A.W. Maldonado was a reporter and columnist at the San Juan Star, executive editor of El Mundo, and publisher and editor of El Reportero.

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