By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
As you read this, dozens of responsible journalists are on the ground in Puerto Rico risking their safety, in some cases, to chronicle Hurricane Maria recovery efforts. They’re also performing flagrant acts of humanity to get the word out to the rest of the world about the desperation in the U.S. territory. Some are even proactively helping individuals connect with missing relatives.
Over the weekend our president, after being criticized by the mayor of San Juan for what she described as the slow and inadequate government response to the disaster, answered by lashing out at her, her fellow Puerto Ricans, Democrats and – you guessed it – the news media.
Yep. He claimed that media reports detailing the suffering and despair of American citizens were nothing more than “fake news.”
To their credit, some of the journalists in Puerto Rico were having none of it. CBS News correspondent David Begnaud, who’s been in Puerto Rico since before Maria made landfall, responded directly to the president on Twitter.
Begnaud and many other journalists have been doing an outstanding job on the air and on social media not just after Maria, but after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma before it. Veteran AP correspondent Chris Gillette filed a particularly descriptive account of the government’s Maria response on Sunday.
Click image to watch report.
CNN’s Leyla Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, is also among the journalists doing an outstanding job post-Maria. She discussed media coverage of the storm’s aftermath on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” with Brian Stelter.
Click image to watch report.
Sure, the president has invoked the term “fake news” countless times whenever he sees responsible journalism that does not reflect positively on him, or with which he just doesn’t agree. But this time it struck a nerve, giving me a profound sense of Déjà vu.
I was chairman of the then-Radio Television News Directors Association in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the eastern Gulf coast. I was immensely proud of the outstanding job journalists did in that storm’s aftermath to detail the Bush administration’s slow and inadequate response, just as I am of the journalists on hurricane recovery coverage duty today.
There was no Twitter during Katrina – it wouldn’t be launched until several months later – but similar to President Trump’s attacks on post-Maria media coverage, then-President Bush’s administration and its supporters launched a full frontal assault on the news media. A couple of years later I wrote this in an article about talk radio published by Milwaukee Magazine, which serves the community where I was working as a news director during Katrina.
While New Orleans residents were still screaming for help from the rooftops of their flooded homes, journalists were targeted by talk show hosts… . Not the government, but journalists. Stories detailing the federal government's obvious slowness and inefficiency were part of an "angry left" conspiracy, they said. Talk show hosts who used e-mailed talking points from the conservative spin machine proclaimed the Katrina stories were part of a liberal "media template." The irony would have been laughable if the story wasn't so serious.
Katrina turned out to be nearly universally recognized as a profound failure of the federal government to help its citizens in crisis. (Clearly, there was blame to go around for some state and local officials, too.) It’s way too soon to make any final judgments about Maria’s recovery.
Regardless, it is never too late to speak out against the propensity of some high-ranking government officials and their supporters, past and present, to spend precious time shooting the messengers.
Wouldn’t we all, especially now the suffering people of Puerto Rico, be better-served by our government doubling down, or even tripling down, on the rescue and recovery efforts?
RTDNA formed the nonpartisan Voice of the First Amendment Task Force early this year to defend against threats to the First Amendment and news media access, and to help the public better understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives. It is a founding partner of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the archive of record for threats to press freedom in America. Reach out to the task force by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.