This week, we learned that Hurricane Maria may be the deadliest natural disaster on US soil in the past 100 years, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that most of the estimated 4,600 deaths were because of delayed medical care.
But on cable news, the top story by a wide margin was ABC canceling Roseanne after a racist tweet from its star, Roseanne Barr. In the New York Times, Roseanne was on the front page and Puerto Rico was on A13.
This was yet another example of the media putting the Puerto Rico story on the back burner — something it’s been doing for a long time now. We analyzed the amount of airtime the major cable news networks devoted to Puerto Rico and found that after the first month, coverage has been virtually nonexistent:
There’s an evergreen critique to be made that media has a short attention span, which means it does a poor job of covering stories with a long tail. The Flint water crisis is another example of where attention had faded. We could debate whether the blame should be on the media or on the public. The point is that a story about one of the worst natural disasters in US history has pretty much disappeared.
But there’s also a broader point here. And that’s in this chart:
In September 2017, President Trump tweeted about Puerto Rico 20 times. That fell to seven in October — and zero since.
It’s impossible to establish what Trump is actually thinking about, but his tweets quite often line up with his priority list — and given his voracious cable news habit, it’s fair to assume that the list is largely shaped by these media outlets.
So when the media stopped talking about Puerto Rico — especially Fox News, which stopped talking about this story far earlier than other networks — it’s reasonable to wonder whether the president’s attention moved elsewhere as well.
To be sure, these networks devoted a massive amount of attention to Puerto Rico in the month after the hurricane. Even Fox News painted a clear picture for viewers of what was happening: power outages, food and water shortages, and a lack of proper medical attention.
But that picture went away, and so did the president’s attention.
Trump has demonstrated time and again that he believes a big part of his job is creating a positive feedback loop with the media. That’s a poor way to govern. And it’s how you can end up with a government that believes it did a “great job” when there may have been thousands of deaths on its watch.