How to get rid of a governor
Eleven days. That is the time it took from a Puerto Rican news organisation’s publication of nearly 900 pages of devastating documents to a governor’s forced resignation.
In between the two events were the furious protests of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican people disgusted by the administration’s disrespect and apparent corruption.
Their righteous anger could not be denied or contained.
If journalism is judged on its impact — as it rightly is — this was some potent stuff.
That the news organisation is a small, scrappy non-profit, the Centre for Investigative Journalism, known as CPI — with only ten full-time reporters and editors — makes what happened all the more remarkable.
The speed of Ricardo Rosselló’s downfall might make you wonder: why did the news matter so much there, mobilising the public in such dramatic and insistent ways?
It might even make you wonder about why the reams of reporting revealing Donald Trump’s lies, racism and insults have not done the same on the US mainland?
“Our reporting connected people’s suffering to the administration,” CPI’s executive director, Carla Minet, told me by phone last Thursday, the day after Rosselló, with impeachment looming, yielded to the inevitable and announced his resignation.
“It was like a stew that has been bubbling for a long time, and then it finally boiled over,” she said.
The revelations included coarse, homophobic and misogynistic messages among Rosselló and nearly a dozen of his cronies — all men.
They showed a startling dismissiveness for the people of the island territory who have been hit by a long-term financial crisis, high unemployment and then by the ravages of Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
In one case, the former chief financial officer was asked about the budget for forensic pathologists.
His response was a crack about the growing piles of bodies at the morgue.
“Now that we are on the subject, don’t we have some cadavers to feed our crows?” he wrote, seemingly referring to critics of the Government.
As The Washington Post’s Arelis Hernandez reported:
“In the chat, which occurred on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, Puerto Rico’s then-chief fiscal officer Christian Sobrino Vega made a threat, seemingly in jest, to shoot San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz. ‘You’d be doing me a grand favour,’ Rosselló responded.”
It blew up.
“The words in the chat went directly to people’s hearts,” Minet told me. And people felt, she said, “that this finally was enough”.
But CPI did not merely publish the chat messages, as appalling as many of them were. There also were investigative stories revealing “the corruption behind the chat” — the ways in which the Rosselló administration, Minet said, was misusing its public role to benefit their private interests.
Although these 11 days have brought CPI to national and international attention — even theatre superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted his support — the non-profit has been doing important work for more than a decade.
“Its speciality, retrieving hidden documents, has made them a valuable source of civic information — for instance, in reporting on the true number of deaths the hurricane caused,” wrote Ruth McCambridge, editor-in-chief of Nonprofit Quarterly.
CPI, along with CNN, successfully sued the Puerto Rican Government in 2018 after it refused to release a detailed accounting of deaths in Maria’s aftermath.
Eventually, and in part as a result of studies from universities and other news organisations, the Government’s original tally of 16, then 64, deaths was revised into the thousands. (Trump denied the vastly higher numbers, floating a false theory about how they were concocted to make him look bad for not supplying more aid.)
As a non-profit, CPI relies on donations, including from its Puerto Rican readers, and cherishes its independence.
“We have no ties to any economic or political group, and that makes a huge difference,” Minet told me. “It’s incredible how much people value that.” She added that CPI’s methods are “rigorous and old school” — there is no rush to publish until the story is vetted and complete.
“We were offered parts of the chat, but we wanted to make sure that nothing was taken out of context,” she said, “so we pushed hard to get the full chat”. Their confidential source eventually complied.
In recent weeks, the investigative firepower of Julie K. Brown at the Miami Herald has been recognised as alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein was arrested.
Her work, and that of other news organisations reporting on Epstein’s apparent role as a supplier of young women and girls to his high-profile friends, is vital — and was recognised by a federal prosector in announcing Epstein’s arrest early this month.
But it took years.
So, too, the investigative reporting on the Trump candidacy and administration is more of a slow boil — although it has had results: for example, in the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, now a felon; and in the worldwide Women’s March protests on January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration.
“I think journalism usually has its greatest impact when a powerful story combines with a propitious moment,” said Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, the pre-eminent investigative-reporting non-profit. (CPI has been called the ProPublica of Puerto Rico.)
Stories about sexual harassment came and went without sweeping impact, Tofel noted, until the tipping point finally arrived — setting off the world-shaking #MeToo movement.
In Puerto Rico, the firestorm may have seemed to span a mere 11 days. But the kindling had long been laid.
And investigative journalism came along to light the match.
• Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her home-town paper