Multipositionality and Social Media: Hurricane Narratives and Journalism as Counter/Publics

Daysha Pinto
University of North Carolina Greensboro

Abstract: 

Mere hours before Hurricane María hit my home country, I had a debilitating panic attack. I remember sitting in one of my graduate courses, staring in disbelief at my phone as the last weather bulletin before the hurricane hit land was emitted. I remember briefly speaking to my family and loved ones, knowing it would be days—maybe weeks—until I heard from them again. Surely enough, the category-four hurricane barreled through the 100 by 35-mile island with 155 mph winds, destroying a greater part of the country’s power infrastructure and communications grid. In the days that followed, I desperately searched on Facebook for any news; I browsed for endless hours but saw only messages of distress and hopelessness from those who, like me, form part of the Puerto Rican diaspora here in the United States (US). Only two Puerto Rican news stations were streaming through Facebook; they had no information to provide to their viewers. The island, like those seeking news about it, was in the dark.

Part One: “María”

Mere hours before Hurricane María hit my home country, I had a debilitating panic attack. I remember sitting in one of my graduate courses, staring in disbelief at my phone as the last weather bulletin before the hurricane hit land was emitted. I remember briefly speaking to my family and loved ones, knowing it would be days—maybe weeks—until I heard from them again. Surely enough, the category-four hurricane barreled through the 100 by 35-mile island with 155 mph winds, destroying a greater part of the country’s power infrastructure and communications grid. In the days that followed, I desperately searched on Facebook for any news; I browsed for endless hours but saw only messages of distress and hopelessness from those who, like me, form part of the Puerto Rican diaspora here in the United States (US). Only two Puerto Rican news stations were streaming through Facebook; they had no information to provide to their viewers. The island, like those seeking news about it, was in the dark.

Two days after the hurricane hit, I rented a car and drove for the first time on my own since leaving my country. Nine hours later, I arrived in Ohio to visit one of my sisters, who also forms part of the diaspora. We compulsively checked every major US news station in search for information but were left disappointed and frustrated. Could it be possible that there was no available information on the island’s state of affairs? That night, I discovered David Begnaud, a CBS reporter sent to Puerto Rico to cover the aftermath of the storm, when a friend shared one of his videos on Facebook. With only a modest camera crew and his cellphone, Begnaud took on the endeavor of traveling alongside federal entities, like the National Guard and FEMA, and reporting back what he saw on the island every night to his Facebook audience. Begnaud not only interviewed political officials, such as the Governor of Puerto Rico and the Director of FEMA, but he also shed productive light on the narratives of the everyday man and woman—he spoke to those who had lost their homes, their belongings, and even their loved ones. His Facebook videos quickly became a lifeline to the estimated 5 million Puerto Ricans who live in the US, a spark that sought to shed light on the reality of the tragedy endured by 3.5 million U.S. citizens. His voice became a platform through which he spoke to, not for, those who needed to be heard the most but who had no viable way of communicating their experiences. This type of reporting starkly contrasts the narrative constructed by President Trump and subsequent public discourses that downplayed the severity of the humanitarian crisis by declaring that Hurricane María was not “a real catastrophe” like other major hurricanes that previously impacted the US, blaming Puerto Rico for “throwing off the US budget” with its high cost of recovery, and suggesting that the Governor of Puerto Rico should be “proud” that the official death count—16 at the time of this speech, but which has since officially increased to 2,975—was not as “bad” as the “thousands” that died in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina (Abramson, 2017). How, then, do we measure tragedy and the impact of natural disasters as a society? Who decides how much media coverage will be dedicated to these natural events? And what narratives will be utilized by journalists and politicians to portray and re-present the “victims” of such disasters?

Part Two: “Who Speaks?”

One of the major concerns of the fields of Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Rhetoric and Composition continues to be the dangers involved in the act of speaking for others. In her essay “Beside Ourselves: Rhetoric and Representation in Postcolonial Feminist Writing,” Susan C. Jarratt (1998) highlights the complications that arise from the practice of speaking for others. Jarratt maintains that “when someone uses power over others to represent them politically—to act for them—there is an unavoidable, symbolic process underway: the represented group is sketched, painted, described in a particular way through that process. And this description may or may not ‘represent’ them in ways they themselves would endorse” (p. 58). Jarratt (1998) equates this problematic type of representation as metaphoric: “a figure of substitution: one thing or person standing in for another, and in the process, obscuring some particularities of what it represents...occur[ing] any time a writer or speaker functions as a spokesperson for a particular category of people” (p. 59). This framework of substitution sheds light on President Trump’s rhetorical stance, which maliciously downplayed the catastrophic impacts of Hurricane María resulting in a disastrous impact on policy-making and federal aid, in contrast to Begnaud’s counter/public positionality which sought to highlight the personal experiences of Puerto Rican hurricane survivors.

As the highest form of government authority and most powerful source of public policy, President Trump’s discourse has tangible effects. Case in point, his misrepresentation of Puerto Ricans as hurricane victims responsible for their own tragedy had a tangible and negative impact on the amount of relief funds assigned to the island. On the other hand, Begnaud’s counter/public reporting acknowledged what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues is “the need for the representation of others to give [them] a vocal and visible presence...through the production of... ‘counter-sentences’...alternatives to re-presentations—images of the ‘other’—produced from within dominant cultures... [which come] into being through the strategic placement and voicing of narrative” (as cited in Jarratt, 1998, p. 60). Unlike President Trump, who spent only hours in the capital city of San Juan—a region not as harshly affected as the south-eastern coast in which the hurricane made landfall—Begnaud spent thirty arduous days traveling to the most inaccessible regions of the island and reporting back on what he found. His social media reporting highlighted only some of the Puerto Ricans who worked arduously to cut down trees and clear debris in their communities, as well as the doctors and nurses who operated in hospital rooms without electricity or running water—their narratives served as puzzle pieces that Begnaud’s counter/publics reporting showcased for the world to witness. Consequently, Begnaud’s rhetorical strategy can be analyzed as an act of speaking to, which Jarratt (1998) argues “might be construed as a movement from the metaphoric to the metonymic. Instead of substituting one voice for another, the speaker adds another voice to the parallel strands of discourse, a voice without its own clear origin” (p. 61). With this understanding, I argue that contrary to President Trump’s discourse, Begnaud’s reporting showcased a plethora of voices as they spoke to an audience of both the US citizens living in Puerto Rico and those in the continental US.

Part Three: “We’re U.S. Citizens, Too”

One of the defining rhetorical strategies utilized by Puerto Ricans and those in the US advocating for the island was the phrase, “Puerto Ricans are US citizens.” In his book, Media and Political Engagement, Peter Dahlgren (2009) discusses the impact of citizenship in relation to civic engagement and representations in media. Notions of citizenship that not only view “citizenship as a formal, legal sets of rights and obligations, but also treat it as a mode of social agency” (p. 57) are crucial to this argument, because representations of Puerto Rico as an “Other”—that which is foreign, which is not truly “American”—alienated the island from government officials and citizens of the continental US who might have perceived Puerto Rico to be a foreign entity undeserving of federal aid. Moreover, Dahlgren states that citizenship can be conceptualized as state-centered or based on agency:

state-centered understandings of citizenship... usually put forth that formal citizenship secures universalism and equality... however, history has shown us that there remain exclusions, inequities, and suppressions of various kinds and to various degrees...thus, we have the second notion of citizenship...based on political agency...[which] asserts that there are key differences among citizens that must be recognized and politically addressed...such as marginalization, powerlessness, and exploitation. (p. 62)

In this sense, although Begnaud does not share many qualities with Puerto Ricans—such as race and language—his US citizenship, a foundational pillar of our democratic nation, functions as a membership, one which connects Begnaud with those whose stories he made legible through his counter/public narrative. This mutual membership allowed Begnaud to speak to other US citizens in the mainland, as well as share hurricane narratives through his social media reporting, adding a voice in unison to those who were temporarily unable to speak for themselves. Furthermore, Dahlgren argues that media reporting should serve in a democratic function as a system of information “framed by the notion of the public sphere, which emphasizes that the media must provide citizens with the information, ideas, and debates about current affairs so as to facilitate informed opinion and participation in democratic politics” (p. 34). What happens when the public sphere presents a distorted representation of marginalized groups—those most politically and communicatively isolated by the hurricane? In a supposedly postcolonial world, what is at stake for colonized peoples when they can no longer communicate a narrative for and by themselves?

Part Four: “Counter/Publics and The Spectacle”

In Counterpublics and the State, Robert Asen and Daniel Brouwer (2001) state that “counterpublics derive their ‘counter’ status...[through] exclusion from prominent channels of political discourse and a corresponding lack of political power...Counterpublic spheres voice oppositional needs and values...by affirming specificity of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or some other axis” (p. 2,7), such as citizenship. In turn, according to Jürgen Habermas, the public sphere “‘mediates between state and society, a sphere in which the public as the vehicle of public opinion is formed’” (as cited in Palczewski, 2001, p. 161). Catherine H. Palczewski (2001) stresses that we must “recognize the existence of counter/publics as sites that develop critical oppositional discourses... [and] enable marginal groups to overcome the discursive barriers to participation” (p.161, 169). One of the discursive barriers that Begnaud’s counter/publics reporting helped negotiate was that of language—English is not Puerto Rico’s official language, and many Puerto Ricans do not speak it. Nevertheless, Begnaud was able to expand the discursive space by negotiating discourse between non-English speaking and bilingual Puerto Ricans, allowing non-English speaking persons to send messages to Begnaud’s global online audience. In a likely manner, Begnaud overcame the technological and communicative barriers that prevented Puerto Ricans from being able to send messages, as his press credentials allowed him to access the Internet service utilized by the central Puerto Rican government to connect to people around the world.

One of the major rhetorical strategies involved in Begnaud’s counter/publics discourse involves the act of humanizing Puerto Ricans and positioning them as deserving of help due to their US citizenship in opposition to alienating political discourse surrounding the hurricane. As a non-incorporated US territory, public discourse on Puerto Rico often bathes the country in a light of Otherness. In Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms, Wendy Hesford (2011) argues that “the U.S. has [often] used the language of gendered victimization...[through] the production of the ‘third world woman’ as a singular monolithic subject’” (p. 5-6). This rhetorical victimization was utilized by much of the US media regarding representations of Puerto Rico and Hurricane María, especially as the first images of the aftermath began to circulate the Web.

Figure 1 Woman washing clothes in a drainage ditch

For example, an image of an obese Puerto Rican woman washing her clothing on a roadside drainage ditch circulated around various online media sites, like that of USA Today, several days after the hurricane struck. The picture promotes the victim narrative that President Trump’s public discourse created, misrepresenting Puerto Ricans as racialized, gendered, and non-abled bodied victims. Many more images of women and children bathing in rivers populated the Internet and US television networks, showcasing a misrepresentation of Puerto Ricans as third-world citizens in desperate need of help, further usurping their agency. Moreover, Hesford (2011) defines the human rights spectacle as “the incorporation of subjects [through] social and rhetorical processes of incorporation and recognition mediated by visual representation... spectacular rhetoric activates certain cultural and national narratives and socio-political relations [and] consolidates identities through the politics of recognition” (p. 7, 9). Guy Debord adds that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (as cited in Hesford, 2011, p. 15). On October 3, 2017—thirteen days after Hurricane María ravaged the island—President Trump staged a media spectacle, in which he infamously threw paper towels at hurricane survivors. US media correspondents were sent to cover the highly scripted event, in which President Trump publicly told two hurricane victims who lost their home to “have fun” (Kenny, 2017). This willful construction of public discourse can lead, according to Hesford (2011), to “situations meant to engage spectators in a moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization... the logic of spectacularity as a site of dominant power may be to arrest the public’s gaze—to discipline, display, and isolate the subject” (p.16). As spectacle, the public discourse created by President Trump during his visit to Puerto Rico sought to deliberately trivialize the importance of the humanitarian crisis at a time where his response to the hurricane was coming under fire by several US Democratic senators and the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz. President Trump’s rhetorical attempt to “isolate the subject” was enacted by constructing a false narrative and the act of “Othering,” complaining through Twitter on September 20—only 10 days after Hurricane María’s landfall—that “they want everything to be done for them” (Trump, 2017) Here, the purposeful use of the pronoun “they” functions to single out the Puerto Rican US citizen as the “Other,” a palpable linguistic borderline that seeks to create and perpetuate racial taxonomies within the realm of US citizenship. On the other hand, Begnaud’s counter/publics discourse pushed back against this victim-blaming rhetoric by using his own personal witnessing as a source of ethos-building. On his return to New York, Begnaud uploaded a Facebook video in which he reflected on what he had personally witnessed during the four weeks he lived on the island. He notes the “resilience of Puerto Rican peoples” and advocates for the community activism and organizations that resulted as an immediate response to the needs of both rural and metropolitan communities (Begnaud, 2017). Begnaud argues that his reporting demonstrates that Puerto Ricans, contrary to political discourse, were hard at work to rehabilitate their country. This statement counters the “Othering” rhetoric in President Trump’s tweet and contests the misrepresentation of Puerto Ricans as victims through visual images of gendered victimization.

Part Five: Conclusion

Spivak (1988) “warns first-world intellectuals about the danger of obscuring their own acts of discursive imperialism in the process of facilely ‘representing’ the interests of apparently silent subjects of oppression” (as cited in Jarratt, 1998, p. 58). Spivak maintains that “the first part of [her] proposition—that the phased development of the subaltern is complicated by the imperialist project—is confronted by a [question]...can the subaltern speak?” (1988, p. 25). Specifically, can the subaltern speak in moments when he or she is beside themselves? In some situations, such as natural disasters, “participants are no longer disposed in the classical rhetorical position, a single subject facing an audience, but rather, ‘beside themselves.’ This colloquial expression calls to mind situations of deep emotional turmoil, worry, anger, or maybe grief. Perhaps it means that, in times of intense emotional distress, one loses bodily or mental integrity and manufactures another version of oneself to express or absorb the pain” (Jarratt, 1998, p. 57). I argue that during the aftermath and recovery efforts for Hurricane María, Puerto Ricans were placed “beside themselves” as active spectators to their own grief and pain, unable—as subalterns—to speak due to their restricted access to technology, resulting in a temporary loss of agency. How, then, does Begnaud bridge the gap between the Puerto Rican subaltern and their needs for ethical representation? Through his active efforts to speak to and not for the subaltern, Begnaud proves that representation efforts matter and provides people with the opportunity to experience this natural phenomenon, witness its material and emotional consequences, and heal the divide between passive spectatorship and agency.

A careful examination of Begnaud’s reporting on Hurricane María illustrates the influence that counter-publics has when used in combination with social media. As Dahlgren (2009) states, “the public sphere does not begin and end when media content reaches an audience; this is but one step in larger communication and cultural chains that include how the media output is received, discussed, made sense of, re-interpreted, circulated among, and utilized by publics, that is, citizens” (p. 74). Moreover, “civic agency involves stepping into the public sphere, making sense of media representations of relevant developments, and discussing current events with others” (Dahlgren, 2009, p. 76). Within this context, counter/publics reporting counters the status quo and dominant public media representations, especially when dealing with precarious situations where the well-being of peoples is threatened. Counter/publics reporting also provides valuable opportunities for the construction and reclaiming of agency by the subaltern.

Finally, I would like to point out the potential of social media and political engagement that Dahlgren and other scholars have advocated for. Through an awareness of both his position and his power as an American journalist, Begnaud’s empowering employment of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, serve as useful reminders of the transformative power of technology and communications. It is worth questioning, how else might we envision categories of privilege, such as American citizenship, and challenge underlying beliefs that it secures equality while simultaneously disregarding who gets to claim access to it? It is clear then, that democracy cannot function without citizen participation, both within technological counter/public spaces and political engagement. In the age of fake news and alternative facts, the US—and other countries—needs journalists who will work outside mainstream media to make other views known. To speak to, not for. To resist Othering those who might be far away from our scope of what citizenship means; to resist Othering those who we claim fall under the American umbrella of democracy.

Notes

1. This type of imagery is often found in publicity images that showcase Middle-Eastern women awaiting to be unveiled by Western democracy.

References

Abramson, Alana. (2017). President Trump Says Hurricane María Was Not a Real Catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4967645/donald-trump-puerto-rico-hurricane-katrina/.

Asen, Robert, and Daniel C. Brouwer. (Eds.) (2001) Counterpublics and the State. New York: State University of New York Press.

Begnaud, David. (2017, October 4) Personal communication, Facebook. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/108679513654/videos/10155213369228655/.

Dahlgren, Peter. (2009) Media and Political Engagement: Citizens, communication, and democracy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hesford, Wendy S. (2011). Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Jarratt, Susan C. (1998). Beside Ourselves: Rhetoric and Representation in Postcolonial Feminist Writing. Journal of Composition Theory, 18(1), 57-75.

Kenny, Caroline. (2017). Trump tosses paper towels into Puerto Rico crowd. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/03/politics/donald-trump-paper-towels-puerto-rico/index.html.

McKenna, Phil. (2017). Desperation grows in Puerto Rico’s poor communities without water or power. Inside Climate News. Retrieved from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/04102017/puerto-rico-health-crisis-hurricane-maria-poverty-water-power-epidemic-risk-photos.

Palczewski, Catherine H. (2001). Cyber-movements, New Social Movements, and Counterpublics. Robert Asen and Daniel C. Brouwer. (Eds.) Counterpublics and the State. New York: State University of New York Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. (1988) Can the Subaltern Speak? In Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (271-313). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Trump, Donald J. [realdonaldtrump]. (2017, September 30) ...want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/914089888596754434?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Ftime.com%2F4963903%2Fdonald-trump-puerto-rican-leaders-want-everything-to-be-done-for-them%2F&tfw_site=TIME.

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This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

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