The Vieques Spin

by John Marino

April 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOAn Associated Press report this week on a barroom brawl involving a group of Marines erroneously portrayed Puerto Rico as a place seething with anti-American sentiment where it is unsafe for U.S. military personnel to walk the streets.

"A mob armed with bats and pipes attacked 10 U.S. Navy Marines, leaving one with a cranial fracture and others with injuries from broken bones to minor scrapes," the AP reported on Tuesday morning following the fight.

"Two Marines were arguing between themselves outside the cafe at about 11 p.m. when a mob armed with lead pipes and bats started beating them," the report added. "The attackers fled when police were called."

The usually reliable AP may not have meant to suggest the Marines were beaten up because of local discontent over the Vieques issue, but it sure sounded that way.

Although the incident took place in San Juan, the Vieques connection was made because the Marine contingent was on leave after providing security to the Camp García military reservation following three weeks of military maneuvers.

And just to make sure the reader got the point, the report added: "anti-military sentiment in this U.S. territory flared after an off-target bomb killed a civilian guard in 1999 on Vieques."

As it turned out, the fight did not take place outside the landmark Hard Rock Cafe in Old San Juan as was originally reported, but in a seedy area of Puerta de Tierra outside the Lucky 7 strip club.

The bat-wielding mob was actually a group of bouncers at the club who got involved in the melee after trying to quell a fight that broke out between two Marines.

By Tuesday evening, the AP story had changed, opening up with the line, "bouncers kicked a group of U.S. Marines out of a strip club in San Juan, sparking a brawl that left 10 of the servicemen with injuries ranging from broken bones to cuts and scrapes."

But by then, much of the damage had already been done. The report, which ran under the headline "Puerto Rican Mob Attacks Marines," was aired on national television and radio, and local readers, who got wind of the initial reports from a variety of media including the Internet, were already penning angry letters to daily newspapers about the apparent ugly beating given to the Marines. One could only imagine the effect it had on someone living in Idaho, say, or Maryland.

The report has thrown a spotlight once again on the media’s role in the ongoing Vieques dispute.

For the past three years, the Vieques tale has shown itself to be particularly susceptible to spin, with media reports able to glorify or demonize one side or the other while holding on to -- however tenuously -- the objectivity required of news agencies.

AP caused some controversy again recently when it all but pronounced the Vieques protest movement dead in a report the day before Navy maneuvers were to start on April 1. When five women were arrested for trespassing the next day, it had to change its tune somewhat.

During this month’s three weeks of training, Navy officials accused protesters of rock-throwing, while protesters counter-charged that military security personnel were unnecessarily using tear gas and pellet guns against peaceful demonstrators.

Navy officials have routinely complained since the Vieques controversy erupted that they cannot get a fair shake from the local media.

Just last week, Lt. Corey Barker told the San Juan Star "you make us look like we’re the enemy, and we’re getting tired of it."

And in many cases their complaints are justified. The highly competitive local media, not above in many cases pandering to popular sentiment, has often gone beyond the facts to demonize the Navy.

One memorable newspaper headline, from El Vocero, tied the diagnosis of Puerto Rican Independence Party President Rubén Berríos with prostrate cancer to his nearly year-long sojourn on the Vieques bombing range, when any reporter worth his salt would know that the disease is one that develops slowly over years.

But the AP report this week is a reminder that the Navy has been more skillful at spinning its message in the national media, which is probably more important for it. The report was, after all, based entirely on the comments of a Navy spokesman.

During this month’s maneuvers, for example, the Navy’s view of clashes with protest groups took priority in national reports, while local media tended to place more stock in what protesters said.

During protests in 2000, CNN reported in full detail about Navy allegations that a group of fishermen had hurled "steel rods" at sailors after entering restricted waters in a group of small boats.

While a video-tape of the incident was given to federal prosecutors in San Juan, no charges have ever been filed in the incident. Moreover, a colleague of mine who was on one of the fishing boats involved in the incident still insists it never happened.

Regardless of the veracity of the allegations, the CNN report had its impact, and the protesters looked like a group of thugs on national television.

Sure there’s a battle here waging between Navy officials and Vieques residents and their supporters on the big island of Puerto Rico.

But it’s not the street fight described by the Associated Press. It’s a public relations battle.

For those interested in this subject, "Vieques y la prensa: El idilio fragmentado,"Editorial Plaza Mayor, by Puerto Rican author Félix Jiménez, provides a thorough and entertaining overview of the many gaffs made by national and local news media in covering the contentious issue.

John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback