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March 14, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Are the Colors True?

Just when you thought that nothing could ever motivate Puerto Ricans to hold a common opinion about anything at all, the prestigious National Geographic Society has managed it. The March 2003 issue of its monthly publication has Puerto Rico devotees all agreeing that there is at least one thing that they don’t like about the story beginning on Page 34. There, wedged between an article about bone-crunching dinosaurs and a lyric photo essay depicting Alaska’s glaciers, stands a story entitled "true colors," twenty-two pages of glossy pictures and polished text, purporting to be a factually accurate and fair portrait of Puerto Rican life today. A debate is now raging as to whether or not this assertion is true.

The article itself follows the usual National Geographic format, devoting more than 70% of story space to pictures taken by free-lance photographer Amy Toensing. In five picture placements, color images and their captions dominate the facing pages of centerfolds. Independent journalist Andrew Cockburn’s text of some 5000 words is interspersed among the photographs, reporting on subjects ranging from political status to the drug culture found in an enclave of Old San Juan. The article is subtitled, "Divided Loyalties in Puerto Rico."

Before the magazine in its English or Spanish version was mailed to Puerto Rican subscribers, or became available on newsstands generally, the Geographic launched a website promoting the article. The site featured a photo essay backed by music and hosted by Ms. Toensing. Also included were sample paragraphs from the article, a reader preference poll providing a "yes or no" option for or against U.S. Statehood for the Puerto Rico and an icon providing entry into a chat page entitled "Forum." By the time most readers had access to the magazine itself, a lively cyber debate was underway.

After distribution of the March issue was complete, the debate continued on the chat page and dueling letters and press releases from concerned institutions and individuals were made public. The Puerto Rico Government, through its Resident Commissioner, Anibal Acevedo Vila, excoriated the article. In a letter to National Geographic Editor in Chief, William L. Allen, he and Economic Development & Commerce Secretary Milton Segarra complained, "We are outraged at the unbalanced article." The letter goes on to accuse the Cockburn text of "bias" and failing to project "a balanced point of view regarding the Puerto Rican culture."

Secretary Segarra demanded an apology from Allen and instructed the Puerto Rico Tourism Company to cancel all ads in the Geographic and its sister publications and television programs. San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, who favors statehood for the island, complained about the depiction of drug addicts shooting up in a San Juan neighborhood. He pointed out that a writer could find a similar scene in any large city in the continental United States. Mr. Allen rejoined in a statement saying, "One of the most difficult issues a writer faces when covering a topic as broad as Puerto Rico is what to include and what must be left out due to space limitations."

On the chat page, Robert L. Booth, the magazine’s Managing Editor, responded to at least one of the contributors, a Puerto Rican living in California, who was critical of the article, using such terms as "racist" and "prejudiced." Booth pointed out that the magazine gives the writer a free reign to develop the story as he or she sees it but the Geographic guarantees that all factual material is accurate. Another contributor challenged that assertion, pointing out that an aerial photograph of the San Juan coastal skyline identified as Isla Verde was actually the Condado Beach sector of the city.

One chat page contribution, coming from an advertising executive in Puerto Rico, opined that the article did show the true colors of Puerto Rico but became a trap for island politicians who felt obliged to criticize the story, not wishing to be seen as condoning any negative comments or images about any aspect of Puerto Rican life and culture. Many respondents allowed that the article is, on the whole, appropriate, but complain that one or another essential aspect of Puerto Rican life was ignored.

The chat page’s on-going expressions of agreement or dissent generally relate to the text’s treatment of anomalies found on the island: the argument over political status, the ambivalence of Puerto Ricans as to their identity, the overcrowding, the dependence on the United States. Particularly galling to many commentators is the picture selection, which they feel portrays the island as primitive and backward. Graphic shots of heroin addicts shooting up in La Perla and the decapitation of a live chicken in a Santeria ceremony, while authentic, seemed to have scraped raw the skin of those concerned with Puerto Rico’s "image," now disseminated to the Geographic’s seven million readers around the world.

In the narration of her photo essay on the Geographic’s website, Ms. Toensing states that her objective in undertaking the assignment was to give "a voice and a face to Puerto Rico." Beginning with her introductory 2-page photo spread depicting a young woman’s torso draped in an iridescent gown representing Puerto Rico’s flag and ending with her final image of a plumpish girl dressed for her 15th year birthday party, ten "faces" of Puerto Rico are included. Two relate to the tropical landscape of the island, two to the all-pervasive musicality of its inhabitants and the rest to some aspect of the social "reality" facing 21st Century Puerto Rico. Differing chat room commentators found fault with virtually every photograph in the article, except, presumably, a small insert showing a map of the island and its relationship to its Caribbean neighbors. Many, it seems, did not see their "face" in Ms. Toensing’s picture gallery.

This week, Herald readers can "sound off" with their view of the National Geographic’s representation of Puerto Rico in its March issue. Understanding that no article can be pleasing in every aspect to a given reader, this Hot Button Poll seeks the reader’s overall assessment of the article’s accuracy and fairness. Those who feel that "true colors" is a fair portrait of Puerto Rico should vote "yes" while those that think that it is not should vote "no."

Are the "colors" true?

Is the current National Geographic article on Puerto Rico generally accurate and fair?

Please vote above.

This Week's Question:
Is the current National Geographic article on Puerto Rico generally accurate and fair?

US . Residents
. PR
Yes 25%
58% No 75%


.To submit your idea for a future PR Herald poll question or "Hot Button" issue, please click here.

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