On September 20, Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico as a powerful category 4 storm. With its merciless winds and indiscriminate downpours of rain, Maria took out the island’s power and communications grid, destroyed an untold number of homes and killed possibly over 1,000 directly or indirectly. Since then, the Trump administration has been criticized for not doing enough to help get the island territory back on its feet.
When Maria hit, CBS News sent correspondent David Begnaud to the island to witness and report on the devastation and recovery process. To this day, over 100 later, Begnaud continues to provide social media updates on Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts.
I wanted to get a look behind the scenes of the 30-something days Begnaud spent in Puerto Rico to bring us the awareness of the state of emergency on the island. What I found was a paradigm of what it means for journalism to make a difference.
In a phone interview with HS Insider, Begnaud sheds light on his personal journey into reporting and the journalistic values that were reinforced by his experience in Puerto Rico.
Begnaud started in the field of journalism at a young age. A Lafayette, Louisiana native, he applied and was accepted to a teen reporter program at Lafayette’s CBS affiliate station KLFY-TV, when he was a senior in high school. The teen reporters in the program weren’t paid, but they worked under the guidance and mentorship of one of KLFY’s anchors to produce reports that were pertinent to teenagers in the community. As the other teens in the program found that journalism was more than getting on TV and thus left the program, Begnaud started filing reports more regularly for the station.
“I really fell in love with journalism at that point,” he remembers. When he graduated high school, he was hired as a part-time reporter at KLFY, a job he performed while working through college.
He described an amusing anecdote relating to his part-time reporting job.
“I remember walking into my college English 101 class and the professor said to me ‘Didn’t I see you on TV?’” Begnaud recounted.
Although he loved journalism by that point, he didn’t major in it because the professors in the journalism program had, as he put it, “more degrees than a thermometer” but not much newsroom experience, and instead majored in general studies, which gave him knowledge that ended up being relevant to his job.
“I always like to tell people I got my journalism degree on the job, in the real world,” Begnaud explained.
From KLFY, he worked at various local TV stations and created a program called Newsbreaker for Ora TV, before being hired as a correspondent for CBS News.
Begnaud made a mark at CBS News covering breaking news stories, including the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, the 2016 Ecuador earthquake and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in the 2017 hurricane season, according to his CBS News bio. But today, his name recognition—and social media following—has grown dramatically because of his work covering Hurricane Maria and its devastating effects on Puerto Rico.
Covering Puerto Rico, he was struck by “the sense of emergency that was endless,” because of the widespread infrastructure damage. In regards to Puerto Rico, he is proud of the opportunity he had to report on the situation and truly make a difference.
There’s a reason that the Founding Fathers put “freedom of the press” in the First Amendment and there’s a reason that dictators seek to control their countries’ media outlets—journalism is a powerful tool for holding authorities accountable for their responsibilities to the people. The power of journalism was very much evident in Puerto Rico. As just one example, Begnaud related the scene when he went to the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city.
“There were a thousand people laid out on the ground, sweating, [with] no water, [and] desperate,” he recalled.
Begnaud went to Ricardo Rosello, the governor of Puerto Rico and told him about the situation Begnaud witnessed in the airport. When Rosello replied that he had already ordered supplies to be brought into the airport, Begnaud pointed out that the supplies were not there as he had just been at the airport. Rosello was spurred into action and within 30 minutes, because of Begnaud’s questioning, the supplies were successfully brought in.
Another example was when he found out that the supply of diesel fuel to the Children’s Hospital in San Juan was in danger of running out. While the general manager of the Mariott Hotel (located on the beach in San Juan) was willing to give the hospital the diesel, there was no apparatus to transfer the hotel’s diesel to the hospital’s tank. He called four or five different people who could help get the apparatus—he described it as “rais[ing] hell and high water”—and by noon of the next day, the hospital got the fuel it needed. These were the stories that touched his heart because, in his words, “you’re able to bring a level of accountability that makes a difference.”
“Nothing we did was heroic,” Begnaud insists. “The heroic work was done by the first responders and the civilian samaritans. What we did was hold [the authorities’] feet to the fire.”
Despite this insistence, many Puerto Ricans still call him their hero, which goes to show just how much accurate information can dramatically impact someone’s life to the extent that it is a lifeline. Covering Puerto Rico was different from the other stories he had done because he was able to see the power of the notion of “journalism as a lifeline” in action.
For Begnaud, it was a humbling and grounding experience.
“When the power went out, the lifeline to the mainland was cut,” he explained. “All these Puerto Ricans on the mainland. . .were desperate for information, and for whatever reason,. . .they found our coverage, both on television and. . .on social media.”
Begnaud recounts how some of his Puerto Rican viewers would come up to him in tears and tell him that he saved the life of a loved one.
“At first [the comments] made me a little uncomfortable because I didn’t understand what they meant, but then I came to understand that sometimes information can be a lifeline like no other,” he reflected.
Begnaud remembers really feeling that his work in journalism had an impact when he saw other viewers approach him with tears in their eyes asking him for a hug rather than a picture or autograph as ordinary fans would. They wanted to thank him and his team for their coverage, because it had been a lifeline to them.
“I had never known journalism to be a lifeline,” he said.
Even though he knew intellectually about the capacity of journalism to be of consequence, he had not felt that on a day-to-day basis as “whether a certain piece of reporting is making a difference” is something that can be difficult to gauge. For this reason, he remembers leaving Puerto Rico and thinking that he is “so proud to be a journalist”—for him, it was, as he put it, an “honor” to provide the kind of lifeline service that these viewers who approached him on the street were so grateful for.
When CBS News sent him to Puerto Rico, Begnaud had never been to the island and had never known any Puerto Ricans well. I wondered, after spending those weeks on the island, what Puerto Rico means to him now.
“Puerto Rico will always have a soft spot in my heart. . .I don’t want the story to be forgotten,” which is why he feels compelled to post his nearly-daily updates on the status of the island to his social media followers.
Begnaud’s compassion shines through, both in the ideals that guided his coverage of Maria and in stories that unfolded off-camera.
When he was in Houston covering the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, he was in a boat with first responders when they came across a woman who was spending her birthday fleeing her home with her dog to escape the floodwaters.
When the first responders and Begnaud’s team were getting out of the boat in a place where the waters were thigh-deep and the woman couldn’t get out of the boat because she didn’t have boots, Begnaud carried her on his back to safety.
He understood that some people might question whether helping someone part of the story in such a direct manner should be part of a journalist’s role. But to these doubters, he responded: “I think when you go into the heat of the moment, if it gets hot, then you need to do something. And at that moment I wasn’t [going to] tell the lady. . .‘Let me go find somebody to help you get out.’ I was able to help her. . .we needed to get her out of the water and that’s just what we did.”
As a journalist, one witnesses tremendous human suffering. I wondered, what gives him hope amidst seeing all this chaos and pain, both natural and man-made?
“Stories like Puerto Rico,” he said. “Stories that remind me that journalism is an important lifeline, and that journalism will help [us past] this era of fake news and partisan attacks against it.” For him, “stories like Puerto Rico. . .give [him] hope that journalism is doing just fine, and. . .it reminds [him] that [he is] honored to be a journalist.”