American Journalism on Haiti: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Journalism disseminated by big media in this country generally falls into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This dynamic played out in three different reports in the U.S. media on Sunday and Monday about Haiti. It’s unusual for Haiti to receive this much attention all at once, so let’s take a closer look.

The Good

Al Jazeera English’s Teresa Bo has been reporting from Haiti for a few months. Back in May I drew on her report from a Port-Au-Prince factory for a Daily Texan column criticizing U.S. policy on Haiti. Bo’s observation, missing from other press reports, that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton spoke to an audience of Haitian workers in a language they did not speak (she was translated into French, not Creole) was illustrative of American indifference to the poor majority in Haiti. Here’s her latest report.

This is the definition of good journalism – giving voice to the most voiceless while unrelentingly skeptical of institutions of power, from the government slow to confront patriarchy and rape down to a slum hospital charging patients for treatment. The story features women’s voices and political context. And it doesn’t try to project a simplistic narrative of good and bad onto a complex story.

The Bad

On Sunday night 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley profiled Wyclef Jean, a superstar hip-hop artist originally from Haiti.

Jean is a talented musician with an amazing life story, certainly a great subject for a profile. But this was poor and morally bankrupt journalism on so many levels.

CBS flew a camera crew to Haiti to follow Jean around. Pelley didn’t interview a single Haitian or offer any political context to help explain the scenes of rampant poverty. The destabilizing role of U.S. foreign policy in Haiti for decades goes unmentioned. Pelley says “the developed world is tired of Haiti,” yet Haiti’s (illegitimate) debt was just forgiven by lenders and international donors have pledged millions in new aid. Viewer js11411 on the 60 Minutes website makes important points about Pelley’s word choice and line of questioning.

Still, Pelley makes a show of it. He assumes a faux-critical stance towards Jean, repeatedly and condescendingly acting as a counter-point to Jean’s hope for Haiti. This elicits a series of predictable soundbites from Jean about giving the kids a chance, etc..

In fact, there are serious questions one could ask of Jean. Why in 2003 did he speak out in support of U.S.-backed paramilitary forces overrunning the countryside? Why did he blame President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for the violence? (Jean’s uncle, Raymond Joseph, became an ambassador for the de facto regime that oversaw the massacre of Aristide supporters in the 2004 coup’s aftermath.) What about the recent elections boycotted by most Haitians? What does he think about U.S. policy towards Haiti, especially the glaring lack of temporary protected status for Haitian migrants?

Pelley could have asked about the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti. Instead he states “U.N. troops have been there since 2004 to ease political violence.” In June the U.N. force fatally shot a young man at the funeral for Father Gerard Jean-Juste. The troops are unpopular in many of the slums they police – if anything, they’ve escalated political tension in the country.

But those questions don’t abide by Pelley’s slavish devotion to spinning an apolitical rags-to-riches tale, the kind of story better suited to daytime television. He even exaggerates Jean’s influence, saying Jean single-handedly stopped a Cite Soleil gang war. Not according to Rolling Stone’s 2005 article on Jean: “. . .the peace lasted only for the duration of his visits.”

As viewers of the corporate media know, journalists love these stories, from your local news station up to the national news networks. We see them often. There’s nothing wrong with profiling famous people with incredible, transformative experiences. But this report, like many others, suffers from sloppiness with the facts, willful ignorance of structural political realities, and the exaltation of one person who struck it rich in America.

The viewers of the award-winning 60 Minutes, whose Sunday program was seen by 9 million people, deserve more honest, penetrating journalism. (For an alternate example of 60 Minutes’ best work, see this report on Israel/Palestine.)

The Ugly

Let’s keep this short. “What Haiti Can Teach Us About Honduras” in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. Sounds fascinating.

Unfortunately it’s the Ugly of American journalism: naked right-wing propaganda. In some ways it’s less dangerous than the Bad, because most folks know it when then see it. While The Bad masquerades as rigorous journalism by prestigious outlets like the New York Times and 60 Minutes, the Ugly is regularly found on Fox News and the WSJ opinion page, usually blaming liberals and Democrats for the world’s ills. But every now and then it pushes its way into the mainstream discourse (birthers, anyone?), so it’s worth addressing.

Writer Mary O’Grady (pictured), a defender of the Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, commits too many errors and distortions in the article to debunk here, but this DailyKos diary and Haitianalysis article will do most of the job. She condemns Aristide as bloody despot in his first term – but he was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2000 in fair elections. He was “chased out of the country for a second time in 2004” – but he was flown out on a U.S. jet surrounded by American soldiers. She ignores the waves of political violence that followed both coups against Aristide and the ongoing repression of supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. In short, she’s willing to overlook the violent excesses of post-coup regimes when elected leftist leaders are removed from power.

How do we undermine the Bad and the Ugly, and encourage the Good? Media justice. Supporting projects that strengthen independent and community media, like the Allied Media Conference. Breaking down the stigma against foreign-backed outlets like Al Jazeera, and spreading their English language channel to more screens. Exposing right-wing propaganda and false objectivity every time. And reporting from “where the silence is,” from the bottom up.

One final note: If CBS can upload David Letterman videos to YouTube on a daily basis, why can’t they maintain a 60 Minutes channel? Somebody ripped and uploaded the Wyclef Jean piece in two parts because CBS doesn’t provide it. Not only is it a lost chance to monetize content, it’s a no-brainer if Pelley and his crew feel their work has value, care about Haiti, and want their story to be seen by as many people as possible. Plus they could use the money; parent company Viacom’s profits are falling ever faster.

3 thoughts on “American Journalism on Haiti: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. Good job my friend. Day after day we, in Haitianalysis try to provide another image of Haiti and at least give a little answer to thousands of questions about Haiti’s problems.
    Once again thank you, people in Haiti need someone like you and Bo and others, to tell their real and daily stories…

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