Inexcusable. Newsweek leads the pack with shallow, ill-informed Haiti journalism. Another media is possible.

Update 11/15: Thanks to everyone spreading the word. The author of the articles in question, Steve Tuttle, can be reached at steve.tuttle@newsweek.com. Also don’t miss this petition directed at the editors that you can sign here. Tuttle emailed me defending the piece a “first-person column,” thanking me for the “thoughtful criticism,” but saying next to nothing of substance. He has not responded to my last message.

Newsweek’s article yesterday, “Haiti in a Time of Cholera,” is not worth reading. Unless you happen to be curious, more than anything, about how alien and depressing Haiti is to Steven Tuttle, the magazine’s staff reporter. He was sent here on a short trip to cover the cholera outbreak.

He followed my satirical guide for journalists parachuting in to Haiti absurdly well.

For him, Haiti’s street traffic “defies all rules of logic and physics.”

For him, UN peacekeepers who appeared to have run over an unnamed Haitian woman, killing her and attempting to hide what happened, don’t merit further investigation or explanation.

More interesting is the young boy who walks by the scene of the accident – an example of “the defining characteristic of Haitians.” They are the “most resilient people on the planet.”

His previous article concludes comparing the Haitian people to a gnarled tree. “That’s what Haitians are like. . .Beautiful and tough.”

But for Newsweek, Haitians are also scary.

Tuttle bravely ventures beyond his hotel, where he broke down in tears one night, to an area called Truitier. He’s frightened by a man he describes as “screaming.”

“I was really glad I didn’t understand Creole because I don’t think I want to know what he said.” He didn’t think to ask his translator, who was driving the vehicle. “I decided I would not get out of the car. This was because I was scared to death.”

I went to Truitier last week by tap-tap and found myself chatting with a group of young men and women. They explained how they postponed their demonstration against waste-dumping because of Hurricane Tomas. We laughed about how unusual it is for blan (foreigners) to be walking on foot. In an earlier trip to Truitier, I followed and talked with people scouring the dump pile itself, looking for things they could sell (see Al Jazeera English’s report yesterday for video of their protest).

I won’t rehash the rest of Tuttle’s sadly predictable yet highly sensational piece. Needless to say, between his two Haiti reports, not a single on-the-street Haitian is quoted.

Take action and write to Newsweek’s editors. Twittering your outrage or complaining to friends is not enough.

I happen to have email addresses for Newsweek’s editors. Andrew Bast is the articles editor: Andrew.Bast@newsweek.com, while Samuel Lennox is the web editor: lennox.samuels@newsweek.com.

Tell them you will not stand for this outdated brand of reporting in which Haiti is a frightening other-worldly place whose people scream and suffer, but do not speak for themselves. This is the trope of the “noble savage” at work. It smacks of colonialism and racism.

I recently tried pitching stories to them. A story based on a exclusive information I obtained about a recent prison break? Not broad enough in scope. Failure of UN peacekeepers to address widespread rapes in camps? The editor wanted to know more about the role of “gangs” and “thugs” in the crisis. How about a report on the spreading cholera outbreak, which at that time officials said was “stabilized”? I never heard back after that.

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Newsweek has dishonorably distinguished itself among the pack of establishment media outlets who have turned their dollar-seeking gazes back upon Haiti. They all but ignored the stagnant, faltering humanitarian response to earthquake victims living in tent camps over the past ten months. Cholera and hurricanes, though, are fresh.

After the earthquake I wrote a similar post to this one condemning CNN for hyping the threat of widespread violence. It might have had an impact, because that element of their coverage seemed to fade afterwards.

In its limited cholera coverage, CNN could be doing so much better. What little I saw of Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s reporting looked pretty poor – lots of close-ups on sick people, little in-depth context. Or take the following two passages, for example:

Still, even Port-au-Prince looks and smells like a dump — a caldron of water, garbage and human waste. “We get used to it,” said one resident. (Nov 10)

Humanitarian organizations are doing what they can. But with an estimated 1.3 million Haitians left homeless by the January 12 earthquake, the task before them is enormous. (Nov 5)

Port-au-Prince does not look and smell like a dump. There are places of beauty and relative cleanliness all over the city. Trash trucks are constantly picking up waste, though it does pile up. No mention of the spotlessness of most Haitians’ clothes, their frequent bathing and washing.

The claim that humanitarian groups “are doing what they can” is, to say the least, highly questionable (look at my own reporting over the past few weeks).

I’ve done many interviews with the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, since the cholera outbreak began. I’m thankful for the opportunity to reach a wider audience beyond those already tuned into independent media. Some Canadians are appreciative.

Cholera kills by rapidly emptying the body of water. It’s a “disease of poverty” that thrives in countries whose people do not have ready access to clean water sources. Naturally, Haiti’s poor water infrastructure should a major focus of news reporting.

But the CBC was only interested in quick snapshots of the latest situation on the ground. So I was never given time to explain how the Bush administration denied loans to the Haitian government, on political grounds, for the development of water infrastructure in the zone where the outbreak began.

One anchor concluded our interview casually referring to Haiti’s “unluckiness,” and later relayed an apology to me off-air. Another began the interview claiming that “unlike in the tent camps, Cite Soleil has no access to water.” I said that’s misleading, because independent surveys have found that 30-40% of camps lack water and toilets. The Haitian government has organized distributions of water to some areas of Cite Soleil.

In the next interview she read the same introduction, so I tried to explain it more thoroughly. The anchor grew frustrated and cut me off.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Since the cholera outbreak began, behind the scenes I’ve caught and helped correct pieces of misinformation in reports by Reuters, Al Jazeera English, and AOL News. None of those outlets transparently amended corrections to their work. They simply changed the text.

Doctors Without Borders and Dr. Megan Coffee from Port-au-Prince’s general hospital have complained of unwelcome journalists inside wards of sick patients.

——

Another media is possible.

Bri Kouri Nouvel Gaye and Haiti Libre are both reporting projects by Haitian journalists worth following and supporting.

Haiti Liberte, a venerable newspaper that just published an exclusive interview with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is raising funds.

A few days ago I was in Bel Air, following up on an internal report that a UN patrol recently pepper sprayed and fired rubber bullets on an upset crowd. I asked some men sitting on steps if they knew about it. They said no, but then asked me, “Why are you asking? You’re going to make money from your report, right?” I said yes, I probably would, but tried to explain that it wasn’t my main motivation for looking into this. They said, with some grins and laughter, that I should pay them if I wanted any more information. I said I couldn’t do that and thanked them for giving me the time of day.

Of course Haitians know that foreign journalists make money. When a crisis hits, they make good money. But is any of it invested in Haiti? Are foreign journalists helping Haiti or exploiting it?

I personally earned more since the cholera outbreak began, most of it coming from interviews with CBC and other outlets, than in the few preceding months when I barely made enough to cover expenses.

Some of that money will now go to re-develop and expand the Haiti Analysis project. There are plans in the works to fund a reporting trip to his home country for Wadner Pierre, an award-winning Haitian journalist from Gonaives who is currently studying in New Orleans, during the election. Some of it will finance my own long-delayed trip to northern city of Cap Haitien, where the possible murder of a boy by UN peacekeepers has gone totally uninvestigated by American journalists for over two months. I might finally buy a motorcycle so I can get around more easily.

Another media is not only possible, but vital if Haiti is to break from the cycle of disaster and cynical corporate media feeding off it. Let’s make it happen.

2 thoughts on “Inexcusable. Newsweek leads the pack with shallow, ill-informed Haiti journalism. Another media is possible.

  1. For someone who thinks they do such good journalism, where else in Haiti have you been? I’ve been following the Jean Gerald Gilles case since August, including interviews at the UN dwa-moun office in Karonaj, and with several Nepalese police. I’ve talked with local residents. If you were really interested in this, why weren’t you here when the body was brought back to Cap on Sept. 26 or during the numerous protests preceding that? You know the country is a lot bigger than Port-au-Prince, right?

    • Jonna, I’m glad you’re following the case. I wasn’t aware of any American reporters looking into it, sorry. I’ve been to a lot of places around the country in the past year… I don’t know why you’re sneering at me like I haven’t.

      I would have liked to have been Cap when those things happened, I’ve just been too busy here in PaP. But I’m on my way, soon. Email me if you want to talk more or possibly work together. I’m not claiming to be a super-awesome journalist, either – but I do think my work meets certain minimal standards that the Newsweek piece fell well short of.

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