On Journalistic Malpractice, Mac McClelland, and Haiti
Update 7/9: Before I wrote the post below, I contacted McClelland asking whether Sybille/K* had given consent for her story to be used the way it was in her GOOD magazine piece. She responded with an explanation (she asked that it stay off-record) that does not seem to have been the full story, based on what Edwidge Danticat has written here. It’s disappointing. And it means she did commit journalistic malpractice (in a different way than the letter-writers had alleged).
Also, the last time I spoke to K*’s mom, she didn’t appear to hold any ill will towards McClelland. She asked me to say hi to her for me. But maybe that was just on the surface and she was being polite. She did mention to me that she and her daughter were bothered by how McClelland didn’t talk to them much and was constantly typing into her phone (presumably, live-tweeting). That, on top of the revelation that McClelland ignored K*’s handwritten letter, makes me retract my statement that I believe McClelland treated K* with respect during their time together in Haiti. I don’t know.
I still don’t think it’s productive to make McClelland into “something of a scapegoat,” as Gina Athena Ulysse puts it in this thoughtful post for Ms. Magazine, without calling attention to the larger problems around foreign media coverage of Haiti and potential ways to address them.
I hesitate to write this post. There are more important things going on. Haiti is in crisis yet again, with resurgent cholera claiming more victims every day. Read Dr. John Carroll’s blog to get a sense of the terrible situation on the ground. A new study adds yet more evidence that UN peacekeepers are the source of the outbreak. “STUDY SAYS UN GAVE HAITI CHOLERA” should be a banner headline all over the place, but it isn’t.
Instead, there’s been a lot of discussion, a furor even, about Mac McClelland’s essay in GOOD magazine, called “How Violent Sex Eased My PTSD.” It prompted multiple days of furious tweeting by American journalists who have worked in Haiti. Some of them, all women, even got together with other Haiti activists and writers to pen an open letter condemning the piece. Several wrote passionate comments arguing with an Atlantic Wire post that defended McClelland.
They charge that McClelland callously and recklessly used Haiti as scene-setter for her own story. She referred to Haiti’s “ugly chaos,” its “gang-raping monsters,” and described the country as if there are guns everywhere. McClelland was only in Haiti for a few weeks, parachuting in and out, and doesn’t know or care enough to represent the full humanity of the Haitian people. It’s sensationalist, inaccurate, irresponsible, and perpetuating of stereotypes or racist tropes, they say. This is about harmful journalistic malpractice.
I disagree. The essay was about her own experience of trauma and recovery. It was published on National PTSD Day. That’s what the headline, the vast bulk of the text, and I suspect most readers were all focused on. She related those elements of Haiti that contributed to her trauma. It’s also hard to dispute that 1) the perpetrators of gang rapes in camps, of which there have been many, are monstrous individuals, 2) there was chaos, whether it was in aid distributions or extrajudicial killings, after the quake, and 3) there are a lot more guns visible on Port-au-Prince’s streets than on your average street in the US. Obviously, that’s only one side of Haiti. I would have been careful to write it differently. But in her actual reporting on Haiti, including a long feature article and several blog posts for Mother Jones, there is a more balanced and in-depth portrayal of the country.
I’m self-aware enough to admit that my point of view on this may be influenced by the fact that I did freelance work with/for McClelland while she was in Haiti. I also met “Sybille,” the Haitian rape survivor mentioned in the piece,
and I believe McClelland treated her with respect.
I also believe much of the criticism towards McClelland comes from a genuine, heartfelt place.
What I find contemptible, however, is a pack of buddy-buddies who whip themselves into a fervor of highly selective outrage. Who then go about slamming an individual who isn’t part of their club, which itself behaves irresponsibly and harms Haiti with regularity. Journalistic malpractice is a feature of foreign reporting on Haiti. It has been doing tremendous harm to the country for some time. But for some peculiar reason, this is the first instance in which the current crop of Haiti journalists have seen fit to collectively draw any attention to that damning reality, and they act as if McClelland’s piece is an especially egregious example. Let me assure you, it isn’t.
I posed the question on Twitter yesterday: Where were @amywilentz @damiencave @katzonearth et al when a Newsweek reporter published this utter crap? Last year, a senior staff Newsweek reporter parachuted into Haiti and wrote a bona-fide “Haiti as scary land of savages” first-person account billed as a serious report about Haiti. I wrote a call to action about it and someone created a petition to Newsweek’s editors that attracted 167 signatures. That writer indisputably did everything McClelland’s critics say she did, to a worse degree. There should have been serious consequences for that guy and his career, which would have sent a message to others. There weren’t.
Journalists, with a few small exceptions, were silent. Amy Wilentz, the grande dame of foreign journalists writing on Haiti, replied to my tweet yesterday and said she hadn’t seen the piece at the time (she agreed that it was horrendous).
What about CNN, CBS and others hyping up fears of violence after the quake, at a time when the world’s attention was on Haiti? Did that escape notice too?
What about the gaggles of photojournalists and TV crews parachuted into Haiti once more when cholera broke out, then intruded on patient wards to take images of desperately sick patients without permission from them or doctors? Doctors Without Borders, medics, and a thoughtful student photojournalist spoke out against it. Established peer journalists did not add their voice.
What about when Anderson Cooper flew in to accept an award, professed his love for Haiti and said “it was recognition by the country for all journalists,” in a revolting self-congratulatory ceremony across from a tent camp put on by the Haitian leadership and its international partners, on the quake’s six-month anniversary? He should have been roundly condemned for participating. To my knowledge, Cooper hasn’t been back to Haiti since.
Or what about when the New York Times profiled Sean Penn and his work in Haiti while completely erasing Haitians from the story?
There’s also the constant harm done to Haiti by newspaper and wire reporting that generally hews to an establishment political line. Allyn Gaestel, who signed the open letter criticizing McClelland, conflated an ousted dictator with a former elected president for the L.A. Times. Alice Speri, another signer, wrote a poor piece for AFP which said Aristide “fled” Haiti in 2004 into exile in South Africa. The AP and Reuters regularly write that Aristide was ousted by a “rebellion,” not a coup, effectively choosing their own version of history. When I told a wire reporter he should report on insider OAS diplomat Ricardo Seitenfus’ harsh remarks last fall criticizing the international community, not completely ignore them, he told me not to tell him how to do his job. And on and on and on.
One of McClelland’s critics, Marjorie Valbrun, headlined her missive, “Why Are People Most Interested in a Story About Haiti When It Has a White Protagonist?” I agree this is a problem. In fact, it’s exactly how the entire US media has treated former President Bill Clinton’s involvement in Haiti from day one. Not as something to be thoroughly interrogated, or balanced or countered with the voices of Haitian leaders. Whenever he deigns to show up in Haiti, the American mainstream press dutifully follows him and practically regurgitates his latest talking points. Clinton is the focal point of the story. Esquire Magazine did the worst in this regard, calling him “Haiti’s CEO” in a piece last summer and running a “Haiti is so scary” piece alongside it from a journalist who was afraid to leave his Port-au-Prince hotel. Again, collectively, there was silence from the folks who are oh-so-disappointed now in McClelland.
I can only speculate as to why McClelland’s GOOD magazine piece, of all things, prompted the latest outcry. But if I had to guess, I’d say it has to do with a few things: She doesn’t conform to mainstream reporters’ pretense that they are omniscient, objective observers. She unabashedly includes herself in strong, forcefully written stories. She writes for a left-wing magazine, not a prestigious mainstream outlet. This piece details her own non-conformance to sexual mores, and that probably raised some folks’ discomfort level before they even got to the Haiti part. All of this sets her far enough apart from them that they’ll publicly criticize her.
Do they want McClelland to apologize? Do they want the GOOD editors to retract the article? There are no concrete requests, only repetitive denunciations. The open letter says, “While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.”
Haiti became a casualty of the foreign corporate press’ irresponsibility and racism a long time ago (see here), as the letter-writers should well know. I challenge all of McClelland’s critics, the letter-writers and journalists, many of whom I consider friends, to acknowledge that and stop making McClelland into the fall person for it. If they want to be taken seriously, they should join in building a system of accountability around media coverage of Haiti, individually and institutionally, until Haiti is revived.