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.

26 thoughts on “On Journalistic Malpractice, Mac McClelland, and Haiti”

  1. I agree with much of what you say regarding the inept and often shameful way Haiti is treated by the international media and I applaud your efforts to keep the “foreign corporate press” pack honest. That said, I have a hard time understanding what you found to like in Mac McClellend’s reporting work from Haiti in the first place. I distinctly remember being incensed by the sensationalist and gratuitous nature of her writing, not to mention the indulgent way she inserted herself into the narrative. The remark about throwing up in her mouth almost made me do the same in disgust! Indeed it was obvious to anyone with even a brief experience of working in Haiti that she lacked the necessary ‘chops’ to offer up anything other than the superficial, stereotypical stuff you so deplore. I respectfully suggest you might be coloured by your experience of working with/for this woman. I would encourage you to read her original piece again.
    The roots of the current controversy are all there.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You’re right, there were some things that were superficial about her reporting for Mother Jones. But what if she actually did throw up in her mouth, just as many of her readers would do in that situation? I don’t agree that inserting herself in the narrative the way she did was indulgent. There has to be room in this media universe for different approaches to reporting. Hers is an in-your-face, visceral first-person style that probably connects with a lot of readers. The rest of the piece is a rather affecting rundown of how miserable life in the camps is.

  2. Hear hear!

    I witnessed the outcry against McClelland with great dismay, particularly because I consider her to be a talented, ethical journalist who reports from Haiti in a very respectful fashion. Thanks for articulating this perspective.

  3. “…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( direct quote fr Ansel H.)….Ansel, your writing about the media’s lack of “balance”..+ portraying and playing up “the reporter” rather than Haitians– was well done up to the point of the above paragraph. How could you excuse her absolutely inane piece of writing ..as “non-conformance sexual mores-+ she writes for a “Left-wing mag.”… Well I have never heard of “Good”..and this article is no -damn good. She would be given somewhere between a D-F in any respectable University writing class–with the exception of a professor or two, that might get “off” on this sort of thing.
    I don’t know why you can’t see that she used her short time in Haiti to write a totally sex filled article which will propel her to heights–reality t.v. ect.
    The writing is the “other side of ‘dumb'”..as when she saw Sybille’s reaction to being returned to the scene of the crime..she claimed to have “seen the worst thing she ever saw in her life” !!! Really??
    For a person who covered disaster zones…..thats the “worst she ever saw”…!! She follows this with she suffered “disassociation” at that very moment!! But that didn’t prevent her from inviting a man into her room for sex–
    which she apparently failed to enjoy because she was in such a state of detachment and suffering from PTSD!!!

    Your article was extremely well done in criticism of the U.S. media, the adoration of Sean Penn and Clinton while disrespecting the victims. I saw Sean Penn in Sacramento..and the reporters acted exactly the same. The words about the war in Iraq and Cindy Sheehan’s talk were totally ignored. The reporters swarmed around Penn for an “interview”. They all want a “star”.

    Ms. MacClelland..who has too many C’s and L’s in her name and way too much sex on her mind is doing just what she knows the media wants and most men want. It is an insult to the rape victim who needed help–that this “caring” journalist used this victim to break into an apparently well know magazine with her “loaded” writing.

    Its been my experience that young girls who write these kinds of pieces in a University class usually get the attention of the prof., often go straight to a good paying job..and are still earning $90,000 a year plus top benefits!

    I don’t understand why you defended her in any way whatsoever. She “used” a situation in which she might have done more for the victim–to catapault herself to new heights!!! I think she knew exactly what she was doing.
    She did “unabashedly” include herself and her sexual preferences and adventures in every single line of the article!!

    This is the way of society–these days. People want to see and hear this kind of crap! Its popular. It sells. She knew it would.

    Personally, this doesn’t matter, to me, except that it was such a crude attempt to use Haiti, the Leftist magazine..and a lot of people to “get somewhere”—I just can’t understand why you can’t see the point of this and why you would even consider this “journalism”. I have seen people get jobs–important jobs–because they were young, sexy and knew how to play the game. I have seen people given contracts when they didn’t even graduate–because they were drop dead good looking!

    I can understand that there are a lot of poor excuses for journalism, in Haiti, and extreme negative views of Haiti coming out, but I think this woman just took the whole thing to new heights (or lows) to get attention. Now she has it.


  4. So, your conclusion is this: nobody has paid attention to previous uninformed articles about Haiti, Mac McClelland’s is OK? That would seem to make sense only in the mind of someone for whom you’ve worked. Or for someone who received flattering attention in the form of a blog post from the author — by the way, you failed to mention that. Hmm, seems similar to a few of the weak examples of journalistic malpractice that you rail against above. Or maybe that’s not as good an example as your writing about Aristide in which you fail to mention the human rights crimes that occurred under his watch. Reading media criticism from an activist/journalist is always rich with hypocrisy.

    1. “So, your conclusion is this: nobody has paid attention to previous uninformed articles about Haiti, Mac McClelland’s is OK?” Where did you get that idea?

      “Or maybe that’s not as good an example as your writing about Aristide in which you fail to mention the human rights crimes that occurred under his watch.” You mean like US journalists do whenever they write about Bush? A lot of leaders have had human rights crimes occur “under their watch.” Interesting standard you’re setting there, but it’s one that nobody follows.

      1. Where did I get that? Umm, that’s what your post says. You say that other journalists have committed malpractice, but even though Mac has committed the same errors as that Newsweek reporter, she’s OK in your estimation. That’s not just contradictory, it’s ugly. If you’re going to stand up for journalistic practices,then do it. I’m sure that you, as someone who knows the country, were somewhat appalled by her cover story. Despite what you say, she had 3,000 words to do something that would have given readers a unique perspective on the situation in Haiti. Instead, she rehashed the work of many journalists, including you. That’s not worthy of applaud.
        Secondly, are you seriously citing the pack journalism work of the press corps that followed Bush as the standard???? I would hope that you’d hold yourself to a higher standard, especially as someone who criticizes other journalists. I’m not comparing you to them. I’m simply saying that if you are willing to criticize a reporter for an infraction, then you should be held to a similar standard. Hence, if you are going to say that a reporter, for instance, failed to mention the coup against Aristide by the U.S., then you be equally responsible. You should be digging into the human rights violations alleged against Aristide. but you won’t do that, will you? And why? Oh, yeah, you have your perspective, much like the women you criticize in this blod post. Strange how that comes back go bite you, no?

        1. I didn’t say Mac committed the same errors as the Newsweek reporter. I also said I would have written about Haiti differently than she did in the GOOD piece. Sorry, but this is more complex than you’re trying to reduce it to.

          I’m saying the standard you’re suggesting isn’t workable. And your suggestion that I should be looking into alleged “human rights violations against Aristide” (I think you mean “by Aristide”), someone who’s been out of power for seven years and who was closely scrutinized by the entire corporate press when he was, is kind of laughable. Try the Wall Street Journal or Michael Deibert.

  5. Ansel, I read your comments with great interest. I was actually trying to stay out of this one… it’s a hornet’s nest. You make some important points about responses to the original essay. I am in agreement with you on some. For example, you are absolutely right messed up representations of Haiti in the media is a centuries old practice that is beyond Mac. Still, McClelland doesn’t get a free pass and neither should some of her critics and supporters. I am working on posts for my MS Mag blog. Will send it your way when done. Gina

  6. So, when you mention these examples from an event that happened seven years ago, that’s one thing. “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.” But when it’s something that occurred seven years ago that runs contrary to your activist tendencies, then that’s “laughable.” I see. Like I said, rich with hypocrisy.

    1. There’s only a few-word difference between saying Aristide was ousted by a ‘coup,’ ‘rebellion,’ or some combination of the two. It’s a matter of the historical record that wire reporters should get right, instead of defaulting to the US view. Telling me I should investigate Aristide’s human rights record is something else entirely.

      1. Never did I mention that you should ‘investigate” Aristide’s alleged human rights violations (and by the way, crimes are alleged against someone, not by them, unless they’re prosecutors or victims, etc..). What I said was “you fail to mention” those alleged crimes. You’re right, it is just the matter of a few words. But I guess adding those few words wouldn’t help you get mentioned on Democracy Now. So much for the truth.

        1. “You should be digging into the human rights violations alleged against Aristide.” But tell me which his “alleged crimes” you think I should mention, and I’ll consider it. Your comments have been going more and more off-topic from this post for a while now, so shoot me an email.

          1. Yes, I realize they have been going off topic. I apologize. I’ll email instead. Thanks for listening.

  7. Ansel, hi, this is the first entry I’ve read on your site. I’m curious about when you say “I would have written it differently”. How do you mean? My reaction when reading something like that, in a piece of this sort about the kind of piece that McClelland’s is, is that it comes across as a backing off from the otherwise strong defense/advocacy.

    I am sure that is not what you intend with that phrase. But it seems to me that the phrase is coming from one of two places: (a) it is a statement of should, that actually does dilute your strong defense, a la “McClelland was justified in doing it the way she did, but I would have done it differently”, or (b) a merely personal statement that you, being a different person, would have written it differently. (A) seems self-contradictory and (B) seems pointless.

    I apologize for fixating on the phrase, but I am with Roxane Gay when she says “Haiti is not the point of this essay. I don’t understand how people can’t see that.” ( http://therumpus.net/2011/07/still-with-the-scarlet-letters/ ) I read McClelland’s piece and had no thought that it was “about Haiti” or that I should take ideas from it about Haiti. To me this was nothing more, or less, than a very brave personal story about a journalist who experienced trauma and was brave enough to approach a unorthodox manner of therapy, not to mention in a way which actually healed the trauma. Doing the piece differently seems utterly beside the point when the story is actually about what it is about.

    Perhaps the real question is the audience for whom the story is intended. As it was published on national PTSD day (I forget which site I read that on, atm) it seems pretty clear to me at least that this story was for those who struggle with PTSD. It was not intended to contribute to Haitian journalism, or Katrina journalism, or even sex journalism. That being the case, to me it seems perfectly written: a raw story about a raw subject.

    1. When she talks about Haiti being full of guns, I think she should have been more clear. She spent most of her time in Port-au-Prince, the capital. The entire rest of the country doesn’t have so many visible guns about. Not only that, but both Port-au-Prince and Haiti as a whole don’t suffer from especially high levels of violent crime compared to similar places. Like I said in the post, she only presented one side of things.

  8. Hi Ansel,
    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I signed the letter and wanted to say that the intention was definitely not to “gang up” on McClelland. But it snowballed over the course of 36 hours; many people, it turned out, felt singularly compelled for an array of reasons that we tried to capture in the letter.

    For me, it was a few things:
    (1) McClelland is a powerful writer, unlike, say, Steve Tuttle. Unlike his Newsweek piece, McClelland’s essay got a lot of attention, almost all of it (until our letter) positive. In my view, that made the critique especially warranted.

    [Same deal with the Zoe Heller Sean Penn NYT piece that erased Haitians, btw; powerful writer + powerful venue. I didn’t write a letter, but I critiqued it via tweet.]

    (2) As her reader, I felt both incredulous and very manipulated. A casual reader (and most are casual readers in this age of blogs, not books) could come away with the impression that the author had been raped in Haiti. But she was not, according to the piece. Rather, McClelland says, her PTSD came from absorbing the pain of others. There is an enormous difference between bearing witness and bearing pain. The former carries with it the burdens of representing others’ suffering; the latter absolves you of it, more or less.

    I think this hit me hard because representing suffering is something I (and many blan Haiti writers, including you, I’m sure) struggle with constantly. How to judge the line between poverty reporting and poverty porn? Can I– with my passport, money, degree– really ever understand it, or claim to understand it? Does my own tears draw a foreign reader in? Make it reprehensible solipsism? All of these are important questions, and McClelland’s essay skirts any responsibility for answering them.

    (3) I disagree that it’s not about Haiti, but about her personal struggle with PTSD. It’s about both, inevitably. There would be no piece without Haiti!

    1. Good points, Pooja. Still: Instead of this binary question of whether it was about Haiti or not, it’s clear enough that most of it was about her own personal experience. Haiti was one scene among several. I didn’t feel manipulated or misled reading the piece, didn’t have the impression she was raped, and I wouldn’t assume that other readers aren’t discerning enough to grasp that basic point. Like I’ve said, I think she should have been more careful and balanced in her portrayal of Haiti. But what she did is far from extraordinary. The letter seemed to me like an attempt to shame her, and to hold out its authors as being “the good guys” who would never (and have not) hurt Haiti that way. But some of them have made mistakes in their reporting on Haiti, and the letter missed a golden opportunity to at least point out the larger problems around the media’s treatment of Haiti. All I’m saying is that there should be consistency. As Gina said, “McClelland doesn’t get a free pass and neither should some of her critics and supporters.”

  9. The woman Sybille did not give Mac permission to live tweet her doctor appointment or tell her story twice, in mother jones and now in this essay. She actually sent Mother Jones a letter asking them not to use her name and her story. Now Mac has gone against her wishes twice. This makes me very angry, and there’s absolutely no excuse for it.

    You can hear Edwidge Danticat discussing this issue at the ten minute mark.


  10. Ansel, as usual your commentary is intelligent, balanced and incisive. I appreciate your voice. And while I have every sympathy with Mac’s experience and her decision to write about it, it’s sad that the buzz generated by it tends to overshadow the real ongoing tragedy of Haiti.

  11. I am always shocked how people like the above poster, Jean, continue to bring up the “crimes” of Aristide- the democratically elected president that had over fifty percent of his government’s budget stripped by the US and IFIs. As Isabel Macdonald wrote in a recent article the elected Aristide GOH actually supported low cost locally built homes that withstood the earthquake:http://hcvanalysis.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/no-houses-that-aristide-built-fell-down-in-the-earthquake-disaster-capitalism-and-the-housing-vultures/
    Why do people like Jean never talk about the fact that so much of the corporate media (and people like Amy Wilentz, Michael Deibert et all) said so very little to criticize an actual dictatorship.. the Latortue regime.. a government that while heavily supported by the international community slaughtered its own people. Peter Hallward explains well looking over human rights studies the huge difference in violence between the country’s undermined elected governments and the dictatorships supported by so many powerful interests.

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