Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A quick note on coverage and reporting…

A bitch has watched coverage of the disaster in Haiti…as much as it makes my heart break, I can’t help but feel that if the Haitian people can endure it I can at least witness it.

A lot of the stories have been about escalating violence and/or looting.

I was reminded of a wicked storm that hit the St. Louis region a few years ago. We lost power for over a week and it was hot and most of the city baked with little to no news of when the heat would break or power would be restored. Almost immediately my fellow St. Louisans kind of freaked out…they went to the few stores that were open and bought them out, they pitched fits at gas stations because the pumps weren’t working without power and generally people reacted with a kind of I’m-on-the-edge-and-may-lose-my-shit-at-any-moment attitude that was scary. The National Guard was called in to help clean up and maintain order…and no, not just for "black neighborhoods" (ugh).

The power was finally restored for most of us within a week and I only mention it because it relates to the coverage of Haiti after the horrific earthquake that hit last week.

If well fed (for the most part), healthy St. Louisans who still had our hot as hell but stable homes to return to (for the most part) kind of freaked out after losing power for a week…just try to imagine how you’d react if you were already hungry, if you were surrounded by death and destruction, if you were in pain, if you were in shock, if you hadn’t had water for days and were sitting out in the street unable to escape the wretched stench of rotting friends and relatives…just try to imagine how you’d handle that.

And then, after you’ve imagined your reaction, look around and know that even your worst imaginations can’t come close to what people in Haiti are dealing with.


I’d like to acknowledge America this Morning’s (ABC News) reporting as an exception to the "look at the natives getting violent - we've got film!!" coverage. I was impressed with the follow-up coverage ABC News has done on stories so that viewers like me know where aide has made it and where it still needs to go. I'm also impressed with how many reporters they have on the ground and how they’ve been covering the news without becoming the news (the exception being medical reporters who have stepped in to treat the injured and Robin Roberts from Good Morning America's quest to unite would-be adopted Haitian children with their would-be American parents via satellite).

But I am most impressed by a specific report filed by Martha Raddatz and how she related news of looting in Port-au-Prince by explaining that some of the looters were desperate for food and others were desperate for anything (like toothpaste to smear under their nose) to mask the smell of decaying bodies.

It might seem like such a little insignificant thing...but for those in need who rely on news coverage to help frame the scope of this disaster, that explanation is the very definition of important.

There is looting for profit and then there is looting for survival…

…just like there is coverage and then there is reporting.


Kristen Howerton said...

Co-sign on that. I was in Haiti last week, and what I saw was desperate people coming together, supporting each other, and trying to survive in any way they can.

Anonymous said...

Ms.ABB: I remember seeing a picture of a young girl living with her family next to a garbage dump. *With all the resourses in the world, why oh why does the developed world allow this?
Same with earthquake proof buildings. So much death could have been avoided.

For one example I've recently read about:the billionaire in Mumbai who is building a 2 billion dollar apartment for himself, while people are living in cardboard boxes.

Jaelithe said...

My entire neighborhood was without power for several days after that storm you mentioned. It was the hardest hit area of town and also, as usual, one of the last to get power restored. For those lucky enough to have a generator, some people could not even GET gasoline to power it for the first couple of days, because none of the gas stations in a five mile radius had power so they could not pump gas. I had neighbors who were worried about how to feed their formula-fed babies because they could not boil water. Elderly neighbors who were literally in danger of dying in the 100 degree heat. I saw people who had run out of gas trying to get to a station with power sitting despondent on the side of the highway.

And yeah, if that kind of thing had gone on for a few more days, there would have been looting in the streets of St. Louis. And I remember that every time I see a disaster.

But I have to disagree with your assessment that people in general were reacting in a way that was scary. I mean, I fully believe that there were plenty of people around acting that way. But in my neighborhood people in general weren't. In my neighborhood, extension cords snaked across streets as neighbors with generators shared power with people who had none, and entire apartment complexes came outside and shared what food they had in communal BBQs. People who had lived next to one another for years but had never spoken to one another before were sharing food and medicine and gasoline. I was not scared of what I saw. I was strengthened by it.

I have plenty of hope that, in most places, the same sort of thing is happening right now in Haiti. But ordinary people helping one another in simple ways is not the kind of thing reporters tend to report on.

Pamela said...


Amen, amen, amen! I have been DISGUSTED with CNN and MSNBC's "the Haitians are about to explode" portrayal. And CNN is waay too self-congratulatory.


Thanks for expressing what I've been thinking.

Anonymous said...

Haiti Part I: A few days ago, a day, or so, before the earthquake in Haiti, I was reminded of the successful "slave" revolt, led by Toussaint L'Overture, in Haiti in the early 1800's. It suddenly dawned on me that the incredible poverty and "bad luck" of Haiti was instituted on purpose by "whites" who basically got their derrieres and egos (same thing, right?) kicked by "slaves"...Well, I JUST now read this article that explains what "dawned" on me: This is from an article published in 2006: Haiti’s history is remarkable – in 1804 Haiti became only the second independent country in the Americas, the world’s first ‘Black Republic’ and the only nation in history born of a successful slave revolt. Haitians won their independence by beating the French army in a bloody twelve year war, but European countries and the United States forced them to pay a second price to gain entry to the international community. The world powers refused to recognize Haiti’s independence, while France posted warships off her coast, threatening invasion and the reinstitution of slavery. After twenty-one years of fighting this isolation, Haiti succumbed to France’s unjust terms in 1825. In exchange for diplomatic recognition, Haiti agreed to take out a loan from a designated French bank and pay compensation to French plantation owners for their loss of “property,” including the freed slaves. The amount of the debt – 150,000,000 French Francs – was ten times that of Haiti’s total 1825 revenue and twice the price of the Louisiana Purchase, paid by the United States to France a year before Haiti’s independence for seventy-four times more land.

Anonymous said...

Haiti Part II: This imposition of compensation by a defeated power and reimbursement by freed slaves of their former owners is unique in history and violated international law even in 1825. The 1825 agreement began a cycle of debt that has condemned the Haitian people to poverty ever since. Haiti did not finish paying the loans that financed the debt – made under terms dictated by the 1825 agreement – until 1947. Over a century after the global slave trade was recognized and eliminated as the evil it was, the Haitians were still paying their ancestors’ masters for their freedom.

The crippling legacy of debt begun in 1825 has stifled Haitian development ever since. The government could not invest in education, healthcare or infrastructure projects because all available funds went overseas. In 1915, for example, 80% of government revenues went to debt service. The need for hard currency forced Haitian farmers to favor financially or environmentally risky cash crops such as coffee and hardwood, rather than development of a diverse national economy. Over-farming and over-logging led, in turn, to catastrophic deforestation and soil erosion which put more pressure on the remaining arable land. Economic instability has engendered political instability: Haiti has been beset by dozens of coups, rebellions, foreign military interventions and a cycle of violence that paralleled the country’s downward economic spiral. Today Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of its people living below the poverty line and is ranked 153rd out of 177 on the UN Human Development Index, far behind all of its Caribbean neighbors.

The $21 billion, in current terms, that France extorted illegally, and therefore owes Haiti, dwarfs the aid packages being debated in Port-au-Prince this week. Unlike loans and other foreign assistance, a just repayment of the independence debt would not extend dependence on foreign aid, and would allow the people of Haiti to develop their country as they, not the international community, think best. If the international community were serious about lifting Haiti out of its desperate poverty, repaying the independence debt would be at the top of the agenda, not off the table.


The original French debt was paid off in 1947 and another larger portion of Haiti’s debt was forgiven this last year by the US and other members of a lending block of industrial nations.

Colonel de Guerlass said...

@Anonymous : I knew this part -seldom told of in Fance- of Haitian story , but this claim (giving back Haitian 1825'debt) is like some West Africa's claims for compensations for slavery (just, but very irrealistic).

What are billions? I always forget, and in Europe, one can make a x1000 error.

I do not think poverty led to non respect of antisismic norms : 200 years old buildings collapsed, seeming to indicate there had been no major earthquake in 200 yrs. I do not deny Haiti is poor, but the richest parts of Haiti were affected (a cyclone -they are accustomed to, if it is like poor islands in the Indian Ocean- does not do too much harm to harbours, electric plants and rich hotels). Being poor will have consequences on the long term, but they cannot be seen now.

Anonymous said...

Colonel de Guerlass,
it's only "irrealistic" because it hasn't been done before--particularly in a "conscious" way. Payback, reimbursement, whatever you want to call it, does happen, sometimes almost immediately, sometimes after a mind numbing wait, and sometimes, for whatever reason, a demand has to be made to get the ball rolling.

Educating "whites" to what they have done as a people---or, at the least, making them aware that WE know--would roll that ball.

I think the most delicate part would be galvanizing a population awarded such largesse to use the very great part of it for a future rather than as a balm for long suffered hurts.

Ruth Spalding said...

I agree however, I would go so far as to say that the word "looting" isn't appropriate at all. When shit gets awful, I feel like certain rules are suspended. One of those rules being that commercial property is only owned by business owners; that is, that all things for survival or basic needs (including psychological needs) immediately cede to the people, and that everyone has access to them because it's a CRISIS and people NEED those things. These people aren't looting because they're not breaking any laws/rules, they're surviving.

Tête de Veau said...


Thanks for your points, which have been confirmed by wikipedia (and the English version was milder than the French one...).
However, this has already been tried by Père Aristides in Haiti in the 1990s.. and his sue did not work.

If France were responsible **from one generation to another** for all the crimes during colonisation, it would be ruined, and historical responsability makes me very sceptic , apart from economic realism:
ex. the Catholic Church held France responsible for Mr Capet's,(former Louis XVI) execution : French catholics had to expiate carrying crosses and singing, even until 1930s(while other looked at them expiating eating a calf'head)

More seriously, German were French hereditary enemies, and, if reponsabilty could be transmitted from one generation to another, I should kill ... my bro-in-law!
Though I find the idea of historical responsabilty absurd when generations change, this claim that consequences of a "holdup" be paid back begins to be known (it was an opinion in yesterday newspaper LeMonde)..

(the region where I was born began to be slightly richer after slavery was abolished, as they grow root sugar used as ersatz for cane sugar...).

Rileysdtr said...

Interesting discussion vis a vis why Haiti has historically been a poor nation. Does not address the Duvaliers (who I recall are native Haitian) or other, more recent issues. Blaming th Historic Other for one's current challenges can only be taken so far. The assumption that extortion from 1825is therefore now owed (with interest, I assume?) ignores the fact that the country has by your reckoning had 63 years (three full generations) to begin repairs once the money grab stopped.

To answer your first comeback, why no, one cannot fix 125 years of crippling balloon payments overnight, but by basic math there should be something approaching a better standard of living. Or at least a quasi-working septic system.

Also find specious your statement that coffee is a risky financial and environmental crop. Other nearby countries such as Costa Rica have a thriving economy on coffee, palm oil and a just-now growing tourism industry. The Ticos are poor by U.S. standards, but the streets are safe, the water is clean, and the coffee is superior; all without soil erosion. One cannot always have a diverse national economy; nations have to work with what God gave them. Up until those idiots in Iceland decided to play investment banker 2 years ago they had raised untold generations of polite, well-educated people and built a wondrous infrastructure by using the one thing they had - herring.

Want another example? Sure. One word - Ireland. Haiti did not even exist when the British began their rape of the country many centuries ago. What the Irish endured was arguably equivalent (Haitian slaves were at least considered animals...) and the island won its partial freedom in 1920, with staggering debt, no industry not controlled by the North, and centuries of systemic destruction of all culture, land, family ties, religion, and humanity from which to recover.

My point is not to demonize the Haitians (I'll leave that to misguided souls like Pat Robertson) or canonize the Irish (pugnacious drunken bastards) but to state that the concept of "reparations" or "slave debt" or any of those other terms is a hugely slippery slope, with a lovely pile of shattered glass at the bottom.

Besides, if I were in charge of the world's accounting, I would by no means give Haiti a check. I would instead build roads, bridges, dams, sewers, etc. worth several billion and call it good. Or is that not "letting Haiti develop itself as it sees fit?"

N.E.B said...

Sigh...If only there were more angry black bitches in the world :) Really, thank you for your post.

Grain de Café said...

@Rileysdtr :
You find "specious your statement that coffee is a risky financial and environmental crop." Corn was also an environmental crop in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, it was not 1000km more North, AFAIK. And potatoes were risky crops in Ireland in the 1840s, not in French Britanny, 300 kms south.
And the distance betw. Haiti and CostaRica is more than 1000kms, soils are different (naturally less fertile and more mountanous in Haiti : an enormous debt added overagriculture), rain regimes are not the same (two rainy seasons in Haiti, only one in CR, according to wikipedia).
I agree that historical responsability, though it exists (I use it in French fora for people who claim that France is historically civilized), leads to absurd consequences, but specious examples cannot do any good to this point...

Grain de Café said...

@Rileysdr: you find "specious "the" statement that coffee is a risky financial and environmental crop."
But corn was a risky crop in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl (and was not 1000km more North), so were potatoes in Ireland in the 1840s (and was not in Brittany 300kms away).
And Costa Rica is further than 1000 km from Haiti, has very fertile soils, is less mountainous (cf wikipedia) and has a less fast demographical growth.... It has only one rainy season (Haiti has a rainy and a cyclone season...). if you add speculative agriculture, used to pay taxes for more than 100 yrs -and tropical soils are fragile-to give back a "debt", that is comparing apples to chairs...

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