Great Television/Bad Journalism

Media Failures in Haiti Coverage

CNN’s star anchor Anderson Cooper narrates a chaotic street scene in Port-au-Prince. A boy is struck in the head by a rock thrown by a looter from a roof. Cooper helps him to the side of the road, and then realizes the boy is disoriented and unable to get away. Laying down his digital camera (but still being filmed by another CNN camera), Cooper picks up the boy and lifts him over a barricade to safety, we hope.

“We don’t know what happened to that little boy,” Cooper says in his report. “All we know now is, there’s blood in the streets.” ((View the CNN story.))

This is great television, but it’s not great journalism. In fact, it’s irresponsible journalism.

Cooper goes on to point out there is no widespread looting in the city and that the violence in the scene that viewers have just witnessed appears to be idiosyncratic. The obvious question: If it’s not representative of what’s happening, why did CNN put it on the air? Given that Haitians generally have been organizing themselves into neighborhood committees to take care of each other in the absence a functioning central government, isn’t that violent scene an isolated incident that distorts the larger reality?

Cooper tries to rescue the piece by pointing out that while such violence is not common, if it were to become common, well, that would be bad — “it is a fear of what might come.” But people are more likely to remember the dramatic images than his fumbling attempt to put the images in context.

Unfortunately, CNN and Cooper’s combination of great TV and bad journalism are not idiosyncratic; television news routinely falls into the trap of emphasizing visually compelling and dramatic stories at the expense of important information that is crucial but more complex.

The absence of crucial historical and political context describes the print coverage as well; the facts, analysis, and opinion that U.S. citizens need to understand these events are rarely provided. For example, in the past week we’ve heard journalists repeat endlessly the observation that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Did it ever occur to editors to assign reporters to ask why?

The immediate suffering in Haiti is the result of a natural disaster, but that suffering is compounded by political disasters of the past two centuries, and considerable responsibility for those disasters lies not only with Haitian elites but also with U.S. policymakers.

Journalists have noted that a slave revolt led to the founding of an independent Haiti in 1804 and have made passing reference to how France’s subsequent demand for “reparations” (to compensate the French for their lost property, the slaves) crippled Haiti economically for more than a century. Some journalists have even pointed out that while it was a slave society, the United States backed France in that cruel policy and didn’t recognize Haitian independence until the Civil War. Occasional references also have been made to the 1915 U.S. invasion under the “liberal” Woodrow Wilson and an occupation that lasted until 1934, and to the support the U.S. government gave to the two brutal Duvalier dictatorships (the infamous “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc”) that ravaged the country from 1957-86. But there’s little discussion of how the problems of contemporary Haiti can be traced to those policies.

Even more glaring is the absence of discussion of more recent Haiti-U.S. relations, especially U.S. support for the two coups (1991 and 2004) against a democratically elected president. Jean-Bertrand Aristide won a stunning victory in 1990 by articulating the aspirations of Haiti’s poorest citizens, and his populist economic program irritated both Haitian elites and U.S. policy-makers. The first Bush administration nominally condemned the 1991 military coup but gave tacit support to the generals. President Clinton eventually helped Artistide return to power Haiti in 1994, but not until the Haitian leader had been forced to capitulate to business-friendly economic policies demanded by the United States. When Aristide won another election in 2000 and continued to advocate for ordinary Haitians, the second Bush administration blocked crucial loans to his government and supported the violent reactionary forces attacking Aristide’s party. The sad conclusion to that policy came in 2004, when the U.S. military effectively kidnapped Aristide and flew him out of the country. Aristide today lives in South Africa, blocked by the United States from returning to his country, where he still has many supporters and could help with relief efforts.

How many people watching Cooper’s mass-mediated heroism on CNN know that U.S. policy makers have actively undermined Haitian democracy and opposed that country’s most successful grassroots political movement? During the first days of coverage of the earthquake, it’s understandable that news organizations focused on the immediate crisis. But more than a week later, what excuse do journalists have?

Shouldn’t TV pundits demand that the United States accept responsibility for our contribution to this state of affairs? As politicians express concern about Haitian poverty and bemoan the lack of a competent Haitian government to mobilize during the disaster, shouldn’t journalists ask why they have not supported the Haitian people in the past? When Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are appointed to head up the humanitarian effort, should not journalists ask the obvious, if impolite, questions about those former presidents’ contributions to Haitian suffering?

When mainstream journalists dare to mention this political history, they tend to scrub clean the uglier aspects of U.S. policy, absolving U.S. policymakers of responsibility in “the star-crossed relationship” between the two nations, as a Washington Post reporter put it. When news reporters explain away Haiti’s problems as a result of some kind of intrinsic “political dysfunction,” as the Post reporter termed it, then readers are more likely to accept the overtly reactionary arguments of op/ed writers who blame Haiti’s problems of its “poverty culture” (Jonah Goldberg, Los Angeles Times) or “progress-resistant cultural influences” rooted in voodoo (David Brooks, New York Times).

One can learn more by monitoring the independent media in the United States (Democracy Now, for example, has done extensive reporting) or reading the foreign press (such as this political analysis by Peter Hallward in the British daily The Guardian). When will journalists in the U.S. corporate commercial media provide the same kind of honest accounting?

The news media, of course, have a right to make their own choices about what to cover. But we citizens have a right to expect more.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 25th, 2010 at 11:47am #

    But when and where had privately-owned media ever gave us knowledge?
    And i am using the word “knowledge” as folks us it.

    privately made news, food, entertainment, etc., is private produce. Processed food being poisonous; as deformed amers and canadians prove, and manufactured news, as our warfare proves, a criminal activity.

    I haven’t touched a paper or magazine for ages. I don’y listen to radio nor broadcasters. tnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on January 25th, 2010 at 2:55pm #

    I do Bozh in pure amazement in the year twenty ten. I think many of these talkers are starting to understand what they are doing is nothing but illusion of knowledge and a few know it’s illusion of knowledge but helps them get up in the morning.

  3. bozh said on January 26th, 2010 at 7:14am #

    Don, yes,
    Lying ab public affairs; i.e., our business, is legal in US. It is also protected by the constitution.
    It is legal because, i assume, the fathers [what hap’d to mothers?] of the confederation knew that a lie is as powerful as a truth.
    The ‘gentle/wise’ fathers knew that, i suppose, all previous great ‘fathers’ lied a lot.
    But then who cldn’t have known that all priests and ‘kings’ ever do is to lie; along also ranting and chanting!
    And we’ve had these ‘benevolent fathers’ everywhere/everywhen. And then came also ‘benevolent-wise mothers’ as well. However, both the ‘fathers and mothers’ now melted in one big smelly cauldron.

    Don please don’t fret ab warming! It is going to be quite balmy in novaya zemya
    and n.siberia. When the time comes to settle in extraordinary novaya and staraya [old] zemya, i’ll provides us with money so we can settle there!
    But even if we shld fry to death, not to worry; the hell has by now cooled dwn sifficiently to suit everybody.
    Meanwhile, i suggest no more babymaking but yes to viagra! tnx

  4. Don Hawkins said on January 26th, 2010 at 8:42am #

    Well Bozh it looks like you are correct on not be concerned about climate change. The darkside won on the third planet from the Sun. I wonder if there is other life out there. The new’s

    Lawrence Solomon: Global warming dead last in poll
    Posted: January 26, 2010, 12:38 AM by Lawrence Solomon
    Lawrence Solomon, Climate change, global warming, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, poll, public opinion
    A Pew Research Center poll released today shows that few Americans consider global warming to be a top priority, so few that global warming came in dead last among 21 issues. “I’d like to ask you some questions about priorities for President Obama and Congress this year,” the Pew questioner asked the public. “As I read from a list, tell me if you think the item that I read should be a top priority, important but lower priority, not too important or should it not be done.”
    The great majority of Americans (80% or more) considered the economy, jobs, and terrorism to be a top priority. Most of them also chose as top priorities a number of other issues, such as social security (66%), education (65%) and financing Medicare (63%). Fewer chose items such as reducing crime (49%) or addressing the country’s moral breakdown (44%). Near the bottom were illegal immigration (40%), reducing the influence of lobbyists (36%) and dealing with global trade issues (32%). At the very bottom was dealing with global warming (28%).
    The verdict on global warming was even bleaker among Republicans (11%) and Independents (25%), who both also relegated global warming to last place. Democrats weren’t quite so dismissive — they considered global warming more important than three issues (dealing with global trade, reducing the influence of lobbyists, and dealing with illegal immigration.

    Last year, global warming 30% of Americans considered global warming a top priority and in 2008, 35% did. In all three years, however, global warming came in last among the issues that Pew surveyed.

  5. bozh said on January 26th, 2010 at 9:33am #

    not to worry. If polls brought us an elucidation, private people wld never hold them. Polls are held in order to further confuse us. But i don’t think that scientists are paying much attention to what deluded or led astray people think in fields where only facts are taken seriously.

  6. Maryb said on January 27th, 2010 at 8:01am #

    Joe Emersberger, a Canadian and a contibutor to medialens, takes on a corporate hack on his reporting on Haiti.