Jan 15 2010

Bill Fletcher on Haiti, Beau Hodai on Charles Overby


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This week on CounterSpin: Haiti’s status as the poorest nation in the hemisphere has been mentioned time and again by journalists covering the current catastrophe, but where were journalists before the earthquake hit? And how are they doing in explaining the larger context of how Haiti got to this point? We’ll talk to Bill Fletcher, former president of TransAfrica Forum and executive editor of The Black Commentator.

Also on the show: Charles Overby is CEO of the Freedom Forum, a foundation ostensibly dedicated to principles of free speech and a free press. He’s also a director and shareholder of the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private jailer in the country. In both roles, Overby engages the public’s right to know… but not in the same way. We’ll get that story from journalist Beau Hodai.


Though the full impact of the Haiti earthquake is still unknown, it is clear that the death and suffering there will be enormous. U.S. news outlets, with the exception of Pat Robertson and his 700 Club, have done a good job in letting people know how and were they could help. But how are U.S. journalists doing in explaining the larger picture of putting Haiti’s current tragedy in the context of the country’s beleaguered history? And what should media consumers be looking for as the coverage unfolds? We’re joined by Bill Fletcher, the executive editor of The Black Commentator and past president of TransAfrica Forum.

CounterSpin: Welcome back to CounterSpin, Bill Fletcher.

Bill Fletcher: Glad to be back.

CS: Well, as we’ve watched the news from Haiti unfold, U.S. commentators have frequently mentioned that, even before the earthquake, that in terms of civic order and economics, Haiti was in tough shape. This is often mentioned in the context of explaining how relief efforts may be hindered by the lack of infrastructure, corruption, and so on. Perhaps deep history is too much to expect from the networks, especially at this early point, but what should listeners know about how Haiti’s economy and civil life got where it is today?

BF: One of the reasons, I think, that this is critically important to look at history is that the problem in the absence of history, is that people tend to then look at Haiti as abasket case . They look at it as pathetic, as opposed to understanding that Haiti today is a direct result of the policies of the United States and France, that go back to when Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804. I mean, if you don’t get that, if you don’t understand that the United States blockaded Haiti until 1862, that the French demanded that the Haitians pay reparations to France for the loss of the slaves as a result of the Haitian revolution, from the 1820s until 1947; if you don’t get that the United States occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934; if you don’t get that the United States backed, systematically, repressive regimes in Haiti, the most notorious being Papa Doc Duvalier; if you don’t get that the United States was directly implicated in overthrowing PresidentAristide in 1991; you can’t understand how Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest on the planet. So the destruction of Haiti through outside interference, the ecological devastation that has taken place, because people burn down trees in order to convert burnt wood into charcoal, in order for them to sell to live. These are the–this is what life is like in Haiti. Eighty percent are living below the poverty line. So the mainstream media, by ignoring this broader context, ends up painting this picture of a pathetic population, as opposed to a population whose main crime was living on an island that is that close to the United States.

CS: Well on the first big night of coverage, January 13th, I watched NBC‘s Brian Williams explain how hard it is for Americans to understand just how poor Haiti is. And it made me think, well, isn’t that your job? If it’s so remarkable, shouldn’t NBC and other major outlets have been providing ongoing coverage of this?

BF: Well that’s certainly what they should have been doing. And what’s interesting is that–I contrast major media outlets in the United States with Al Jazeera. I mean, if I want more in-depth news, I’ll look at Al Jazeera, I’ll look at BBC. I mean, when you look at the mainstream U.S. news, you get no in-depth analysis as to what’s going on. And you’re absolutely right, NBC should’ve been providing the background, not just showing a picture of Haiti, or showing a picture of the suffering people, but giving the viewer an idea as to how it is that they’ve come into the situation. Because the level of poverty, the lack of infrastructure, the fact that there was a coup in 2004 that overthrew, for the second time, PresidentAristide , and that the United States was again directly implicated in that coup, these things help us understand the state of Haiti as it is. And so what we also have to get is that, while there’s emergency relief that’s absolutely necessary, that Haiti fundamentally needs the equivalent of a Marshall Plan. It needs massive re-development that goes beyond the devastation that’s taken place in the aftermath of the earthquake.

CS: Well, I almost hesitate to bring this up, but also on January 13th, yesterday, on his Fox news show Bill O’Reilly explained that Haitians needed discipline imposed on them to get through this crisis. The same day that PatRobertson’s 700 Club viewers … that Haiti’s problems are a result of having signed a pact with the devil 200 years ago. I wonder if you can comment on that?

BF: The comments, along with the comments made by Rush Limbaugh, are nothing short of racist, and I don’t use that word loosely. Robertson’s notion that there was a pact with the devil–I mean, what is that based on? I mean, what could he possibly be thinking? What was he drinking when he made that statement? I mean, here you had a country that was suffering vicious oppression and colonialism by the French, they were able to win independence, and the United States, under Thomas Jefferson, did nothing, absolutely nothing to help them, and he’s going to talk about a pact with the devil?

CS: Even though the Haitian Revolution, the Haitian revolt was based on the American Revolution and on the Enlightenment; it’s amazing.

BF: And in fact that Haitian volunteers participated in the U.S. war of independence. A fact that many people don’t know.

CS: Bill Fletcher, in your work with TransAfrica you have been deeply involved in Haiti issues over the years, what will you be doing to address the ongoing crisis as a journalist and as an activist?

BF: Well, one of things that I’ve been trying to do is precisely what we’re doing right now, to give the reader and the listener a broader context for the situation, to understand that we have to make sure that, right now, that the forces of evil do not take advantage of the situation, in order to push through economic policies that are more to the advantage of the corporations than they are to the advantage of the population of Haiti. The other thing that I’m encouraging, in the immediate, is for people to contribute to reliable relief funds. For example, Grassroots International, an organization based in Boston, Massachusetts, theAFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center here in Washington, D.C., also has a fund that people can contribute to, to get aid in the system to get to the people of Haiti. So I think these are the urgent tasks of the moment.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Bill Fletcher, the executive editor of the online news and commentary outlet, The Black Commentator, and former president of TransAfrica Forum. Thanks again for joining us on CounterSpin, Bill Fletcher.

BF: My pleasure. Thank you.