In quake coverage, nation’s poverty is ‘bad luck’
One of the most striking images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was of poor New Orleans residents crowded together outside that city’s convention center, days after the storm had subsided, chanting, “We want help!” It was a scene that shocked viewers and reporters alike, who had not realized that a major U.S. city could be home to so many people who lacked the economic means even to flee in the face of oncoming danger—though the promised national conversation about poverty that was supposed to result never really arrived (Extra!, 7-8/06).
Such images couldn’t help but come to mind in the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti January 12, where crushing poverty greatly worsened the devastation wrought in Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns. In TV news coverage, Haiti was described as “underdeveloped, overpopulated, and incredibly poor” (Nightline, 1/12/10), “extremely poor” (CBS Evening News, 1/12/10), “desperately poor” (CNN, 1/12/10) and, over and over, “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Reports focused particularly on the lack of building codes that had helped lead to such widespread destruction when the ground shook, and on the lack of government emergency services to rescue quake survivors and bring them supplies.
In many ways, the TV news coverage of Haiti paralleled the round-the-clock attention to Katrina—down to the ubiquitous presence of Anderson Cooper on CNN, asking why it was taking so long for aid to arrive. But if grinding poverty in New Orleans was seen as cause for outrage (however short-lived), in Haiti it was presented more as a natural state of affairs.
On ABC News (1/13/10), chief political correspondent George Stephanopoulos echoed Hillary Clinton’s assessment that Haiti’s woes were “biblical,” adding, “The Haitian people are praying tonight, they need our prayers, too.” CNN anchor Kiran Chetry (American Morning, 1/13/10) asked: “This is a nation, as we know, the most impoverished in the Western Hemisphere. They don’t really have building codes. Many of their buildings are sort of cobbled together. So what could they have done?”
NBC reporter Michelle Kosinski echoed on Hardball (MSNBC, 1/14/10):
Well, the landslides are partly man-made because of the way the country’s treated. The cause of that, of course, is poverty. It’s almost one of those things where the people who really care about this country look at it and say, What do you possibly do? How do you stop that cycle?
Host Chris Matthews replied by directly invoking Katrina as a parallel—but only in that both Haiti and Louisiana lacked “an effective government.” Concluded Matthews: “Perhaps the hell of this earthquake situation will create a different politics in Haiti. I’m not betting on it, after the Papa Doc era, the Baby Doc era, Aristide’s failed government. It has not been a great history.”
For CNN anchor Jack Cafferty (Situation Room, 9/1/05), Hurricane Katrina prompted the on-air realization that “race and class” are the “great big elephant in the living room that the media seems content to ignore…. Almost every person we’ve seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops waiting to be rescued, to the looters, to the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor.”
Haiti, though, prompted a different reaction. “There’s an old saying that goes, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all,” said Cafferty (Situation Room, 1/15/10). “If it’s not the poverty—the majority of Haitians make less than $1 a day, and 75 percent of them have no job at all—it’s political repression.”
CNN’s Larry King possibly best distilled Cafferty’s sentiment when, interviewing Haitian-American NBA star Samuel Dalembert on January 14, he asked: “It’s tough to be a Haitian, isn’t it?”
To some degree, this is understandable: Haiti, after all, isn’t part of the United States, so “This isn’t supposed to happen here!” isn’t an applicable response. But the corollary is, “This is supposed to happen there”—which can lead to a reporting that demands not outrage at the conditions that create and sustain poverty, but merely pity for its victims.
CNN’s coverage in particular at times veered into the territory of a Save the Children ad, with the focus on the heroic international rescue teams pulling Haitians from the rubble—not to mention endlessly repeated footage of Sanjay Gupta changing the gauze on an orphaned baby’s head wound (originally 1/14/10).
While certainly gripping, it left the clear message that what Haiti needed was not social change, but international aid. When New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly remarked that Port-au-Prince had minimal first responder and fire capabilities even before the quake, CNN’s Jessica Yellin (AC 360, 1/12/10) replied, “That just underscores the fact that they really need the world’s help.”
Yet if Haiti’s government provided few services even before the earthquake flattened most of its buildings, the nation is rich in grassroots community groups and social networks that have been vital in the wake of past disasters, such as the series of hurricanes that hit Haiti in 2008.
Katleen Felix, U.S.-based diaspora liaison for the Haitian microfinance group Fonkoze,was glued to the TV in the wake of the earthquake as she waited for word of missing colleagues. She praises CNN and other networks’ dedication to the story, but says she wishes there had been more media attention to how Haitians can escape their poverty.
“When you give them proper solutions or ideas, most likely they didn’t publish that part,” Felix told Extra!. “They would most likely publish something else that said ‘a cry of despair’; there’s nothing else.”
Meanwhile, viewers were almost never presented with any discussion of why Haiti is so impoverished, and its government institutions so ineffective at helping its citizens. Cooper at one point referred to “a country like Haiti, which has had a long history of a weak central government, which really hasn’t had much impact on the lives of a lot of people” (CNN, 1/13/10)—a description that must have come as a surprise to Haitians who remember the Duvaliers’ Tonton Macoute death squads killing tens of thousands of civilians over three decades (Library of Congress, 12/89; L.A. Times, 7/16/86).
A typical report from CNN’s Tom Foreman (1/12/10) began with a promise to discuss Haiti’s “layers of problems, and these layers of problems have a historic basis and an economic basis.” After zooming in on a map of Haiti (again, “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere”), Foreman wrapped things up without ever returning to the topic of Haiti’s history. “Really, really awful conditions, Campbell, and that’s in the best of times,” concluded Foreman.
Three days later, Cafferty provided a bit more detail of Haiti’s history, noting that the Duvalier regime that ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986 was “seen as one of the most corrupt and violent and repressive in modern history,” and adding mention of Haiti’s “checkered past” of “slavery, debt, revolution, exploitation.” Concluded Cafferty: “So here’s the question: Why can’t a country like Haiti catch a break?”
“No simple answer, but an excellent question,” replied Wolf Blitzer.
The question does have answers—though you wouldn’t hear them on TV news. “Haiti is not just poor as a result of its own failings,” notes Alex Dupuy, a Haitian-American Wesleyan University professor and author of three books on his native country. There are plenty of ways for news coverage to provide historical context, he says:
You can focus on rice. Haiti was self-sufficient in rice production in the early ’70s; now it has become the largest food importer in the Caribbean. And this is a direct result of the “trade liberalization” policies that they’ve gotten the Haitian government to implement that reduced tariffs.
As a result, he says, “the Haitian economy became transformed into a supply of cheap labor for foreign assembly industries”—helping drive the migration of rural Haitians into Port-au-Prince that had helped lead to the “overpopulation” that was mentioned repeatedly in news coverage of the quake.
Likewise, lumping together Haiti’s 200-year-plus history—which in the last century includes a U.S. military occupation that lasted from 1915 to 1934, the U.S.-backed Duvalier regime, and the government of Jean-Claude Aristide, who was elected in 1990 and 2000 and twice forced into exile by U.S.-backed coups (Extra! Update, 12/94; Extra!, 7-8/06)—as a “checkered past” leaves viewers with the impression that bad governance is Haiti’s inevitable fate.
Dupuy, whose 2007 book The Prophet and Power is critical both of Aristide and the U.S.-backed opposition that sought to remove him from power, discovered this firsthand when he was interviewed by CNN’s AC360 for a report on the former leader. “They were constantly harping, ‘If you had to make a list of what was bad with Aristide, what would you say?’” recalls Dupuy. “I said, ‘It’s not as easy as ‘Aristide bad, opposition good.’ The world doesn’t work that way. They didn’t want to hear it.”
In the end, the only comments of Dupuy’s that aired (2/17/10) appeared unambiguously critical. Dupuy says, “I felt that they violated my own scholarly integrity by selecting those quotes that fit their purpose to say Aristide was a bad guy.”
TThe closest anyone came to Katrina-style reflection on Haiti was on the Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, 1/14/10), where ITN reporter John Irvine noted that it was “ironic that Haiti is within a relative stone’s throw of other Caribbean islands that are among the great playgrounds of the Western world, and yet, the situation here is about as bad as you can get.”
A few minutes later, Pulitzer-winning journalist Tracy Kidder (whose book Mountains Beyond Mountains focuses on the drive to bring medical care to Haiti’s poor) described Haiti’s extreme vulnerability to earthquakes as “manmade,” briefly mentioning Haitians’ history as the “only slaves on earth who freed themselves and created their own republic and then got punished for it ever since.”
What Haiti needs, said Kidder, is aid that works by “strengthening Haitian institutions instead of doing what the United States has done all too often there, which is to weaken them.” He then added, “Sorry.”
“No, don’t apologize,” replied Maddow. “That’s why I asked you on the show, Mr. Kidder.”
Only on U.S. TV do guests feel it necessary to apologize for explaining things to viewers.