Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Robert Jensen: How the Media Has Failed Us on Haiti

Over the weekend I attended a film screening of Aristide and the Endless Revolution, hosted by the Austin-based Third Coast Activist Resource Center and St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. I would recommend seeing this film to those of you who are interested in knowing more about Haiti's history as well as the role the U.S. has played in Haiti over the years, particularly in the 2004 coup that ousted Aristide.

Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at UT, hosted a discussion following the film. There's video footage from the discussion that I will try to link to later if it's made public for whomever is interested. Jensen recently wrote this piece about Haiti and the media, which I think ties nicely to what Dr. Valenzuela posted below regarding Univision and the role the media plays in the (one-sided) perceptions we form as a result of news coverage.

Also: Ansel Herz, a former UT journalism student, runs a blog called Mediahacker and he's been in Haiti since September 2009 with the purpose of advancing media justice. He posts great videos and information about the present conditions in Haiti.

-Rocío

Update: Footage of the discussion can be found here.


Great television/bad journalism:
Media failures in Haiti coverage


By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / January 25, 2010

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 video below or go here.)

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 in 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 a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press, 2009). Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online at Source and on The Rag Blog.]

2 comments:

Lauren Campbell said...

Thank you for posting this article, Rocio. Jensen's blast at American journalism's inability to challenge politicians and create links to history and our ignorance as media consumers allows countries like Haiti to continue to suffer and the fault to be placed solely on the people instead of seeing the bigger picture and our role in it.
I can't help but think of all the history we overlook and the ways Americans have contributed and pulled the strings to the current detriment of those nations, specifically in Latin America and Africa.

Courtney Robinson said...

Robert Jenson makes some great points in his article but he probably understands more than most that it is bigger than the journalists. The journalists work for media outlets that are owned by big corporations. Like many American problems the problem of biased media is systemic...it is rooted in our capitalist system...reporting honestly about Haiti would mean saying horrible things about the very people who invest in the media outlets. There is a hip-hop artist who stated "cash rules everything around me" As we consider who America wages war with or becomes allies with you always have to think about how the war or protection of one country impacts the wealth of this country (America).