Haiti: No News is Bad News
by David Edwards and Media Lens
March 11, 2004

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“You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”

-- Humbert Wolfe, 1930

Haiti ­ Ignorance Is Strength

The beauty of news for a society like ours is that it doesn’t have to make sense. If we were introducing students to modern physics, we would feel obliged to explain Newton’s Laws and Einstein’s famous theorem, E=mc2; we would naturally point to issues raised by quantum mechanics. There would obviously be no prospect of students understanding, much less tackling, the latest problems in modern physics without first achieving this basic understanding.

But when our media broadcast news on, say, the crisis in Haiti they fail, as it were, even to mention that Newton ever existed, or that Newtonian mechanics provide a pretty good description of the everyday world. Their attempts at explanation are limited to reporting, in effect: "Some physicists are flying to a meeting in Switzerland," while "others will be writing papers about what was discussed there."

The bulk of reporting on Haiti has consisted of describing the movements of people: "The rebels are advancing." "President Aristide has left the country." "US marines have arrived." From this it has been literally impossible to establish what is happening. No idea has been given of how popular Aristide actually is or was; what accounts for his popularity or lack of it.

No indication has been given of which external forces might be influencing the tiny, impoverished country and what their motivation might be. We have so far seen, for example, no mention on TV broadcasts of the substantial US corporate interests in Haiti. A Media Lens reader ­ an intelligent senior manager with a large UK-based charity - wrote to us:

“You’re right when you say you defy anyone to understand what’s going on from newspapers and the TV - it is literally incomprehensible. I asked around at work this morning (and I work with some very conscientious Granuiad [Guardian] and Indy readers) and no-one had much idea about Aristide, his policies, who the rebels were, what they wanted and so on... Newspapers get heavier by the day and split themselves amoeba-like into more and more sections. So much print filling up so much space. And yet really, absolutely nothing is reported in a meaningful way. It’s truly extraordinary.” (Email to Media Lens, March 1, 2004)

In writing to the New York Times, USA Today, and the Seattle Times, an email forwarded by an American reader came even closer to expressing our own view.

“To the Editor;

Haiti: VIOLENCE! Blah blah blah, COUP! Blah blah blah, REBELS! Blah blah blah...

Please, some truth about Haiti! I am sick of hearing about presidents and militia leaders and officials (oh my!) with no meaningful context. I feel I speak for many readers when I say: ‘Huh?’” (Forwarded to Media Lens, March 5, 2004)

In 2002, the Glasgow University Media Group reported research conducted into the effects of television reporting on public understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Researchers asked a cross-section of people a series of questions about the conflict and what they had understood from TV news. Most (82%) listed TV news as their source and these replies showed that many people had little understanding of the reasons for the conflict or its origins:

“Explanations were rarely given on the news and when they were, journalists often spoke obliquely, almost in a form of short-hand.” ("Bad news from Israel: media coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict")

Remarkably, the research found that of 3,536 lines of BBC1 and ITN text broadcast between September 28 and October 16, 2000, just 17 explained the history of the conflict. As a result, many people interviewed simply did not understand that the Palestinians were subject to a military occupation and did not know who was 'occupying' the occupied territories. Greg Philo summarized the findings:

“If you don't understand the Middle East crisis it might be because you are watching it on TV news. This scores high on images of fighting, violence and drama but is low on explanation.”

In the same way, most viewers will surely have been baffled by mainstream news reporting on Haiti. In a very real sense there has been little genuine news on Haiti ­ just high-tech junk.

Editorializing The News

In November 2002, Ed Pilkington, foreign editor of the Guardian, wrote this brusque response to a Media Lens query:

“We are not in the business of editorialising our news reports.” (Email to Media Lens, November 15, 2002)

Our own view is that while some dissent is allowed in the comment sections of papers, news sections rarely challenge, but instead consistently boost, establishment propaganda.

If it is true that news reports are subject to more stringent filtering, then it might be interesting to see what happens when a comparatively radical contributor to the comment section also writes as a news reporter.

On February 23, Gary Younge wrote this in a Guardian comment piece:

“Haiti is a timely reminder of how western democracies have wilfully amassed their wealth on the backs of impoverished dictatorships.

“So Haiti lurched from coup to coup, most notably under the dictatorship of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and then his son, ‘Baby Doc’, supported by the US and France. In 1990, Aristide appeared as the best hope to break the cycle... But, in return for political freedom, Aristide was compelled to accept economic enslavement, bound by terms imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. Post-colonial military aggression gave way to the brutal forces of globalisation. Before Aristide had even considered fixing the elections, the west had already rigged the markets.” (‘Throttled by history - Haiti’s political class has failed it, but the first black republic has also been squeezed dry by a vengeful west’, Gary Younge, The Guardian, February 23, 2004)

Ten days later, Younge co-authored a report with Sibylla Brodzinsky for the Guardian’s "International News" section. The report quotes Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. McCalla argues that investment in a neutral police force and judicial system is crucial to Haiti’s stability:

“‘[The legal system] must be shielded from political interference, led by trained and competent individuals, free to initiate or pursue investigations into corruption and human rights abuses, and prosecute these matters to satisfactory conclusions no matter who is involved. Without such an investment, Haiti won’t have much of a democracy.’”

Brodzinsky and Younge comment:

“But with the US so overextended in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is unclear how much of a commitment it and the rest of the world will make to this small, impoverished country.” (‘US troops bring first signs of peace to Haiti’, Sibylla Brodzinsky and Gary Younge in Port-au-Prince, The Guardian, March 4, 2004)

Being so overextended, then, the US might not be able to make the kind of commitment required to ensure that the Haitian legal system is “shielded from political interference”, and so on, such that Haiti may end up with not “much of a democracy”. Brodzinsky and Younge are clearly suggesting that, given sufficient resources, the US would be committed to building democracy in Haiti.

First, this, according to Pilkington, does not constitute "editorialising our news reports."

Second, in the space of ten days, Younge moved from suggesting (in the comment section), that the US had good, profit-based reasons for supporting dictatorships and opposing democracy in Haiti, to suggesting (in the news section) that other commitments might hamper the US ability to build democracy there.

Postscript - Absolute Glamour

The latest Guardian Weekend supplement consists of 128 pages. Of these, 90 are taken up in advertising, some of it aimed at society’s wealthiest people. The "chiffon halterneck dress with metal sequin overlay" advertised on page 74, for example, will cost you £5,890.

The country’s leading liberal newspaper calls this "absolute glamour." ("Come dancing," Guardian magazine, March 6, 2004)

On the same day the chiffon halterneck dress appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times reported the work of Dr. Philippe Desmangles, one of Haiti’s best-paid doctors, who earns about $45 a week.

Tim Weiner reports that when he interviewed him Dr. Desmangles was the only surgeon working in the only well-functioning hospital in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince: the Polyclinique Centrale.

But even this hospital had been ransacked during the rebel uprising. Almost exactly echoing Iraqi doctors speaking just under a year ago, Desmangles said of the American invasion force:

"They've secured an empty palace. We needed security here. But that did not interest them. They tell the rebels they cannot be involved in the politics of our country. Some of us feel the same way about them." (‘US Special Forces in Haiti Seeking Out Rebel Leaders,’ Tim Weiner, New York Times, March 6, 2004)

Food, medicine and other international aid has slowly begun to flow again, Weiner reports, but many international aid agencies' stores were looted during the rebel advance on the capital. Dr. Desmangles said the donations he has received in the last year were "mostly worthless recycled materials":

"We have bullet wounds, dying people, every disease. If other nations want to help, they will send doctors, not junk."

David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: editor@medialens.org. 

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