On September 1, the press began warning that "the storm of the century" was about to hit New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav "bore down nearly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city". (‘It’s the storm of the century,’ Daily Mirror, September 1, 2008)
A comparable storm of media coverage was to follow, with continuous live broadcasts from the city. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin heightened the sense of drama:
"For everyone thinking they can ride this storm out, I have news for you – that will be one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life." (Paul Thompson, ‘Storm of the century,’ Daily Mail, September 1, 2008)
But Nagin’s worst fears were not realised. In fact weather forecasters had warned at the time that it was "too early to know whether New Orleans will take another direct hit". (Daily Mirror, op.cit)
By September 3, the reality was apparent. Hurricane Gustav had swept through Louisiana, causing eight deaths and widespread damage, but "had not produced any significant flooding," the Independent reported. US officials "faced charges of over-reacting" as they were "forced to defend the decision to evacuate more than two million people". (Guy Adams, ‘Officials deny threat of Gustav was exaggerated,’ The Independent, September 3, 2008)
Saturation media coverage had been devoted to a disaster that had simply not happened.
The following day, a senior BBC journalist leaked an email from his editor to media analyst David Miller at Strathclyde University. The whistleblower’s editor had listed several stories which he described as "not that interesting", followed by the comment: "Dull stories – every one of them, don’t you think?" These were the stories:
"The leading anti-drugs judge in Afghanistan has been assassinated. "There’s been an angry reaction in France following the magazine publication of photos of Taleban fighters displaying trophies they’d stripped from French soldiers killed in an ambush. "The authorities in Haiti say the number of those killed in the wake of Tropical Storm Hanna has risen to more than sixty. "A United Nations report says the world’s wealthiest countries are failing to deliver on their promises to boost development aid."
The anonymous BBC journalist expressed his feelings:
"I’m sure once that Hurricane gets to Florida we’ll have live coverage of the telephone polls falling over, but sixty dead people in Haiti. Not that interesting."
Hell In Haiti
Indeed, initial early estimates that more than 500 people had died in Haiti’s floods received barely half a dozen mentions in British newspapers. It is now thought that as many as 1,000 people have died so far, with one million made homeless out of a population of 8.7 million (http://www.democracynow.org/2008/9/10/haiti_struggles_with_humanitarian_disaster_in). Rescue groups were last week reported to be unable to reach many villages across the southern region or to Gonaives, Haiti’s third-largest city, which was cut off with 300,000 homeless residents. The city’s population has been stranded for days without food or drinking water.
Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, a group that provides free medical care in central Haiti, wrote:
"After 25 years spent working in Haiti and having grown up in Florida, I can honestly say that I have never seen anything as painful as what I just witnessed in Gonaives." (http://www.pih.org/inforesources/news/PEF_hurricane_letter.html)
Hedi Annabi, a United Nations envoy, touring Gonaives commented:
"What I saw in this city today is close to hell on earth." (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/08/world/americas/08ike.html)
The New York Times reported how crowds of children had chased UN food trucks shouting "Hungry, hungry" while families climbed on to rooftops and floating cars to escape floodwaters.
The figure of 1,000 dead in Haiti compares with eight dead reported for Louisiana. And yet a media database search (September 15) showed that the words ‘New Orleans’ and ‘hurricane’ appeared in 265 UK newspaper articles over the last three weeks. Over the same period, the words ‘Haiti’ and ‘hurricane’ appeared in 113 articles. There were 67 mentions of Haiti’s ‘floods’.
But the devil is in the detail. Many references to Haiti were limited to one or two sentences. On September 9, the Daily Mail reported merely: "Hurricane Hanna killed hundreds of people and caused widespread destruction when it struck the island of Haiti last week." (Helen Bruce, ‘Here comes a hurricane to soak us again,’ Daily Mail, September 9, 2008)
On the same day, the Mirror wrote: "Hanna, which caused widespread destruction and killed more than 500 people when it hit Haiti, is now on its way across the Atlantic towards Ireland." (Maeve Quigley, ‘Hit by Hanna,’ Mirror, September 9, 2003)
The most substantial report was a 530-word section in an article in the Guardian on September 7. The Times devoted 150 words to the story on September 8. The Independent has this month devoted a total of 153 words to Haiti’s crisis. By contrast, a single Independent article on the threat to New Orleans on September 1 took up 1,269 words.
The irony is striking. Earlier this month, an Independent leader noted the "stark contrast" between the massive attention given to the plight of New Orleans while "the catastrophic floods in the Indian state of Bihar have barely registered on the international radar". The editors added:
"What makes the discrepancy even starker is that the Bihar disaster has so far been considerably more destructive, killing hundreds and leaving more than a million people in this desperately poor region homeless." (Leader, ‘A flood of sympathy, sometimes,’ The Independent, September 2, 2008; http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-a-flood-of-sympathy-sometimes-915628.html)
There were practical reasons for the difference, we were told – it was harder for journalists to travel to Bihar than to New Orleans. But there was more:
"[I]t would be dishonest to ignore some of the darker reasons for the discrepancy in the media coverage of these two disasters. One is a failure of empathy in the West. People can envisage themselves stranded in New Orleans, but not a village in Bihar. And then there is the sad reality that, even in our globalised age, lives lost in the developing world are regarded as less newsworthy than lives lost in the rich world. Even when subject to the undiscriminating violence of nature, it would appear that all men and women are nothing like equal."
At time of writing, the Independent has not mentioned Haiti since September 5. But the paper has at least helped explain its own prejudice.
Recent performance fits as part of a consistent bias in media reporting. In the latest NACLA Report on the Americas, Dan Beeton of the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research interviewed several US journalists who have reported from Haiti. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one described a common view among editors:
"Everyone knows the place [Haiti] is a mess, so what are you going to tell me that’s new? What goes on there does not affect people in the US." (Beeton, ‘Bad News From Haiti: U.S. Press Misses the Story,’ September/October 2008, NACLA. See the full article here: http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2846)
This indifference has led to an appalling level of non-reporting, not just of the latest floods, but also of the killing of unarmed civilians by United Nations forces (Minustah), the Haitian National Police, and death squads.
On July 6, 2005, the UN’s Minustah force launched an assault into Haiti’s Cité Soleil. According to declassified messages sent that day from the US Embassy in the Haitian capital to the State Department, UN troops fired 22,000 shots in seven hours in a neighbourhood where most people live in flimsy metal structures. As many as 30 people were killed, including a number of children.
Although a freelance journalist was on hand to document the shootings and take video statements from victims’ relatives, only a few US newspapers mentioned the incident. These mostly portrayed the incident as a successful UN attempt to eliminate gang members – reports of civilian deaths were ignored.
The US press has given similar treatment to atrocities committed by the Haitian National Police. By contrast, at the time of President Aristide’s second term in power (2001-2004), there were numerous articles, editorials, and opinion pieces in US and British papers denouncing violence. The Times, for example, did not grieve Aristide’s overthrow by armed thugs in 2004, but instead denounced his "despotic and erratic rule". (Leader, ‘Au revoir Aristide,’ The Times, March 1, 2004)
The Independent’s Andrew Gumbel wrote a piece titled, "The little priest [Aristide] who became a bloody dictator like the one he once despised." (Gumbel, The Independent, February 21, 2004)
And yet, Beeton reports:
"Reasonable estimates put the number of political killings – by the police or groups supporting his government – during Aristide’s two terms in office at between 10 and 30. This contrasts with the more than 3,000 political killings that took place under the 2004-06 interim government (and the estimated 50,000 under the Duvalier dictatorships)."
So why has so little attention been paid to Haiti after Aristide, when there has been far more political turmoil and violence? One reporter told Beeton:
"If the United States has spent millions of dollars funding the training of police officers, who then terrorize people or become drug traffickers, the U.S. would not be eager to have this information broadcast to American taxpayers."
Another reporter described how his editor had turned down an investigative piece on Rudolph Boulos, one of the wealthiest men in Haiti and a board member of the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington-based lobby group. The editor explained: "Boulos is a very well-known figure in Washington."
The deeper reasons were indicated by The Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which observed after the initial, US-backed coup to overthrow Aristide in September 1991:
"Under Aristide, for the first time in the republic’s tortured history, Haiti seemed to be on the verge of tearing free from the fabric of despotism and tyranny which had smothered all previous attempts at democratic expression and self-determination." Aristide’s victory "represented more than a decade of civic engagement and education on his part," in "a textbook example of participatory, ‘bottom-up’ and democratic political development". (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, Year 501, Verso, 1993, p.209)
Howard French wrote in the New York Times in 1992:
"Despite much blood on the army’s hands, United States diplomats consider it a vital counterweight to Father Aristide, whose class-struggle rhetoric… threatened or antagonized traditional power centres at home and abroad." (French, ‘Aristide seeks more than moral support,’ New York Times, September 27, 1992)
We asked Beeton what he thought of media coverage of the latest flooding. He explained that the crisis is made far worse by the fact that so many of Haiti’s trees have been cut down by desperate people for sale or use:
"Media coverage of floods and other natural disasters in Haiti consistently overlooks the human-made contribution to those disasters. In Haiti’s case, this is the endemic poverty, the lack of infrastructure, lack of adequate health care, and lack of social spending that has resulted in so many people living in shacks and make-shift housing, and most of the population in poverty. But Haiti’s poverty is a legacy of impoverishment, a result of centuries of economic looting of the country by France, the U.S., and of odious debt owed to creditors like the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank. Haiti has never been allowed to pursue an economic development strategy of its own choosing, and recent decades of IMF-mandated policies have left the country more impoverished than ever.
"This is why the country is denuded of trees, after desperate Haitians cut them down to make charcoal to use or sell. Without vegetation, the country is more prone to flooding.
"Until Haiti is able to develop, free of foreign interference and the dictates of foreign creditors, it’s impoverishment is likely to continue and even to worsen.
"The international community can help mitigate future disasters by canceling Haiti’s debt – much of it accrued under the Duvalier dictatorships – and giving Haiti the policy space it needs to promote real, sustainable, development." (Email to Media Lens, September 9, 2008)
This honest analysis of the root causes of Haitian misery, like the misery itself, is unlikely to trouble the pages of our newspapers any time soon.
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