Haiti in the Mainstream Press: Excesses and Omissions

September 25, 2007

At a demonstration last October against New York Times coverage of Haiti, Haitian protesters accused the newspaper of being "the voice of the state department." Their argument had some credibility: a three-month tracking from September, 1991 through December, 1991 shows that over 35% of sources who gave information or commentary in Times news articles were U.S. officials. Another 10% were unidentified diplomats. This total is almost double the count of all Haitian sources-military, peasant, elite and Lavalascombined. Preferential sourcing greatly affects not only the perspective printed, but also the "facts." For example, numbers of deaths attributed to the September 1991 military coup ran from "dozens" (U.S. Embassy), to 500 for the week (internation al human rights groups), to 1000 (Aristide, citing unreported mass graves). The mainstream media, by depending on statedepartment sources, run the risk of becoming its mouthpiece.


One of the subtle ways mainstream coverage of Haiti has imposed a U.S.-centric perspective is through an unbalanced use of epithets and adjectives. The media labels assigned to exiled president Aristide play heavily on North American political stereotypes. Aristide has been called a "populist demagogue" (Los Angeles Times, 3/18/92), and "a mix of Khomeini and Castro,"(New York Times, 11/12/90) whose politics "come from Robespierre" (Washington Post, 10/2/93). In addition, political labels-"leftist," "socialist," "anti- American"-have been applied exclusively to Aristide and his movement as an unobtrusive and repetitive way of expressing disapproval. in contrast, the de facto government is not referred to as rightist. Former de facto prime minister Marc Bazin, who was previously the U.S.- backed candidate for president, was labeled, if at all, with the ironic sobriquet, "Mr. Clean" (Los Angeles Times, 6/3/92).


There is also an imbalance with respect to the topics the media choose to emphasize. In the days after the coup, newspaper attention focused not on the violence of the army, as one would expect, but rather on Aristide's human rights record. During the two-week period after the coup, the New York Times spent over three times as many column inches discussing Aristide's alleged transgressions than it spent reporting on the ongoing military repression. Mass murders, executions, and tortures that were reported in human rights publications earned less than 4% of the space that the Times devoted to Haiti in those weeks. The Washington Post (10/6/91) claimed Aristide organized his followers into a "an instrument of real terror," but declined to note the 75% reduction in human rights abuses during Aristide's eight months in office reported by many human rights groups, including the National Coalition of Haitian Refugees (NCHR).


If the media reveal themselves in their excesses, what they don't report is just as telling. The failure of the embargo and the deplorable conditions at the Guant6- namo Bay refugee camp are two examples. The OAS embargo and U.S. sanctions imposed against Haiti were represented in the mainstream press as forceful blows against the military government. The mainstream press gave little attention to reports of blatant disregard for the embargo. According to the National Labor Commitee, for example, $67 million of apparel was imported to the United States from Haiti in 1992.


In addition, until a federal court ordered it closed, there was virtually no media coverage of the "temporary" refugee camp at GuantAnamo. What little the papers reported gave the impression of a vacation camp: one Times article had the preposterous headline "U.S. Base is Oasis to Haitians" (1 1/28/91. The paucity of mainstream media coverage of Guant namo-ven after a journalist-inspired lawsuit won them limited access-suggests a high degree of self-censorship. This year's unreported events include a hunger strike on January 29, an escape by 11 "inmates" on March 11, and a military crackdown on March 13, in which women were subjected to vaginal searches and 12 barracks were burned down. These reports cast a dark shadow on the U.S. "solution" to the refugee crisis.


In its coverage of Haiti, the mainstream media have essentially functioned as the public-relations arm of the U.S. State Department. The mainstream press has increasingly painted the Haitian situation as intractable, with a choice of outcomes "between mob revenge and anarchy...hence the necessity of the U.N. force." (Newsday, 5/13). By denying the possibility of an internal Haitian solution, and by ignoring the ambiguous role already played by the United States, the U.S. media suggest that Haiti must once again bow to the traditional "necessity" of a U.S.-determined solution "for its own good."



Read the rest of NACLA's July/August 1993 issue: "Latin American Women: The Gendering Of Politics And Culture."

Tags: Haiti, media bias, US media, Jean-Bertrand Aristide

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