I really, really wanted to like Mac McClelland’s one-year anniversary article, Aftershocks: Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell. Good writing aside however—and the fact that these guys and many of these guys dug it—I have a problem with a 6,000-word piece of journalism that holds no specific office or official to account for Port-au-Prince’s misery upon miseries:
“Every day it is like this: fighting, a lot of violence, murder, a lot of rape,” [MINUSTAH soldiers] say, shaking their heads. “A lot of rape.”
That’s like there being a decade-long rape epidemic in New York City and a reporter not asking any public official, why? Followed by, what are you doing about it? Followed by, why aren’t you doing anything about it? — Snow wasn’t removed on time after a huge storm this holiday season and within hours every New Yorker knew the name of the head of the department of sanitation. No reporter would’ve covered that story without answering the main question: “Who f%$ked up?”—and that’s just snow. The same news gathering standard should apply to rape.
Unfortunately McClelland’s, “no one’s in charge” message regarding Haiti is the norm. Foreign journalists and bloggers rarely name officials below the level of Bill Clinton, René Préval, Jean-Max Bellerive or Nigel Fisher. (I recall being pleasantly surprised last year when a real-life mayor of Port-au-Prince appeared during a 60 Minutes segment.)
But bureaucracies —as broken, inefficient, corrupt, overwhelmed, under-resourced, under-staffed or disparate as they may be—exist in Haiti.
Camps have residential leadership structures. Various international NGOs also visit or manage camps. The UN’s International Organization for Migration oversees camp coordination. Then of course there is local government, police and Haiti’s women’s and health ministries as well as the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC). Journalists undercut any possibility of public pressure on the cogs within the above bureaucracies when we write them out of our stories… when we write them out of the public suffering for which they are responsible.
But these omissions happen again and again, as is to be expected, when parachute journalists write for parachute readers. Take the pulse of the typical Mother Jones and mainstream reader versus that of Haitian immigrants: the former seeks to relieve immediate suffering through aid but the latter is also keen on forcing accountability. The former seeks to act as a philanthropist-humanitarian; the latter prefers to act as citizens. The immigrant route, over time, will produce a better functioning Haiti.
The diaspora is looking for the same ‘naming’ function in Haiti articles that domestic U.S. readers take for granted when, say, a snowstorm dumps 20-inches and 95% of our morning news blasts the name of the head of the department of sanitation across our TVs, radios, in our newspapers, on FB and Twitter.
Six thousand words is rare space for a writer; we have to make them count. They measure little when we write to promote aid, which is temporary and temperamental, and not active cross-border citizenship and stable, sustainable development.
I’m curious what others thought of this article. Let me know in comments.
Postscript: I happened on Mac McClelland’s article while browsing the Nieman site. Readers should know that through a behind the scenes Q&A, I learned that she not only had 10 days to write 6,000 words but had been diagnosed with PTSD while doing it. That’s not a sympathy play (and from afar that doesn’t seem to be McClelland’s style); rather, it’s acknowledgment of the effort and sacrifice that went into her reporting.