Monday, January 25, 2010
Does Haiti need Chelsea Clinton more than 100 surgeons?
Does Haiti need Chelsea Clinton more than 100 surgeons? by Esther Armah
I’m watching CNN; seeing images of traumatized children, dust-covered, eyes glazed and scared; from that to one where a white doctor handles a black patient. Cameras zoom in for close ups of gaping wounds, blood, gore, pain. Media images assault the senses with a barrage of black suffering, neither too graphic nor too horrifying for the intrusive, unapologetic lenses of CNN, NBC, ABC – the mainstream media list is long and relentless. I am exhausted, offended, outraged, but like you cannot turn away from these potent images. In 8 days, Haiti has been transformed into a whore, a media plantation, pimped by her own government, the media and that of the US. Haitian voices have been relegated to a supporting role, secondary to that of the hero anchor riding in, cameras at the ready, shutters clicking madly, as overflowing black suffering means news editors rubbing their hands with glee shouting that well known news media mantra: ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’
How has the visual depiction of Haitians since this disaster shaped the average American’s perspective is what I question and wonder? Are we watching a traumatized people become criminalized under our very gaze? Aren’t we feeding the savior complex of the US courtesy of the cancer of cameras? This nation whose history is drenched in the blood of the defeated French after the Haitian revolution and a republic was founded carved by the hands of freed slaves in 1791. This unbowed, unbossed, unbroken people who paid a heavy price - literally - for their freedom. The French demanded and collected millions, and decades passed as underdevelopment of Haiti followed, a la Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. A history unknown and untold by lenses and cameras trained on white doctors swooping in offering deliverance from black suffering.
I am a journalist who has worked in radio, television and print across continents. I am a daughter of the Diaspora who has done reportage in South Africa, covered political unrest in Kenya, filmed on the streets of Nigeria and I’ve always been struck by the white cameramen’s lens trained only on black suffering, no matter the alternative images that are right in front of them. With Haiti, I am glued to the small screen, it swallows my sleep and my time with fresh new invasions on Haitians’ dignity and another photo op with a white doctor prodding, poking black bodies. It is not simply that a picture paints a 1000 words, it is that it rewrites an entire history, reduces a people’s humanity to the rubble that is scattered far and wide where buildings stood. It beggars belief and more than once prompted extremes of emotion. I stand in tears and then find myself wanting to scream at the TV as Anderson Cooper plays out his savior complex and assists a boy hit by a brick, and then helps a man protect a building filled with food that could feed the increasingly hungry and hurt people who grab at crumbs seeking to soothe a ravaging hunger and an unquenched thirst due to stockpiles of aid guarded by gun wielding military, who wear dark glasses, stomp about in fatigues and talk security, control and containment. Enter Pat Robertson, a former reverend no less; perched omnipotent and deadly articulating that ‘Haiti is cursed due to a pact with a devil’, a quote picked up and repeated all across the media, untrue but unchallenged, so devastating as it lands in homes all across America.
This language that spews out of the small screen has transformed a humanitarian disaster and a traumatized people into a war scene, of looters, and security, and fear. Language matters, the danger of a single story is that repeated enough it becomes the only truth of that nation for this American public whose only relationship with Haiti is via the tv and due to this disaster. The media doesn’t show bodies of American soldiers returning from war. It offers them dignity in death. No such sentiment is afforded black babies or 70-year-old women or black men. Their wounds, their suffering has become relentless ritual. Every headline delivers fresh visuals of a white doctor saving a black child. Every doctor is white except for CNN’s Dr Sanjay Gupta. Are there no Haitian doctors on the ground? What about Cubans or other Latin American medical personnel? When the US sent 1,000 troops, Cuba sent 100 doctors. I haven’t seen a Haitian doctor save a Haitian life on mainstream media yet? Al Jazeera English once again does better in ensuring the voices of Haitians are heard, and not interpreted or simply ignored by white anchors.
Indeed, thank god for the critical scrutiny of Al Jazeera English, the first outlet to show visuals of American military and explain that it wasn’t aid flowing through the rubble filled streets of Port au Prince, where bodies were piled and rotting but soldiers, in tanks with guns – a vastly different portrait than that depicted on CNN, ABC, MSNBC, and other mainstream outlets. Big ups too for citizen journalism, the blogisphere and social media networks; due to their presence a daily dose of alternative media, voices, and realities come to light. The Haitain blogger, Ansel Herz’s mediahacker.com who showed video of Haitians helping themselves, being proactive, community oriented, supportive and sensitive in the aftermath of the disaster. OpEd News which carried the writing of the powerful Haitian writer, Marguerite Laurent; magazines such as The Network Journal that offered an economic and historical focus to the coverage, informing readers of Haiti’s specific economic relationship with the various Western powers. Progressive media outlets like WBAI99.5FM in New York offered Haitian voices, Haitian physicians, historical analysis and context and consistently challenged mainstream’s version of events.
AID has been the huge issue post the disaster. Every mainstream media outlet has partnered with the American Red Cross. First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a PSA requesting Americans give aid to that same organization, the President and First Lady went to their headquarters as TV lenses drummed into the watching audience that this was the organization to donate to. The same American Red Cross who post 9/11 set up the Liberty Fund, raising over $500 million dollars for 9/11 families, but who gave less than a quarter of that to the actual families prompting much criticism, controversy and a formal investigation. The CEO was turfed out on her ear and it was revealed that the American Red Cross turned the money donated for families into a war fund. A war fund! Fast forward to Hurricane Katrina, same organization, same issue – complaints that money was not given to Gulf Coast Communities, that the Red Cross failed to go into The Big Easy. Once again criticism and controversy resulting in a CEO resignation and fat, fat severance checks. And yet, they are the aid organization of choice, as Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti faces media scrutiny and its integrity is challenged. That focus stemmed from a story that appeared on a blog called ‘The Smoking Gun’ and spread to ABC.com, CNN’s money page and beyond, prompting Wyclef to have to refute the allegation. So, American Red Cross has a proven record of scandalous behavior over donated money – not once but twice. While Yele Haiti faces unproven allegations that are scattered like gunfire across all media outlets. This hasn’t stopped millions donating to his charity and applauding his efforts and his humanity for his people.
Why am I being shown President Bill Clinton unpacking bottles of water from a truck that isn’t reaching Haitians on the ground? Why do I see his daughter Chelsea Clinton land safely with the rest of the Clinton entourage but get told that 100 surgeons from the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad couldn’t get into Port au Prince? Does Haiti really need Chelsea Clinton more than 100 surgeons? How is it the governor of Pennsylvania charters a plane to airlift healthy Haitian children back to the waiting white American arms in tears on tarmacs, but Doctors without Borders whose planes carry mobile hospitals are being told more than once they cannot land? A move that prompted a formal complaint from the United Nations and, ironically given France’s historical relationship with Haiti, from the French.
On my radio show Wake Up Call on Monday to Thursday from 6am to 8am, I host an all women media panel. One regular panelist April Silver said of the media’s depiction of Haiti it offered the best and the worst in its coverage, she continued: “the media is a liar and a thief, it is a betrayer of the people of Haiti”. I watch, I am moved to tears, frustrated beyond language, I want to scream and then it starts all over again and I am glued. It was time to do more than watch, so I’ve put together ‘Haiti: Through The Lens of the Media’, a panel discussion to dissect and discuss the depiction of Haiti by the media and why it matters. Next Wednesday January 27th at 8pm, The Brecht Forum plays host to me, April R Silver, Founder and President of Akila Worksongs; Karen Hunter, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist; Rosalind McLymont, Editor in Chief of The Network Journal and Bhakti Shringarpure, Professor at Hunter College. Step away from the small screen, step away from the relentless ritual, time to heed a call to service, to analyze and move beyond the media’s single story of Haiti whose buildings may be reduced to rubble, but where one statue, a huge, bronze figure called ‘The Unknown Slave’ stands untouched. That is the spirit of the Haitian people; traumatized yes, but unbossed, unbowed, unbroken.