The Undercovered Country

Haiti as journalists have known it

Just when cable’s mournful drumbeat led us to think we were of one mind on the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake, Pat Robertson chimed in Wednesday and reminded us that television remains the plaything of mountebanks. Explaining why—after coups, famines, hurricanes, and now seism—Haiti persists in attracting God’s wrath, the 700 Club host explained that to expel their French colonial masters, Haitians 200 years ago “got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the Prince.’ True story. And so the Devil said, ‘OK it’s a deal.’”

Shepard Smith was rightly aghast when he later addressed Robertson’s statement on Fox News. “The people of Haiti have been used and abused by their government over the years,” he said. “They have dealt with unthinkable tragedy over the years, day in and day out. And we’re in the middle of a crisis that the Western Hemisphere has not seen in my lifetime. And 700 miles east of Miami, hundreds and thousands of desperate human beings need our help, our support, our money and our love.

“And they don’t need that.”

For once, it seems that journalists are bristling on behalf of Haiti, a place usually painted by wariness and fear and resigned pity. Haitians themselves may be getting something like good press, no small development for the most maligned people in the hemisphere. The urgent sympathy of the news coverage helps. This disaster is different: It’s the worst yet in a country used to defining “worse” for the rest of the Americas.

Even though the country is ninety minutes by plane from south Florida, ticket prices aren’t prohibitive, and the place is always lousy with news, Haiti tends to draw media attention only in times of strife. As of Tuesday, there was only one full-time American correspondent stationed there: the AP’s Jonathan M. Katz, a friend with whom I stayed when I visited the country last summer.* The New York Times’s lead story—the Times!—on the day after the earthquake carried a Santo Domingo dateline, with a passel of reporters credited for work from the United States and around the region, none of whom were in Haiti.

If foreign reporters knew Haiti at all, it was via the removed perspective of the war correspondent—as a witness to horrors that he or she would never know first-hand. This experience was perhaps best sketched by Bob Shacochis, the journalist and novelist, who describes arriving there as a reporter in the opening to his 1995 Harper’s cover story, “The Immaculate Invasion.”

He describes the frenzied, cash-greased path into Haiti from the Dominican Republic, which still casts a dark and menacing countenance of its own (my road trip from the Haiti border to Santo Domingo last summer required passage through a dozen separate military checkpoints over some 150 highway miles). Upon reaching Haiti’s besieged capital, Shacochis describes a Port-au-Prince ripe for physical collapse: “Vast areas of the cityscape seem constructed out of shortcuts and makeshift solutions, erected by the homeless for the homeless, creating the smoldering architectural temperament of a dream constantly solicited and constantly deferred …”

The contrast was the Hotel Montana, the palace atop a succession of winding roads in the comparatively tony suburb of Pétionville, home to many NGO workers and international personnel. The Montana served as four-star bivouac for privileged visitors: politicians, successful émigrés, and, of course, journalists. Of his visit fifteen years ago, Shacochis wrote:

I stand in the illuminated lobby of the Montana Hotel, space-warped into an après-beach party, gawking at the throng of media celebs, the Eddie Bauer tropical-fashion show, the crush of machos at the bar in shorts and network caps, looking as if they’ve spent their day playing softball. On the patio, CNN is feeding a satellite; in the lounge, a big-screen TV broadcasts the Michigan-Colorado game….

Reservations for dinner are made. The embargo’s impact on fine dining in Pétionville is zero. Souvenance, the restaurant of choice for the capital’s aristocracy of crisis (the politicians and millionaires, the well-heeled gangsters, the diplomats and journalists), is booked up, so we settle for the gastronomic artistry of the chef at La Plantation, where the clientele can fill their glasses with the best French wines to toast the continuing – and, in some cases, karmically inexplicable – miracle of their survival.

Now, news reports are rife with references to “the collapsed Hotel Montana,”and preliminary estimates indicate that 200 people, many of them tourists, may have been swallowed when the structure failed. In the past, an SUV, money and credentials would get you behind the hotel’s high, guarded walls. When the Montana turns to rubble, no one in Haiti is safe.

Both Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta said on Larry King Live a day after the quake that they were shocked at the vividness of the destruction, admitting they’d never before arrived on the scene of a Third World earthquake so soon after it occurred. Cooper described to King his reporting experience that day in Port-au-Prince:

We’ve had our teams out all day long, just talking to people, documenting what is happening here, bearing witness to what is happening here, because the Haitian people want the world to know. People will sometimes take you over to the corpse of a loved one, and they’ll lift off the shroud because they want you to see who that person was. And they want you to know what is happening here, and you hear that on every street you go to. People are desperate to get the word out about what is going on here, because what is going on here is a tragedy on a scale which we rarely see in the modern world.

The tragedy has been ongoing in Haiti for some time, actually, and there’s never been a bad time to get the word out. Alas, without the likes of the Montana, aloof though it was, covering the country will get only that much harder.

Correction: We initially reported that there had been two full-time American correspondents stationed in Haiti before the earthquake—the AP’s Jonathan Katz and a Reuters correspondent. In fact, Katz was the only full-time American correspondent there. We regret the error.

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Sam Eifling has won national and regional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his sportswriting.