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 …”