Yesterday marked six months since a magnitude-7 earthquake struck Haiti. The AP’s Jonathan M. Katz, the only full-time American news correspondent in Haiti before the earthquake, filed this report about Haiti’s official observance of the day:
Haiti’s president handed out medals to celebrities, aid-group directors and politicians for post-earthquake work Monday in a ceremony designed to beat back criticism of an uneven recovery that has left 1.6 million people homeless and destitute six months to the day since the disaster.
Just out of sight, baking in the oppressive noonday sun, were the fraying tarps of tens of thousands of homeless who live on the Champ de Mars, once a grassy promenade surrounding the government complex.
Hear a hint of “opinion” in there, somewhere? Here’s a little more:
Twenty-three honorees - including actor Sean Penn, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission - crossed a podium in front of the crushed, unrepaired national palace to steady applause. Some smiling, some solemn, each received medals and certificates deeming them Knights of the National Order of Honor and Merit.
And here is what (Sir?) Anderson Cooper had to say about his participation in the ceremony, per Katz:
CNN’s Cooper, who spent parts of January and February in Haiti following the quake and had not returned since, said he found out about the award while getting ready to board his plane to Haiti on Sunday.
“I thought a long time about not accepting it. We finally came to the opinion that it was recognition by the country for all journalists,” he told resident reporters after the ceremony. “I don’t think this in any way impacts the desire or willingness to be critical of the government.”
Maybe not. But…how “odd,” as Katz tweeted from the scene. “Not the six-month commemoration we expected. Preval was defiant. Clinton praised Haiti’s govt. Not much mention of the dead. Then came the awards.” From the government. For work on a story for which the real work has barely begun.
I’m with Eric Deggans, “uncomfortable” — that a journalist was a participant in this “resolutely upbeat,” as Katz calls it, government ceremony touting post-earthquake progress. (I wonder what President Rene Preval said about Cooper and his work before handing him his medal? So far, I haven’t been able to find a video or of the entire ceremony. What about Cooper’s reporting, above all others, merited a medal in President Preval’s eyes? Why didn’t Sanjay Gupta medal? Or, say, Jonathan Katz?)
In a space where the line between journalist and advocate is blurrier than ever, it might have made a much stronger statement for [Cooper] to decline the award and stand in the press gallery with everyone else covering the event.
It might not have served the [Anderson Cooper] brand much. But it would have affirmed that the work in Haiti is about journalism, where telling the best story is the highest reward.
To my mind, Anderson Cooper declining the award and standing in the press gallery with everyone else covering the event would have better served the Anderson Cooper brand. And there are so many stories in Haiti still in need of investigating and telling (another reason reporters ought to stay off ceremonial government podiums and stick to the work of reporting those stories), as demonstrated by this additional bit from Katz’s piece:
The Associated Press reported Sunday that the location of the largest of two relocation camps provided by the government was the result of an inside deal.
Shortly after the [medal] ceremony ended, that camp flooded in a sudden summer squal, with 94 deluxe tents collapsing in the wind and rain.
Which reminded me of this sad anecdote from Deborah Sontag’s front-page New York Times piece Saturday about, in part, hundreds of Haitians living on a highway median strip:
One international disaster expert, who requested anonymity because he did not want to offend Haitian officials, offered what he called “a microexample” of why bigger questions take a long time to resolve. It involved a flier instructing people on how to secure their tents during the hurricane season.
The government emergency management agency first asked that the phrase “hurricane-proof” be deleted, he said, worried about guaranteeing protection, and then that any reference to strong winds be removed. Finally, only rain could be mentioned and even then the flier did not get approved before hurricane season began.
“It’s as if they imagined themselves to be in a brick and mortar world of real liability,” the disaster expert said. “I think it’s more than lack of capacity by the government. They’re looking at the political landscape, weighing each word like David Axelrod with a focus group.”
Yikes.Liz Cox Barrett is a freelance writer and graphic designer in Kalispell, Montana. She worked as a newspaper journalist in Denver and Kalispell for 20 years.