The media’s scapegoating reflex

January 22, 2010

A comparison of the media coverage in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the earthquake in Haiti show a distinct pattern of racism.

FOUR-AND-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed the city of New Orleans, the horrible earthquake that rocked Haiti and killed tens of thousands of people has brought back hard memories of the atmosphere whipped up in the immediate aftermath of the Katrina disaster.

Though it is now remembered as the quintessential proof of the ineptitude of the Bush administration, what was most stark in the days and weeks after Katrina hit was the toxic mix of racism, fear-mongering and utter contempt for poor African Americans that filled the mainstream media and political discussion.

The earthquake that struck Haiti has produced the same kind of contempt and racism that the Obama election and inauguration one year ago was supposed to signify the end of. Instead, we have been inundated with newspaper headlines, on-the-ground reporters and cable news outlets decrying "anarchy " and wringing their hands about the potential for "riots"--while remaining ever-vigilant for episodes of "looting" and other signifiers of "chaos."

This week's media coverage of the devastating earthquake brought us stories about escaped criminals from prisons, gang lords taking over Port-au-Prince and other fantastical tales that strain to avoid the human catastrophe slowly unfolding in that small country.

THE LANGUAGE that the American media uses to describe conditions in Haiti almost mirrors that which was used to describe New Orleans. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the two main issues that the media were obsessed with was: first, why did so many of the poor "choose" not to evacuate the city, and second, how would the police handle looters and the violence lurking in the streets of New Orleans.

There was the famous contrasting photos showing how the media described whites taking food from an abandoned store as "searching for food" while a photo of an African American couple doing the exact same thing was described as "looting."

Who will soon forget the Black chief of police in New Orleans on the Oprah Winfrey Show, weeping over the claim that grown men were "raping babies" in the Louisiana Superdome? For days, the media reported unsubstantiated stories about gun battles and gang warfare in the Superdome--people being killed and rampant sexual assaults happening in front of people, while no one lifted a finger to help.

What you can do

Donations and aid are desperately needed in Haiti. Here are some organizations with connections to the grassroots movements in the country.

The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, organized by the solidarity organization Haiti Action, delivers resources directly to grassroots organizations. It was founded in 2004 after the coup d'etat that forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office.

For more information, including a telephone contact, go to the Canada Haiti Action Network Web site.

The Zanmi Lasante Medical Center is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti and delivers health care through a network of clinics. The health center survived the earthquake and delivering aid to the disaster zone. You can donate to the center through the U.S. non-profit organization Partners in Health.

SOPUDEP is a pioneering school in Petionville. The resources of the school and its teachers are being mobilized to assist the neighboring population. You can support the school via the Canadian-based Sawatzky Family Foundation.

Afterward, it would be quietly reported that no babies were ever raped, there was no gang warfare at the Superdome, and actually, there was solidarity among the victims--only two elderly people died in the stadium.

The disgraced former governor of Louisiana Kathleen Blanco, in the hours after the hurricane, infamously gave shoot-to-kill orders to National Guard troops who encountered "looters." "These troops are battle-tested," Blanco said. "They have M-16s and are locked and loaded...These troops know how to shoot and kill, and I expect they will."

In New Orleans, as now in Haiti, the media have ignored the real sources of violence--the police and military. After Katrina, stories also emerged about racist violence against African Americans who were trying to escape New Orleans. But somehow, those stories never gained the same traction.

Similarly, in Haiti, there were buried stories this week about Haitian police shooting suspected "looters" taking food and clothing. Even retired American Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who coordinated the U.S. military in New Orleans after Katrina, said, "We can't shoot people trying to get food. I say when you have people dying, getting food and water on the ground should end any talk of security."

While the media focused on whether or not stores were being "looted"--without ever considering the notion that people who were without food, clothing or medical attention should take what they need from stores that could no longer operate--much less attention was paid initially to why aid and rescue took so long to get to the people of New Orleans.

Today in Haiti, the media coverage is shockingly similar, as news outlets focus on whether or not looting is happening, while constantly commenting on the country's "instability" and "potential for violence."

As in New Orleans, by reporting unsubstantiated rumors about violence or exaggerating isolated incidents, the media actually create an atmosphere where people unnecessarily fear for their safety--which in this circumstance has real implications for the ability to deliver and sustain aid and rescue missions.

It was reported last week that several European doctors left their post at night--leaving post-surgery patients to fend for themselves--because United Nations security forces said it was too dangerous for them to be there after dark. Of course, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Guptah stayed behind to treat patients, becoming the news story of the day in Haiti.

The media's obsession also creates a cover for incompetent political figures to excuse the current insufficient rescue effort in Haiti.

The American government's response to this crisis has been spectacularly futile in its laxity and inefficiency. But government officials have largely been successful in explaining away the incompetence by focusing on the "potential violence" on the ground in Haiti. And as if in tandem, the media accepts as Holy Gospel the inattentive relief effort as a result of the violence in Haiti--violence largely made up in the imaginations of reporters and newspapers themselves.

FOCUSING ON racist caricatures of Haitians or poor Black folk in New Orleans avoids the more damning question of how such poverty was created in the first place.

It's much easier for New York Times columnist David Brooks to describe Haitians as having a "progress-resistant culture" than to discuss the 200 years of colonialism and imperialism at the hands of European and American power that has left the country historically impoverished.

Likewise, in New Orleans, it was easier for the media to endlessly ponder why people didn't evacuate then to report on the crushing poverty that hundreds of thousands of African American families endured in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as a result of racism and discrimination--thus, making it almost impossible for them to leave the area before the hurricane struck.

In the case of Haiti, the racist portrayal of Haitians as out-of-control, wild and violent creates its own narrative for the historic problems of Haiti. No longer are these problems connected to a history of slavery, colonialism and imperialism--rather, they are attributed to the characteristics created about Haitians and reported on by the media today.

Finally, this retelling of Haitian history, combined with today's storytelling about looting and violence, will be used to explain why they U.S. cannot accept Haitian refugees, and why Haitians must stay out. If the media accurately reported on how the U.S. has interfered and helped destroy the economic viability and stability of Haiti for the entirety of the 20th century, then the question would be how many Haitians should the U.S. allow in, as opposed to whether or not any refugees should be allowed.

This is not to say there has not been incidents of violence or even that people haven't stolen from stores. But it's the height of arrogance for the American media and American politicians to decry violence or theft when the real problem is the incompetence of the U.S. government and military in coordinating a rescue effort that prioritizes feeding people and treating the injured.

If people are stealing food, it's because they are hungry. If they are stealing clothes, it's because when 1.5 million people are homeless, they need a change of clothes. If people are angry and lash out in violence, it is because they are hungry, thirsty, afraid, traumatized, desperate and tired of being ignored by the outside world.

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