Why can’t the NYT and WP agree on Haiti?

How the media's conflicting coverage of race, class and the earthquake evokes memories of Hurricane Katrina

Topics: Haiti, Paul Shirley, Washington Post, Race, New Orleans,

Those of us who lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina are all too familiar with reading stories in the press, written by people unfamiliar with this town, its politics, geographies and citizens who descended just for the big story, that misunderstood either the details of our complicated city or what it and our neighbors endured here.

As we saw in New Orleans, much of what people got wrong was driven by their preconceptions about the city, with some quickly accepting as truth false rumors of unthinkable violence by the poor people abandoned in the city and others failing to realize that the flood destroyed upper-middle-class white and black neighborhoods, along with middle-class white and black neighborhoods, before stranding the city’s poorest (flooded and unflooded) residents, who became the most visible face of a much more complicated disaster. (People from other places still sometimes express surprise about this when I explain that a rich, white neighborhood was one of the first to flood.)

So it is unsurprising to see the American media struggle to get the story straight in Haiti, a country that many of the journalists now there were likely completely unfamiliar with a week ago.

I hadn’t quite grasped this reality until I saw competing headlines, one in the New York Times on Sunday and another in the Washington Post on Monday, telling stories about the impact of the storm on the rich in Port-au-Prince that seem completely at odds with one another.

The New York Times, on the cover of Sunday’s paper, carried the headline, “Earthquake Ignores Class Divisions of a Poor Land.” The story is summed up in the following paragraphs:

Earthquakes do not respect social customs. They do not coddle the rich. They know nothing about the invisible lines that in Haiti keep the poor masses packed together in crowded slums and the well-to-do high up in the breezy hills of places like Pétionville.

And so it was with the devastating temblor that tore through Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, last week, toppling houses large and small, and trapping and traumatizing residents no matter where they stood on Haiti’s complicated social scale.

The story in yesterday’s Washington Post carried the headline “Haiti’s Elite Spared Much of the Devastation” and tells a far different story:

Although Tuesday’s 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed many buildings in Port-au-Prince, it mostly spared homes and businesses up the mountain in the cool, green suburb of Petionville, home to former presidents and senators.

A palace built atop a mountain by the man who runs one of Haiti’s biggest lottery games is still standing. New-car dealers, the big importers, the families that control the port — they all drove through town with their drivers and security men this past weekend. Only a few homes here were destroyed.

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I have never been to Haiti, no less Port-au-Prince or Petionville, but I don’t see how both stories can be accurate. But, especially for those of us who have seen a complicated and nuanced place reduced to generalities by someone without sufficient grasp of the place to begin with, it should be a reminder that, from this distance and in the midst of a crisis, it is hard to get any real read of the texture of a place as complex as Haiti.

I suppose it should also come as no surprise that both these stories about Petionville, and so much of the press about New Orleans, seem especially off-base about issues of class and, in New Orleans, the intersection of class and race. While such divisions are, of course, very often visible on the surface of a city, the dynamics are always much more complicated. Take New Orleans, which commentators suggested was segregated between black areas and white areas when in fact the historic city was integrated by design and remains much more racially diverse in its neighborhoods than most American cities, a fact that does little to change that it is also stunningly racially polarized.

While I admire some of the reporting I have seen from Haiti and feel like I am getting a picture of what is happening there (while having to hold back tears at the horror of some of the things that I am seeing), it is worth remembering that there will be things, like the “Babies Getting Raped in the Superdome” story after Hurricane Katrina, that may not hold up under the clear light of day, which will hopefully come soon for Port-au-Prince and Haiti.

Billy Sothern a criminal defense attorney and writer in New Orleans. He is the author of “Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City.”

Billy Sothern is a New Orleans writer and attorney living in Oxford, Miss., until he can return home. His nonprofit, Reprieve, accepts donations to support the organization's many indigent clients who are now homeless and without money or credit.

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