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#4316: Something rotten in "America or Death" /Reed (fwd)

From: Lisa Reed <74227.3043@compuserve.com>

I just read the Sunday Times magazine piece called "America, Or Death," 
about what it's like to make the crossing from Haiti to Nassau in the hold
of a 25 foot boat. At first I thought it was a great story and one that
needed to be told. The account of the 18 hours on board the unseaworthy
boat was harrowing. And I was happy that the NYTimes mag was at least
running some news of Haiti (When I tried to pitch the magazine an
environmental story on Haiti a few years back I was told by an editor that,
no, "Haiti is out, Africa is in." So I guess Haiti is "in" again.) But the
fact that the writer was carrying an "Epirb," a device that sends out a
distress signal that will summon the coast guard, left me feeling queasy
about that kind of journalism. 

It seemed to me that he did set off the signal (which resulted in the
arrival of the coast guard and the return of all passengers to Haiti) but
it was very fishy the way he wrote about it. If he did set it off, he was
deliberately misleading in his telling of the story. If he didn't set off,
he should have made that absolutely clear because it raised a ton of
questions in my mind about the moral responsibility of the writer to the
people he's writing about. Questions like, did the NY Times compensate the
other passengers their life savings (the cost of travel) because the writer
panicked (this is assuming that he did set it off)? Or did they feel that
he saved all their lives so there was no compensation necessary (assuming
the coast guard was right and the boat was about to sink)? Did the writer
have a plan ahead of time as to whether he would set off the signal if
another passenger got sick? Would he wait until a person or two had died
and then set off the signal? Or did he have it in mind that he would, at
first sign of trouble, alert the Coast Guard?  Though I hate "mea culpa"
journalism--where journalists examine their role in the story as part of
the story and wring their hands about it--this piece screamed out for just
a little acknowledgement that the fate of all the passengers was in the
hands of this journalist.

The moment the journalist got on board with such a high-tech device as the
Epirb, he ceased to be a reporter of the story and became in a way the
creator of the story. He could alert the coast guard at any time--for noble
reasons like saving everyone's life, or less noble reasons like feeling
nauseated, feeling scared, exhausted, etc. Which made it kind of fake. Not
fake of course to the other passengers who were risking everything to get
to the US--and that's why it was heartbreaking, because they had no idea
that with the push of a button he could crush their dreams. 

On the other hand, it's hard to write a story about something that matters.
Because by definition, the stakes are high, and it's hard to be fair to
everyone's interests and still tell a true story. Which is why so many good
journalists end up writing  cheesy articles for some conde nast magazine
about shopping for the perfect pair of python pants, or a puff piece about
a celebrity--because it's easy. There aren't any moral dilemmas to wrestle
with, nobody's life is going to be ruined (except the python's), and the
people written about are usually powerful and perfectly capable of
defending themselves. So on one hand I applaud the author and the Times for
running it. I applaud the courage and fortitude of everyone on the boat. On
the hand that's not clapping though, I think the writer should have been
more straightforward about a hugely important piece of the story, which is
whether or not he sent out that signal. 

I'm curious to know what other people think.
Lisa Reed

PS> Congratulations to Daniel Simidor for his excellent letter in today's
NYTimes regarding Bruce Springsteen's song "American Skin."