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9088: On Larry Rohter's NYT Haiti reporting (fwd)
excerpted from the book "Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role
of Journalism," by Jack Lule (New York: The Guilford Press, 2001). Myth, News
Values And A New World
With the end of the cold war and the beginning of a new century, U.S. news
coverage of international affairs finds itself at a crossroads. For previous
generations of reporters and editors, the world could be organized and
explained in relation to the political, military, economic and cultural
rivalry of two superpowers. News values — the criteria by which the news
media select, order, report and give meaning to events — were structured by
this one dominant model, a model that has tumbled with the stones from the
Berlin Wall. Today, the questions facing [The New York] Times and other news
organizations include: How is international news to be defined in this new
era? What news values will guide the selection and shaping of events?
As we have seen, two models have emerged. One model has embraced the era as a
time of promise for journalism. This model valorizes aggressive, progressive
news values that promote social justice, and might be called the model of "a
new global and human journalism." Other scholars have offered a more
pessimistic model, a model of international news dictated by the actions and
initiatives of U.S. foreign policy. This model might be described as
promoting "Fortress America" in a world of chaos.
This chapter has offered a preliminary assessment of the prospects for each
model through a case study: the work of one Times correspondent, the
reporting of Larry Rohter from Haiti. Analysis of that reporting supports the
most cheerless view of post-Cold War news values. In the amount of coverage,
the nature of the content, and the strategies offered, Rohter's reporting for
[The New York] Times can be seen as working in concert with U.S. foreign
policy. Even as that policy shifted course — rejecting the junta, warily
restoring Aristide, but insisting that he accept U.S. policy — so too did the
reporting. Fears that U.S. foreign correspondence would become captive to
U.S. foreign policy were realized in Rohter's reports.
To restate the particulars: The influence of U.S. foreign policy can be seen
quite readily in the sheer amount of Rohter's Haitian coverage. As the
Clinton administration made Haiti one of its first major foreign policy
campaigns, Rohter gave over most of his work for almost two years to
following Haiti. The Caribbean correspondent of the Times over some 20 months
[from July 1994 through February 1996] filed, for example, five stories from
El Salvador, three stories from Colombia, three stories from Honduras, two
stories from Trinidad and none from the Dominican Republic. From Haiti, as
previously noted, Rohter filed 120 stories.
The themes of Rohter's reporting also worked in concert with U.S. policy.
Rohter's reporting did not stray far from U.S. policy perspectives. As the
United States prepared for an invasion to remove Cedras, U.S. officials
postured mightily through Rohter's reporting. Rohter's denunciations of the
regime and his chronicling of the junta's repression made a case for U.S.
intervention. At the same time, his depictions of Aristide as the rightful
leader, whose return would bring peace and reconciliation, also bolstered the
When Aristide and U.S. policy soon began to conflict, Rohter's themes
shifted. The uplifting portrayals of Aristide and the lavalas movement segued
to critical accounts of intransigent ideology and radical leftist politics.
As FRAPH continued to terrorize the population and U.S. forces refused to
move against them, Rohter's avoidance of the U.S.-FRAPH relationship shielded
Times readers from the U.S. establishment of a conservative "counterweight"
to Aristide's progressive politics. And Rohter's depiction of Haiti as an
"ungovernable" place whose people were not "culturally or psychologically"
equipped for the demands of democracy captured the patronizing and
paternalistic attitudes that have driven U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean
Haiti As The Other World
Myth provides another, complementary way to understand Rohter's coverage.
Like all reporters, Rohter did not have to create brand-new story forms to
report events from Haiti. He, his editors and his sources consistently drew
upon an established narrative — an eternal story — that helped shape
coverage even as it explained and justified U.S. policy. In Rohter's reports,
we can see the unmistakable structure of the myth of the Other World.
Underlying the reporting of Haiti's political turmoil — turmoil orchestrated
often by U.S. policies — is a classic portrayal. Haiti is rendered as a
primitive land, filled with danger and chaos, and ruled by death squads and
paramilitary patrols who leave the streets littered with corpses. Its
helpless people perversely admire bloody shows of force as they engage in
animal sacrifice and bone-stealing voodoo rituals, even on Christmas. And
they passively remain under the sway of rogue leaders and psychotic priests
with no respect for order or reason or privatizing industry. It's a nightmare
Rohter provides us with a modern depiction of the Other World, one that also
seeks to define our society in relation to other societies. As [Jean-Pierre]
Vernant argued [in "Myth and Society in Ancient Greece"], myth "expresses how
a group of people in particular historical circumstances sees itself." The
myth expressed in Rohter's reporting portrays a mighty and superior people
descending with fascination and disgust into a primitive place on the globe.
The Other World is a world to be feared and perhaps someday avoided. But for
now it's a world in desperate need of U.S. guidance and military might.