I was sitting on the balcony off my room at the Hotel Montana eating breakfast when a colleague from ABC News stopped by to offer me a deal. He asked me to tell him what I had filed the night before so he could share it with his bosses back in New York. We were both in Haiti to cover the return to power of Jean Bertrand Aristide with the backing of 20,000 American soldiers.
A few years later, I was covering a civil war in Kinshasa, the capital of now-Democratic Republic of Congo, when an NPR correspondent came to me, disconsolate. Turned out her editors wanted her to follow one of my pieces about American soldiers landing in another city in case American citizens needed to be rescued.
That’s one end of the spectrum, when it comes to others following The Times’ lead in setting the topic and tone of conversations around the globe. At the other end of the spectrum is the thriving cottage industry whose raison d’etre is to bash the New York Times and its journalism. In the mid 1990’s, a former Times reporter actually penned Times Watch, a weekly column in the New York Post about the then-Gray Lady being in decline because it had embarked upon the radical journey of adding Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women to its newsroom.
Fast forward to about a month ago, when the newspaper published its exhaustive investigation into how France and the United States, in partnership with corrupt local officials, wronged Haiti for two centuries. The series made the case that Haiti, had it not had to pay France for its independence, would likely have maintained its “Pearl of the Antilles” moniker instead of the cringey “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” label.
Some pounced on the Times’ reporting, as expected. I was taken aback, however, by the criticism from academics and colleagues in particular. They questioned the lack of citations, despite the fact that the Times made a largely unprecedented move in journalism by providing a bibliography of sources and documents used in the reporting.
Anyone who has been interviewed by a journalist knows that you can spend half an hour talking to a reporter only to be quoted once, if at all, in a piece. That’s just the way it is. We interview people for context, background and insights.
I tried as best as I could to explain to my critical colleagues that I, and the Haitian community, embraced this Times reporting with alacrity. One colleague said I should be outraged because the Times tried to steal The Haitian Times’ thunder since many of the reporting “uncovered” are staple fare in our publication.
Well, here’s the thing. I read the 30,000-word epic article in one sitting. I reread it a second time looking for inaccuracies but could not find anything. Even when I thought they might have romanticized Aristide, it was not worth getting into an argument over. The basic thesis — that part of the reason the former priest was ousted is because he dared to demand that France pay restitution for jacking up Haiti after the former slaves defeated Napoleon vaunted army in the battlefield — remains true.
In my view, the Times series reinforces our point of view and gives regular readers of The Haitian Times another reason to stick with us as the authority on Haiti. I’m not an apologist for The New York Times nor do I consider myself a critic. Heck, I left it after a meteoric rise and boundless opportunities because the pull of my community was too magnetic for me to stay there.
Plus, the New York Times was a pressure cooker during my time. Reporters there needed to have sources and contacts at the highest level, yet maintain professional distance. It was not a fair place. Young reporters at that time didn’t get bylines— that is, credit for their work.
During my tenure, Diversity, Inclusion and Equity were akin to quaint ideas discussed in polite society on the Upper West Side. These notions received severe pushback from mid-level editors who saw themselves as the vanguard of The New York Times. So when I left in 1999, it wasn’t to go to the Washington Post or another prestigious publication, as is customary in the industry. I left to devote the better part of my career telling the story of Haiti and its diaspora.
The way I saw it then, if the New York Times throws me an alley oop, then I’m dunking.
Take the ball and run with it, for Haiti’s sake
Now, I’m buoyed by the enthusiasm with which the Haitian community has embraced this series of articles and want to make changes. Already, I’ve had countless conversations with friends about how to use this article to create a better Haiti.
To start, The Haitian Times has invited the New York Times reporters and editors who worked on The Ransom series to talk to the community about the genesis of the story. The event will be held on Monday June 20, from noon to 1 p.m. Please register here.
Many organizations have expressed interest in organizing conversations about the article, and I encourage the New York Times to accept some of these invitations.
Beyond talking about the series, I think it’s imperative for community leaders in New York, Florida and Massachusetts — the states with largest, most influential Haitian communities – to lobby their city, state and school officials to include the series in their world history curricula.
During the 1980s, and until the emergence of Wyclef Jean, Haitian children were so verbally and physically bullied by dint of their heritage. We were called HBO, Haitian Body Odor. Every news of a coup and the resulting violence made our children take the fetal position to prepare for the barrage of insults that arrived with them. Some Haitian youngsters would cope by pretending to be Trinidadian, Jamaican or Latino. Anything but Haitian. It was a heavy burden.
The fact that Haitians were making inroads in American society was lost on these kids— and the adults in their lives too.
This is the psychological wound that France inflicted upon us when it robbed us of our resources. France and the United States made sure that Haiti wouldn’t succeed because its success would have destabilized and upended the chattel slavery that enriched both nations.
It is with that mindset that I and my brothers and sisters absorbed the New York Times article.
Just as other media followed my New York Times stories decades ago, it’s time for us to tell our story — loudly and proudly — and not be laughed out loud nor feel that we’re blaming others for our miserable fate. Now, we can speak the truth with this work as evidence instead of having to refer readers to dense, esoteric history books.
I have countless memories over the years of proceeding to tell people that what I’m about to say to you is not conspiracy theory but facts when I share Haiti’s early history with folks. Now I can point them to The Ransom and make my case to the diaspora about why we need to create a new narrative for Haiti, the land of the mountains, that we so love but feel so powerless to affect changes.
The time to act is now