Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper posted an interview with Rebecca Solnit, conducted by John Allemang, in which they discuss the press’ coverage of the Port-au-Prince earthquake.
When San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit examined the way people respond to disasters in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell , she became convinced that the mass media too often distorts the human side of calamity. That thought has returned as she’s been watching the coverage of the Haiti earthquake turn into dispiriting descriptions both of looting and the reprisals it generates. In response, she wrote an impassioned column for TomDispatch.com in which she attacked the media for misunderstanding and misrepresenting the Haitians’ survival instincts. She spoke to The Globe and Mail’s John Allemang about the kind of journalistic values an earthquake should generate.
In times of disaster, we’re used to thinking of the media as our eye on the world, our compassionate surrogates, even the driving force for improving aid efforts – yet you’ve branded their coverage in Haiti as criminal. What do you mean?
It’s true we’ve seen some journalists break out of their aloof and objective role to denounce the inadequacy of relief efforts and act as advocates, providing shelter, rescuing people or sharing water. But many other people tend to believe and promote the old myths that are widespread in a disaster – the assumption that when things go wrong, we revert to a primordial state that is barbaric and competitive.
You’re talking about the media’s portrayal of looting and panic in Haiti, which you’ve said endorses a shift of resources from rescue to property patrol.
Why are they going out and looking for stories about looting when people simply have no alternative method to get goods? And why the hell does it matter? The big issue for me is this: The media are obsessed with property relations at a time when human life is at stake. Are property relations really more valuable than human life?
But isn’t this a crucial part of restoring order?
Well whose sense of order is being protected? The business community’s, the people in power for whom property is more valuable than human life. So restoring order comes to mean restoring property relations rather than seeing things as being out of order because people are suffering and desperate and in need. Somehow it’s become illegitimate and disordered because people aren’t using their ATM card to get their drinking water. The fact that you can’t use your ATM card in a world without electricity and commerce doesn’t get addressed. The idea that taking water isn’t a crime when people are dying of thirst – that doesn’t get addressed either.
You’ve commented that what the media describes as theft can just as easily be seen as an altruistic act – the “looter” with the rolls of fabric could be someone trying to improvise tents for the homeless.
I really think the word looting should be eliminated from disaster coverage, it’s just a word that gets people all excited. I like to say that people are requisitioning material, or even better, foraging. They’re hunter-gatherers, in a sense: The stuff is there and they collect it because the ordinary systems and regulations no longer exist. Yes, the storekeeper has a loss. But if you go back and study other disasters, like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, you find that people actively gave things away knowing other people might need them. They weren’t concerned about the future and saving things and long-term plans and profits.
Your recent book, A Paradise Built in Hell , takes the view that disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax explosion, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have brought out the best in people. I don’t mean to sound too cynical and old-media, but is it possible this belief in human goodness might be too naive?
Actually, I don’t use the word “good” because I think that’s an ethical value judgment. I think you can better describe people as resourceful, creative and altruistic. Look at 9/11: It was framed in the media as men in uniform doing heroic things with the implication that ordinary people were fairly helpless and needed those rescuers. In fact, a lot of those rescuers became victims, while the ordinary people often evacuated themselves successfully – in many ways despite the behaviour of official institutions rather than because of them.
The interview appeared at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/bad-press-in-haiti-why-the-focus-on-looting/article1450114/
Photo of Rebecca Solnit by Jim Herrington at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimherrington/3390681080/