Media’s Coverage of Wyclef Jean is Disappointing
Last week Haitian rapper, singer, and philanthropist Wyclef Jean registered with the Haitan electoral board as part of his quest to run for President of the country. The council will review Jean’s paperwork to ensure he meets the necessary requirements before he is actually approved as a candidate.
Jean confirmed his intentions early in the week but didn’t officially announce it until Thursday. He arrived in Haiti to a throng of supporters and later that night appeared on CNN’s Larry King Show to make the official announcement. Jean’s statements on King’s show didn’t exactly reflect positively on him as a candidate; however, CNN all but masked any flaws Jean showed that night by making a perplexing choice to interview Sean Penn in an uncomfortable second half segment. Penn opposes Jean’s candidacy and was given a platform to make serious allegations against him putting Jean in the awkward position of having to respond a day after the fact.
The next day, most news outlets cast the interview (and essentially the election) as Wyclef Jean vs. Sean Penn (numerous outlets used those words as a headline e.g. the LA Times, Gawker, and CNN). As the week went on outlets like the NY Times to The Root published articles slamming Jean’s decision to run.
Two things struck me about the coverage thus far: the emerging “white savior” narrative and the fact that the media has made no effort to put Jean’s candidacy in context.
The White Savior Narrative
The only thing odder than CNN’s decision to interview Penn on the same show without notifying Jean that Penn would be attacking him, was the network’s decision to have Penn on-air at all. When Wolf Blitzer, filling in for Larry King, announced that Penn would be on the next segment of the show, I thought it odd as this was a show about the political election of Haiti, not the status of efforts on the ground–a subject about which Penn is more qualified to speak as he is currently managing a 60K person tent city. However, Penn is not running for President of Haiti, nor is he Haitian, nor has he political experience, nor did he mention which candidate he was supporting. More than that, he didn’t express an interest in campaigning against Jean.
From where I sit, that makes Penn and Jean irrelative. Still, the media is running away with a battle-oriented storyline that just happens to fit neatly into the smart-and-caring-white-man-saves-savage-black-people-from-themselves meme that’s been pushed over and over for hundreds of years. No matter that Jean has had an established relationship with Haiti for decades, Penn only has to be there 6 months and his opinion is automatically elevated. Needless to say, there’s some strange fruit on this tree.
Were CNN responsible, they would have spent the second segment of the show explaining Haiti’s political process and speaking with political experts (preferably Haitian) rather than American health experts like Sanjay Gupta (even CNN’s Roland Martin, himself a Haitian, would have been preferable to Gupta) about what type of leadership Haiti needs going forward. The on-the-ground efforts could have been covered on a separate show in which Penn could have explained in detail what he’s doing in Haiti, his personal opinions on the election, and why we should even give a damn what he thinks. Whatever the case, Penn and Jean shouldn’t have been cast against each other and there was absolutely no reason to choose a non-Haitian American to give the opposing view of Jean’s announcement.
Comparative Politics Missing In Action
Though several writers have posted their opinions about Jean’s candidacy–most of them in opposition–none so far have analyzed the election comparatively. As political science geek, this bothers me to a degree you cannot fathom. 20 candidates have registered with the election council and they range from novice non-politicians like Jean to seasoned veterans of the political game with dicey ties to previous Haitian administrations. In looking over the list and descriptions of the candidates, Haitians have a hard choice: Pick someone who is associated with previous governments (whether in support or opposition) or choose someone with little to no experience politically.
Maybe Jean isn’t the right person to lead Haiti, but when you look at the other candidates it’s hard to justify telling him not to run. For example, at least 6 candidates (including Jean) have no political experience beyond being a government liaison or activist. Like any country, Haiti would benefit from a politically experienced, sincere, and impartial leader. But if no one with all three of those qualities enters the race, then what? To bring this analogy to the States, let’s say Justin Timberlake (who I love) runs for President of the United States. You’d probably dismiss him immediately. But what if you find out Timberlake’s opponents are Michelle Bachman and Rand Paul? Suddenly, Timberlake looks like a fine choice. In this scenario, the hypothetical election becomes a question of intent rather than experience or history. For those who don’t follow politics closely, such scenarios are not uncommon throughout the world. I’m disappointed to see the lack of complete political analysis afforded this story and the fact that the media has lazily decided to only focus on the devil they know.
The Haitian electoral council will notify candidates of whether they are approved to run by August 17. There’s still plenty of time for American media to clean up their act and help us understand the situation more fully even if they insist upon finding a sexy angle.