August9,2010

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 TimesGawker, 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.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by phiona okumu, mrs. s., mrs. s., J Danielle , J Danielle and others. J Danielle said: Media fails in its coverage of Wyclef Jean's Quest to be President of Haiti. http://ow.ly/2mIgg [...]

  2. “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.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I thought the same thing. ‘Why are they talking to Sean Penn about political matters?’ And I thought it was very careless and arrogant of Sean (as he’s known to be) to agree to offer an opinion at all.

    I’m unsure if Wyclef is qualified or prepared to run Haiti, but I think it would be a big mistake to dismiss him solely based on the ‘lack of political experience’ angle. He’s running his campaign on a platform of “change” and he’s actively reaching out to the young people of Haiti who are tired of the status quo. And like you said, when given the choice of alternatives, he might not look so bad to Haitian voters.

    If I remember correctly, the GOP, Dems and certain sections of the media tried to dismiss a certain junior Senator from Illinois based on ‘lack of experience’ and well…we all know what happened to him.

    Another excellent post, btw.

    • I think it’s interesting that Penn refused to mention what candidate he’s supporting. To me, that would have made his comments more relevant.

      Thanks for the compliment and for being one of my first readers early on!

  3. Sean Penn has weighed in on politics for years, which is why I’m not surprised CNN asked a celebrity how he felt about another celebrity running. I think it’s less about black and white and more about “celebrity” with Wyclef Jean being somewhere on the C-list of ‘elebrity. Needless to say, sharing an ethnic identity or even being present in a community does not make an opinion or decision more valid. (See: Michael Steele and Clarence Thomas.) The most important question I think Wyclef should have been asked is has he voted in a Haitian election and/or is he eligible to vote in Haiti. If not, how the hell is able to run for President? Color me confused with a tinge of brown.

    In the case of Sean Penn, I’m personally mentally tired of the term “white savior” being thrown around because I care not what color a person comes in that is doing good. Sean Penn took a boat out in flooding waters to save lives after Katrina and is operating a 55K person camp –he has saved more lives than the average person black or white. What’s his motivation? I don’t know. It could be old age trying to earn some life brownie points for his formerly abusive ways but what do I care? Plenty of actors –white and black– with more or similar means have not been motivated to do the same. ( I’m still not going to watch his movies but I’m not going to slam the man because of the made for TV movies that has the white savior annoying because of Hollywood’s consistent storyline on the subject.)

    But, I digress, I don’t think people are against Wyclef solely because he has no experience. I think a lot of it has to do with his celebrity, his lack of perceived knowledge, his failure with money in a nonprofit and personal setting. The people of Haiti definitely, not to be confused with those unable to vote in Haiti, are the decision makers when it comes to deciding who should operate the country. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t weigh in on the Bob Marley impostor being the potential president of a country.

    • Your first comment about asking Penn because he’s a celebrity and so is Jean is exactly my point. The media is lazy and that is a lazy way to 1. attract viewers and 2. to set up a story.
      In terms of the white savior meme, I don’t like it when terms are “thrown around,” except when they are appropriate which I believe it is here. If only things were as simple as “this person is helpful and just happens to be white.” But it isn’t, and I don’t think we should shy away from calling the media out when they take that particular slant. That’s part of why I started this blog–to have discussions about how the media colors our perceptions.

      In terms of weighing in on Wyclef’s candidacy, I think everyone can weigh in the same way we express our opinions on anything, but there was no excuse not to have some one familiar with Haitian politics give the opposing view on the same show as Wyclef. The reason I said “preferably” Haitian is because a Haitian will see this election from a different vantage point. Clarance Thomas and Michael Steele ABSOLUTELY see things from a different vantage point based on their race. They just don’t agree with the majority of blacks when it comes social issues, but is their opinion more relevant to critique than a white person’s when it comes to black issues? Absolutely, in my opinion.

      • I’m never afraid to call the media out when necessary but I don’t think Sean Penn is being utilized for ratings because there was no big splashy ad about Sean Penn being on the show. If one didn’t tune in to the show with the intention of viewing Wyclef, then there would be no knowledge of Sean Penn’s presence on the show, which means to me he wasn’t the main attraction. Other than on blogs, I have seen few people actually reference Sean Penn’s statement on a loop.

        I merely believe they used Sean Penn versus someone familiar with Haitian politics because Wyclef Jean running has been perceived as a joke. It is viewed as an action not to be taken seriously –although he has a good chance of winning based on brand. Never has celebrity been more beneficial in politics than in this case. (Generally, we’re all in agreement that celebrities like, say, Gary Coleman running for office is a joke.) In this case, it seems, some people are like “oh it’s just Haiti Wyclef can make it anymore worse. Plus, Americans know him b/c he was in the Fugees band and they sold a lot. ” These are the comments that I’m more taken aback by. I know Haitian Americans that are not famous that are a million times more informed than Wyclef Jean and demonstrate their love for Haiti in every way through social actions. I find it hard to believe that Wyclef Jean is the only frontrunner Haiti has, and right now, he’s the talk of the town because he’s in the front.

        Michael Steele and Clarence Thomas have no great insight on black issues. I’d rather that girl from RW who was studying black history –what was her name?– address black issues than either of them.

        Anywho, enjoyed the post even if I disagree with some of it. And, thumbs up to the blog.

  4. This was a great post and analysis, Jessica, thank you! As you know, I restarted my blog with Wyclef posts, although I didn’t mean for them to be solely focused upon him, it was just the timing. It incenses me that we don’t hear more from Haitians, themselves, but perhaps that would be way too much agency and humanity for Americans to swallow. Who knows? What I do know is that if Wyclef weren’t running for President, many of us wouldn’t even be thinking about Haitian politics right now. Relief, maybe, but not the political structure. Given your interesting in political science, you probably would but still… you get my point. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for commenting Goddess. You know, if not for Wyclef running, I would probably pay as much attention to Haitian politics as the mainstream media provided. I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to find out more information.

      To the media’s credit they have NOT forgotten about Haiti. Every day there are new stories from new angles. I think MSM has covered the country very creatively and in a balanced fashion since the earthquake.

      However, I do believe they’ve faltered in coverage of the election. Now that Wyclef is running, in particular for those of us who love politics, it creates a natural urge to know who he’s up against. And I hope that over the next month or two the media takes time out to look at the other candidates. When they do, I would not be surprised to see the media come over to close to being on Wyclef’s side and, subsequently, public opinion. Funny how that seems to happen.

  5. Thanks Neka, I appreciate that. Cnn scored ratings with Sean Penn after the fact. CNN ran the story all day with the headline: Developing story: Wyclef Jean vs. Sean Penn, even though, by then NOTHING was developing. Plus as other outlets copied that headline, they linked to CNN.

    In terms of you finding it hard to believe that Wyclef is the only front runner, that’s part of the reason why I am lamenting in the post the fact that the media is only covering the person they know. I looked over the candidates…tough choices there.

    TOTALLY disagree about Thomas and Steele. If you read Thomas’s autobiography, you can see that his opinions, though damaging to blacks in my opinion, are ABSOLUTELY shaped by his experiences as a black man and the belief he holds that individuals are more responsible for their future than institutions. I mean Thomas grew up speaking gullah for God sakes. Same thing with Condi Rice– her particular experience as black person was opinion forming. I don’t think that Bill Cosby’s social politics re: personal responsibility are far from Rice and Thomas’s, and certain Cosby understands being black, he just comes out on the wrong side of the argument as far as I’m concerned.

    I think for these same reasons Haitian Americans will view Jean’s run as different from Haitians, even if they agree on him, it may be for different reasons.

  6. Loved this! I was also puzzled and irritated by Sean Penn following Wyclef. Since I wouldn’t expect CNN to do something “newsworthy” like interviewing at least one opposing candidate in the election, another choice could have been @RAMHaiti, who sort of has the opposite story as Wyclef – he was born in America to Haitian immigrants, but moved back there to run a hotel as an adult. He has become a HuffPo writer after his constant tweets during the earthquake aftermath. But Sean Penn? Boo

    • I’ve been following RamHaiti’s tweets. I really enjoy them. I agree he would be a good choice, it seemed he had fair criticisms of Wyclef and other candidates. re: Sean Penn, I’ve been reading message boards that are white slanted, and those white folks ain’t too happy with Penn. Some of the comments have been HILARIOUS. Interesting to note the racial differences in perception.

  7. [...] This post was Twitted by Terrysboy [...]

  8. This definitely brings a different perspective to the topic. One thing though is that the comparative politics example of Wyclef = Justin Timberlake isn’t quite right. I would think a more appropriate example would be an American ex-pat who is well loved in the USA but hasn’t lived here for many years. I don’t know who such a person would be but that’s an additional factor of Wyclef’s candidacy that needs to be highlighted in addition to just his celebrity.

    • I agree with that criticism…it’s just that it’s so hard to come up with a US equivalent because people don’t leave this country very often for political reasons. And in the US, although we may CHOOSE harmful leaders, there’s usually a good choice on the other side that lost. I feel like Haiti rarely has that option (if they ever have). So that was the crux of my point.

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