Tragedy in Haiti (When a Reporter Not Named Geraldo Loses It, You Know Things Are Bad)

by Stephen Hebert on Saturday - 16 January 2010

in This and That

During a report titled “Aid Begins to Work Its Way Into Haiti” last Thursday, January 14th, NPR’s Jason Beaubien lost composure while describing a little girl that he was watching as she awaited medical attention. Here’s the excerpt from the official transcript of Beaubien’s conversation with Melissa Block of All Things Considered:

BLOCK: NPR’s Jason Beaubien joins us from Port-au-Prince. Jason, describe where you are right now, please, and what you’re seeing.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Right now I’m outside the Villa Creole Hotel, which is in the Petionville neighborhood – an elite neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. And it’s really quite amazing, people have brought their injured children out front here because they know that there are medical – Western medical doctors staying inside. So, people have come here to try to get attention for – mainly for their children. There’s a girl – I’m sorry. There’s a girl right in front of me at the moment. She’s covered in bandages. She’s laying on just some – what are they – they’re from the deck chairs that would be by the pool. She’s naked except for what looks like a tablecloth on top of her. And she keeps lifting her head and her lips are shaking.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BEAUBIEN: Sorry, Melissa.

BLOCK: That’s okay.

BEAUBIEN: It’s heartbreaking what’s happening here. And there are people just in the streets everywhere. When you drive through, there are tent cities that have been sort of set up just in little lots. People are clearly just living wherever they can.

BLOCK: Jason, the girl you just described, is she getting any medical attention there?

BEAUBIEN: She clearly has gotten some medical attention because there are fresh bandages on her. And there are other people who are getting medical attention. But the numbers are just so huge that there are people who are waiting for attention. There’s clearly the expectation that there are people who are still trapped in some of these buildings.

BLOCK: Does the girl have any family there with her, do you know?

BEAUBIEN: I assume that she has family here, but it’s really quite striking. She’s lying out in what would just normally be the driveway and there’s no one around her.

The following day on All Things Considered, the hosts read mail from listeners commenting on Beaubien’s report. Some wrote in to say how unprofessional Beaubien was. A reporter should never lose composure, but should remain objective and not get involved in the story. By losing composure, Beaubien had become an embarrassment to the field of journalism.

I suppose the people that wrote this are Vulcans or something. The censure reserved for Beaubien by these emotionless people surprised me. Go to the link above and listen to Beaubien as he describes the little girl’s quivering lip. How can you listen to that and then get upset with Beaubien’s inability to hold it together?

My reaction to his report was quite different than this Vulcan reaction. It came in two waves:

  1. A Recognition of the Human Situation. Up to this point, the tragedy in Haiti had been little more than words to me. I have not really looked at images of the devastation, nor have I seen video. Instead, I’ve just heard radio reports. This was the first time that I really felt something, the first time that I was really touched. While Beaubien’s broken voice dripped with pathos, I began to understand exactly what was going on here. This was not Geraldo at the Superdome ripping children from the arms of their mothers in what looked like a horribly transparent attempt to gain viewers and publicity. No, this was an objective, professional reporter putting a human face on a situation for a national radio audience.
  2. I Grew Angry. Here I am, driving home from work and listening to Beaubien’s report from the comfort of my vehicle. There’s nothing for me to do but cook dinner, read a little bit, and then head to bed. The only way that I can aid this situation might be to send money as I don’t possess any skills that would make me useful there. I’m no doctor, I’m no lawyer. Now I’m listening to Beaubien breaking up as he tells me about a girl that is sitting right in front of him. A girl in need of family, love, medicine, attention. I’m selfishly soaking it up and sympathizing for the child. What I want Beaubien to do is put down the microphone and take her to a doctor or just hold her so that that lip stops quivering. “Jason, put the mic down!” I yell at the radio, but Melissa Block keeps asking him question. Why? Because he’s a reporter and that’s what he’s supposed to do.

Don’t tell me Beaubien is not a professional.

So, where do we go from here? Estimated death tolls are now reaching into six figures, meaning that a large percentage of the Haitian capital’s inhabitants have perished, and that this disaster could go down as the second worst in history just behind the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. What can I do other than listen to reporters and pray? I’m helpless and powerless and that annoys me.

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