What's New and Not in the NYT Haiti BlockbusterBreaking News
tags: colonialism, New York Times, Haiti, journalism, Haitian History
Jonathan M. Katz is the author of Gangsters of Capitalism (2022).
About a year ago, I got a message from my friend Matt Apuzzo, an old AP colleague who is now a big shot at the New York Times. He and his colleagues were working on a story about Haiti’s so-called “independence debt” — the massive ransom and loan the French extorted from Haiti in the decades after the Haitians bottés le cul français in their 1791-1803 Revolution.
Matt wanted my advice starting out. Actually, he really wanted the guidance of my wife, Claire Payton, who has a Ph.D. in Haitian history. As we told him, the broad outlines of that story — the French king’s gunpoint demand, the Haitians’ impossible choice between immiseration or re-invasion, the near-century it took to pay the debts off — are well-known to anyone who knows anything about Haitian history. (I’ve written two books in my life so far, and talked about the debt in both of them.)
But Matt and his colleague told us they working on something new: an investigation that would detail exactly how much the French extracted from Haiti and where the money went. They also planned to dig into the predatory U.S. loan — and subsequent U.S. invasion, demanded by the bank that is now Citigroup — that came as a result.
That story finally dropped over the weekend. “Story” doesn’t really cover it: it’s a four-byline, six-article package with a paper insert in the Sunday edition, teased in a box that dominated the front page. It is, in other words, a News Event — almost certainly modeled on the epic success of the 1619 Project — as only the New York Times can attempt.
The reactions have been … intense. Among the majority of readers who’d never heard (or forgot) that so much of France’s and Citigroup’s wealth was literally stolen at gunpoint from Haiti, it’s been scandal and shock. (I’m getting emails from relatives I talk to once every other year asking if I’ve heard this story before.) My Twitter feed meanwhile is filled with historians who are furious that they weren’t cited for the help they gave the Times, or incredulous that the “Paper of Record” Columbused a central story in the place where Columbusing was invented.
At the risk of a little Timesian bothsidesing, I think both camps have a point. The package did cover a lot of very old ground, a lot of which is presented as if it is new. There’s a lot of “rarely taught or acknowledged,” “the Times reveals,” etc., about things that have been known and talked about by millions of people for decades. But there is value in making this story more widely known in France and the United States. And moreover, there is important reporting that many people who think they know the story are missing.
So as a piece of service journalism for you, dear Racket reader, I’m going to suss out the things that got my attention. Then I’ll theorize about how it is getting lost in the pomp of trying to create a News Event.
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