< The Long Run


Friday, January 29, 2010

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Before even the first aftershock of the Haiti earthquake, journalist Steve Coll explained how disaster coverage follows a prescribed path. For instance, on day five you'll have your late miracle story, someone pulled alive from the rubble, for example. On the first Sunday following the tragedy, there'll be the interpretation of meaning stories and lots of interviews with religious leaders. And day 12 he calls “heading for the exits.” According to Coll, that’s when editors begin to call their reporters home. So far, Steve Coll seems to be right, most recently about that last one. Two weeks after the earthquake, TV networks and print outlets are dramatically scaling back their Haiti presence. But one journalist who isn't going anywhere is the Associated Press’ Jonathan Katz. Before the earthquake he was the only American reporter based permanently in Haiti. We spoke to him on a bad phone line from Port-au-Prince, and he told us that before February 12th he was pretty much on his own down there.

JONATHAN KATZ: It’s true that I don't usually get a lot of company on the island, until something major happens. As it happens, something major seems to happen in Haiti every couple of years and it then gets that kind of attention, but it’s certainly not constant. I very much have the beat to myself a lot of the time.

BOB GARFIELD: In the absence of infrastructure and ordinary resources like cell phone coverage and Internet, and so forth, has your knowledge and your connections on the island conferred any sort of advantage to you, or are you just as lost as anybody else?

JONATHAN KATZ: Well, fortunately and unfortunately, this tragedy is not the first time that we've had experience here with downed cell phone lines or ineffective communication networks or, you know, emails that get lost in the ether. It’s something that we're used to. But there’s a lot of things that go into reporting about a country like this that don't necessarily come down to being able to get ahold of somebody right at the particular moment that you need to get ahold of that one person. It has a lot to do with understanding the history, understanding the culture. And when you’re talking to somebody on the street, which is really where I try to focus my coverage, talking to Haitians and finding out how they're experiencing what’s going on at any particular moment, that context comes into play and it enables me, I think, I hope, to provide a certain amount of understanding and background in the story that maybe somebody who had just parachuted in wouldn't be able to provide. But frankly, in those first days, I didn't know, if I needed to get ahold of a source, if they were even alive or dead.

BOB GARFIELD: Have you had to bury some substantial percentage of your Rolodex?

JONATHAN KATZ: I've lost friends in this earthquake, not just contacts but people who were friends of mine, people who were important. Um, Beyond that, there are a number of officials or, or people who I'd had contacts with at various points, people who I would have ordinarily turned to in a situation like this who I would be in touch with right now, asking their opinions, asking for information, who are gone. And that’s – that’s something that I don't think anybody’s prepared for.

BOB GARFIELD: What’s your reaction to the fact that the world’s interests are going to move on now to the next big story, the next catastrophe?

JONATHAN KATZ: As a journalist, it’s certainly something that I understand. Audiences hold their attention on a certain story for a certain amount of time and then after that they move on to other things. People for whom Haiti is not part of their daily reality and their daily lives, they only maybe have so much emotional effort to expend on a single tragedy like this. But, as somebody who’s seeing the incredible levels of suffering that are going on in this country right now, I hope that the waning of attention is temporary and measured and is not the full extent that we've see in the past where it basically just falls down to zero until the next tragedy happens, because this tragedy is not over and will not be for a very, very long time.

BOB GARFIELD: One final thing, Jonathan: When CNN and ABC and NBC and a bunch of newspapers pull up stakes and fly back to the mainland -


BOB GARFIELD: - they are going to be ceding to you once again the Haiti story. You know, has it occurred to you that, you know, you may be the sole American journalistic witness to the reconstruction of a society from dust?

JONATHAN KATZ: It’s, it’s possible. I mean, it’s occurred to me. I don't, I don’t know how quickly that’s going to happen, really. I mean, we're seeing a scaling down, but it’s not scaling down to zero or one, as the case [LAUGHING] may have been. I don't think that we're going to see, over the course of this year, and this is speculation, but I don't think we're going to see over the course of this year a situation where I'm the only one here. A lot of journalists have come here for the first time, and they've discovered this place and, and they left talking about wanting to come back and do stories over the coming months and probably the coming years. So I don't think that it’s going to go back quite to the level where it was before. But, yeah, I mean, I think to a certain extent the responsibility is going to fall back on us, once again, to be at least a very, very significant part of the coverage here, and it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously, and it certainly provides a lot of opportunities to do stories that other people aren't going to do, and hopefully [LAUGHS] if people really do pull out, they'll continue reading our stuff.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jonathan, I thank you very much.


BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Katz is the Haiti correspondent for the Associated Press.