The Times, Haiti, and the treacherous bridge linking history and journalism, by Jon ALLSOP

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The Times, Haiti, and the treacherous bridge linking history and journalism


HAITI’S LOST BILLIONS. “The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers.” “How a French Bank Captured Haiti.” “Invade Haiti, Wall Street Urged. The US Obliged.” “Demanding Reparations, and Ending Up in Exile.” These were the top headlines in a sprawling package of articles—totaling tens of thousands of words and written primarily by four reporters, with the help of more than a dozen researchers in at least six locations on two continents—that the New York Times published on Haiti over the weekend, under the rubric “The Ransom.” The package took the form of a slick multimedia production online and a special section in print, trailed on Sunday’s front page across four columns under a large illustration of plantations burning during the Haitian Revolution, when enslaved Africans won independence from French colonial rule.

Though the events of the illustration date to 1791, the package really picks up Haiti’s story in 1825, more than twenty years after it declared independence, when the French returned and demanded that Haiti give them “reparations” or else face a war, setting the stage for decades of debt and exploitation. “For years, as New York Times journalists have chronicled Haiti’s travails, a question has hovered: What if? What if the nation had not been looted by outside powers, foreign banks and its own leaders almost since birth? How much more money might it have had to build a nation?” the paper asked. “For more than a year, a team of Times correspondents scoured long-forgotten documents languishing in archives and libraries on three continents to answer that question, to put a number on what it cost Haitians to be free.” The paper concluded—and fourteen experts agreed—that the payments have cost Haiti at least twenty-one billion dollars in lost growth, and quite possibly much more. The Times described the story as a whole as “rarely taught or acknowledged,” and claimed that “leading historians” viewed its efforts to calculate the payments as “a first.” Monica Drake, a Times editor, described the package as “investigative journalism, the documents are just really old.”

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