Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Press Releases: Haiti troubles

Published in the Portland Phoenix

What can we learn from the Portland Press Herald's month-long-and-counting series following the beleaguered Sea Hunter ship carrying relief supplies from Portland to Haiti? Quite a bit, but more about the Press Herald's commitment to skeptical observing and detached reporting than anything else.

It certainly seemed a decent enough idea: A Maine-based ship owner volunteered to carry donated relief aid from Mainers (and some others along the East Coast) to Haiti in his ship, the Sea Hunter. Among the key items was a 37-foot truck equipped as a mobile medical-treatment facility, with exam rooms and other supplies, donated by the Augusta-based Maine Migrant Health Program to Konbit Sante, a Portland-based group providing community medical care in northern Haiti. Sending columnist Bill Nemitz along for the ride would generate good and interesting copy, tell a nice happy warm story about local do-gooders, and — crucially — give PPH readers something they couldn't get anywhere else.

As it turned out, though, the ship was found to have violated a few pesky US Coast Guard shipping rules about how much it could carry and how qualified its captain was, languished for ages under a detention order in Miami, and was only able to sail for Haiti with the intervention of Maine's congressional delegation and the donated time of a retired mariner (the second; he signed on after the first retired-mariner volunteer deemed the ship too unsafe for him to captain).

When it finally got to Haiti, it sat offshore for days, waiting for clearance to unload. Any semblance of speedy or effective relief had long since disappeared, but Nemitz gamely remained on the ever-extending story — in for a dime, in for a dollar. His journalistic ability was stretched beyond its limit; it was difficult to bring interest, much less drama, to the mind-bendingly mundane bureaucratic issues the ship owner had failed to anticipate. 

What he has to show for it is, more or less, a chronicle of repeated stymieing of one man's ill-informed though good-hearted idea.

But Nemitz and his newspaper never actually published the very basic observation they were showing: No matter how well-meaning a DIY relief effort is, professional aid organizations exist for a reason — including their ability to anticipate and work through (or around) the kinds of obstacles the Sea Hunter faced.

The fact that such an unremarkable insight has never seen ink in the thousands of words the PPH has printed on the subject makes it, in the end, hard to avoid the conclusion that this series was more about making Mainers feel good about themselves than about shedding light on the situation in Haiti.

Unfortunately, nobody at PPH HQ noticed the story had changed. The ship owner was repeatedly portrayed as a hapless victim of overweening bureaucracy, rather than as the guy who created the entire snafu in the first place: A water desalinator, food, and medicine arrived weeks after the direst need abated, though admittedly they would be welcome at any time in such an impoverished place.

What about that big-ticket piece of cargo, from Mainers to a Maine-led group in Haiti? In a dispatch filed nearly five weeks after leaving Portland, when unloading finally began, Nemitz revealed that that 37-foot medical-treatment truck would actually have to return to Maine for lack of anywhere to offload it.