U.S. Network Television News Framing of the February 2004 Overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Article excerpt

For the nearly fourteen years from the time of his entry on the Haitian national political scene with his victory in the presidential election of December 1990 until his overthrow in February 2004, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the dominant figure in Haiti's struggle to develop a meaningful democratic system. A polarizing figure from the start (a saviour to the poor and an anathema to the elite), his political career was marked by both personal controversy and a number of high-profile events: in addition to his decisive 1990 electoral victory, the most notable being the military coup that deposed him in 1991 and the U.S.-led military intervention that restored him to power in 1994 (Soderlund, 2006).

This study examines U.S. television network news coverage of what is, to this point at least, the last chapter in Jean-Bertrand Aristide's political career in Haiti: the domestic insurgency and international maneuvering that led to his resignation from the presidency and departure from Haiti to exile in Africa on February 29, 2004.1 Prime-time television news coverage of events leading to the overthrow of President Aristide on ABC's "World News Tonight", CBS's "Evening News", and NEC's "Nightly News" comprise the database for the study. Using video tapes of 53 news stories provided by the Vanderbilt University Televison News Archive, U.S. network television news coverage of the final weeks of Mr. Aristide's presidency is examined on the following dimensions of story importance: number and date of news stories and their placement in newscasts, as well as the time allotted to them. Coded as well were the sources used in compiling the stories and the "frames" employed to explain to American audiences what was happening in Haiti and how this might affect the United States. We also speculate on how media coverage would likely influence U.S. public perceptions of the political situation in Haiti in term of exerting pressure for continued aid to the new Haitian government. In addition, descriptive language used with respect to (1) President Aristide; (2) the rebel forces in Haiti seeking to overthrow him; (3) Haiti, as a country; and (4) the policies pursued by the U.S. government and U.S. President George W. Bush was recorded, coded, and analyzed to ascertain likely audience effects. Evaluated as well is the likely impact of visual material included in stories dealing with Haiti on U.S. audience interpretations of events occurring there.2

Since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, the United States has played an influential, if not a decisive, role in Haitian politics. And, as Robert Entman has pointed out, "[t]he public's actual opinions arise from framed information, from selected highlights of events, issues, and problems, rather than from direct contact with the realities of foreign affairs" (2004, p. 123). While U.S. foreign policy cannot be said to be public opinion-driven, this important event in Haitian politics, which resulted in the country falling into the status of a truly "collapsed state" (Zartman, 1995; also see Mazrui, 1995), cannot but reignite the issue of the efficacy of continued U.S. aid to Haiti in public policy debate. In the context of Haiti's quest for political stability combined with honest and democratic government, how the 2004 rebellion and the overthrow of the Haitian president it provoked was portrayed in U.S. media might prove to be a significant variable in how quickly and generously the U.S. government responds to Haiti's needs following René Préval's victory in the February 2006 elections (see Orenstein, 1995).

History

The event in the history of U.S. involvement in the affairs of Haiti that set in motion the events of February 2004 can be fixed fairly precisely (February 7,1986), with the "assist" given by the Reagan administration in the removal of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. United States interest in Haiti goes back a long way, at least to its struggle for independence from France during the first years of the 19th century. …

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