Media coverage of disasters on television is formulaic. Consider hurricane coverage, for example. The cycle is well-established: start with shots of empty grocery store shelves (time to stock up!) and people boarding up windows. Throw in an interview with idiots who plan to "tough it out." Lots of cutaways to the storm-addled reporter giving important updates ("It's really windy, Bob! Back to you!") while getting pelted with 80 mph rain. After the storm serve up the oh-the-humanity destruction footage. And complete the cycle with a day of footage of and moral panic about looting. Gotta have the looting. There is no better indication of the class biases and motives of the mainstream media than its obsession with looting during times of unspeakable human tragedy.
It sure didn't take the cable news networks to move beyond the human suffering frame in Haiti to get to the important question: is the property OK? Matthew L. directed me to this piece about the media's obsession with the possibility that people might be taking things for which they did not pay. It is stunning how they can't connect the stories they run from one minute to the next; they leap from food shortages and international aid not getting through to the people of Haiti to tales of civil disorder and looting. Well, if people have no food or shelter they're probably going to take whatever they can find, right? This isn't a Sunday afternoon on Long Island. It's a country that was impoverished to begin with and it is in complete ruins. A little "looting" may be understandable given the circumstances. But God forbid the media get hold of footage of looters taking non-essentials (TVs and DVDs instead of food and medicine). Their contempt becomes almost too much to bear; it takes all the strength they can muster to refrain from saying, "Typical. Just typical. Stupid nig…Whoops, we're still on the air, aren't we?" over the footage.
The linked story goes to some lengths to justify the intent of the apparent looters – maybe the man taking fabric from a demolished store needs it to shelter his family from the sun. Maybe the people taking food have starving children. That line of argument is futile for two reasons. First, we'll never know the motives of the people we are observing. Second, who gives a shit? Whether these people are taking food from the rubble or breaking into an undamaged mall to steal cell phones, looting is about 37th on the list of Haiti's most important problems at the moment. The news is now full of stories of police shooting looters on sight (implicitly condoning the idea that every crime becomes a capital offense, no trial required, during a disaster). Is this a wise allocation of resources? There were still survivors in the rubble a week ago, not to mention tens of thousands of corpses ready to rot and kill more people with disease. I can think of a few things the police could be doing other than chasing looters. How is this a priority?
It becomes a priority when the media and governments from the so-called First World impose their twisted worldview on people who have just lost everything. Americans would rather be dead than have someone (black and poor) take their stuff. Isn't that what this kind of coverage is about? A lot of our voyeuristic obsession with disaster coverage is the implicit "This could happen to me" dynamic – but in the American context, "this" refers less to the natural disaster than to the horrifying prospect of life without our shit. Ironically, projecting that materialism onto the people of the poorest country in the hemisphere makes a lot less sense than the looting we see.