A few (sour) views on the NYT’s celebration of Sean Penn, Haiti relief worker

Sean Penn

For those of you who read the NYTimes magazine story about Sean Penn’s relief work in Haiti, here are a few thoughts on this high-profile DIY foreign aid operation from Tom Murphy at A View From The Cave:

It is good to hear Penn admit that he had no idea what he was doing for the first six months. However, that means that he could have been making things worse (emphasis on could)…. He was never going to work as a part of a traditional NGO and the article makes it seem that he would not have been effective if he had done so.

The NYTimes magazine claims that Penn’s operation is widely recognized as “one of the most efficient aid outfits working in Haiti today.” The article quotes a few key supporters, but I was left wondering if this was a characterization shared by the rest of the international relief community — or just the writer’s assessment.

I thought this little throw-away sentence interesting:

Penn sometimes carries a Glock, but the fire extinguisher, he claims, is a far more efficient tool for crowd control.

Here’s a more pointed analysis of the NYTimes’ celebration of Sean Penn aid worker. Ghana-based aid/development expert Matt Muspratt notes in his blog post “Erasing Haitians New York Times’ style,” there is no single Haitian man or woman quoted (or perhaps even interviewed?) about the impact of Penn’s work aimed at helping Haitians.

Muspratt says stories about American celebrities (or other “voluntourists”) coming in to help a poor country are often guilty of “erasure journalism” — the tendency to focus on the benefactors and ignore the recipients:

But erasure journalism’s trademark is that it’s oblivious to what it has done. While The NYTtimes’) Heller and Mitchell appear critically insightful — is Penn genuine?  is the voluntourism project useful? — they have wildly missed the point.

Penn may or may not have altruistic motivations, a voluntourism project may or may not improve people’s lives, but the New York Times has certainly expelled people from their homes, expunged them from their own stories, and not even bothered to ask whether Penn and voluntourism are doing the same.

Finally, the normally cranky AidWatch offers a less critical view of Senn Penn’s work in Haiti, at least when compared with Madonna as a humanitarian. Is that what they mean by damning with faint praise?

In the end, you can’t hold Penn responsible for how he’s portrayed by the New York Times. And it sounds like he may actually be doing some good.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Joni Caggiano

    Sean Penn is doing some amazing work in Haiti.  I know of his work and he has made an enormous difference.  To find fault with anyone who is making such a sacrifice is just sad.  Why must we always try and find fault when someone is giving so much.  He is an incredible actor but this may be his legacy.  This work is saving lives and he has others who are helping him as well, such as R. Hotes who has built over 500 homes (real homes) in Haiti. When you dare to take something on this big, you dare to risk so much.  He has bonded to the people of Haiti and truly cares about their future.  Just think what would happen if others would follow his lead and the Richard Hotes Foundation.  Those who have money who care enough to give both in labor and in monetary ways?  Stand up and follow the lead of these men instead of trying so hard to find fault at any cost.  

    We sometimes forget that their are no resources for these people to pull from such as food banks, shelters, loans for education, and without the help of these people where would Haiti be today.  Many of the large NGO’s gather millions of dollars for aid and then what, where are they?  What have they done and where did all that money go?  I for one would like to know.

    God bless these men R. Hotes and Sean Penn and aid workers who were in Haiti helping prior to the disaster that are still there.  May we all give prayers for their continued good health and great work!

    JC in North Carolina

  • Jhclark1984

    Joni I agree. I read Matt’s article as well. I completely agree with him on how we in the west tend to find heroes who look like us to laud praise onto and ignore the realities facing the people affected. However, Sean Penn is not one of those people. Yes he is white and Western but as this article plainly points out, while others left, including the Western media, he stayed. He is no Western hero. Most Westerners love his acting but hate him as a person. I think many of these naysayers are ignoring the many people-oriented news organizations and local leaders who praise Sean Penn’s work.