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.

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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.