By Max Fisher, The Atlantic
July 25, 2011
When an American journalist and a cadre of aid workers in Haiti set out to tell a horrible story, they thought they were on the same side. But it didn’t turn out that way.
On September 17, 2010, magazine reporter Mac McClelland climbed into a car in Port-au-Prince. The driver, a Haitian man named Alain Charles, was speeding a young rape victim and her mother to the hospital, and had invited McClelland along. Parts of the Haitian capital had disintegrated into chaos following the earthquake earlier that year, and the sprawling refugee camps were producing stories of horrific and frequent sexual violence. McClelland, on assignment from Mother Jones, where she works, had come to investigate.
Within two days of arriving in Haiti, McClelland linked up with Charles, whose work as a driver and translator for some of Haiti’s largest foreign aid organizations brings him into frequent contact with journalists. He’s also the project coordinator for the Patricia Fleming Fund, which provides safehouses for Haitian rape victims. By taking a ride with one of those victims, a then-24-year-old mother of three, McClelland was hoping to put a human face on Haiti’s rape epidemic.
Instead, their day together became the subject of a heated and still-roiling dispute over what really happened between McClelland and the young Haitian woman, over how McClelland told the story, and over the basic nature of the relationship between journalist, subject, and the intermediary who connects the two. Nearly a year later, the incident has divided much of Haiti’s once tight-knit community of Western journalists and aid workers.
• • • • •
McClelland and the Haitian rape victim she shadowed on September 17 share no common language. The young woman, who now identifies publicly as K*, does not speak English, and McClelland lacks Haitian Creole, a notoriously difficult language for non-native speakers. Before and during her time with K*, McClelland relied on Charles to serve as interpreter. He assured McClelland that she had K*’s consent to ride along on the trip.
McClelland, an active Twitter user who today has over 12,000 followers, began tweeting from her smartphone shortly after getting into the car. “On my way to the hospital with a girl whose tongue was bitten off when she was raped,” she wrote. And later: “This dr’s consultation room has used gynecological exam materials lying about. And she will not look [K*] in the face.” Her tweets throughout the day reported K*’s name, her medical exam, the story of her rape, and her return home to a camp McClelland described as “rape central.”
Within hours, the riveting, revealing tweets had circulated widely, sparking a debate over whether K* was psychologically capable of giving consent so soon after such a traumatic incident. MotherJones.com posted a selection of the tweets, calling them “amazing real-time reportage” and asking readers to “Help fund Mac’s Haiti trip.” But when McClelland’s in-depth, 6,000-plus-word feature ran in Mother Jones‘ print magazine in January, the article contained no mention of K* or of the ride-along that had earlier generated so much interest.
“You have no right. I did not speak to you.”
Sorting out what exactly happened between September and January is difficult. By one account, K* never really consented to having her story told. This is the view of Jayne Fleming, a San Francisco lawyer and the founder of the Patricia Fleming Fund. Named for Jayne’s mother, who left her collection of dresses to needy Haitian women just before she died in April 2010, the Fund provides housing and emergency medical care for Haitian rape victims. She says the plan was only for McClelland to go along for the trip. She adds that she and McClelland had agreed, through Charles, that anything McClelland eventually wrote would have to go through Fleming for approval.
“I am VERY careful to set ground rules when I work with reporters and I have worked with many, including in Haiti,” Fleming wrote in a lengthy September 30 email to McClelland’s editors, which she later posted in the comments section of a related article. “I thought I had set these rules with Mac when I asked her (through Alain) to speak with me before writing about my clients. I have never in ten years had a reporter violate such a verbal agreement.”
Mother Jones editors-in-chief Monika Bauerline and Clara Jeffrey dispute the Fleming account. They say that McClelland initially had the consent of K*, but she later revoked it, putting Mother Jones in a difficult position. McClelland and her editors insist they never agreed to give Fleming a veto over what McClelland wrote. “I think my understanding — and I talked to Jayne quite a bit about this — is we’re all agreeing that Alain called her pretty much on the spot and got permission for the ride-along. And you know he then connected with the family and assured Mac that she had their permission,” Bauerline told me. For Fleming to request prior review would have been unusual; for a national publication like Mother Jones, known for its investigative reporting, to consent would have been very unusual. “I guess there are scenarios when you would want to do that but they would be few and far between,” Bauerline said.
In either case, the result was the same: K*’s story, which at one point was to be the centerpiece of the print article, barely appeared in the final version.
The rift between Fleming and McClelland opened on September 30, when Fleming sent the email harshly criticizing McClelland’s reporting — and at points lambasting McClelland herself. Fleming called her tweets “destructive and potentially life threatening,” accused her of choosing to be “provocative” rather than “considering K*’s emotional condition and safety,” and suggested she is untrustworthy. Fleming concluded, “I could go on, but it seems pointless.”
Fleming asked for K*’s name to be redacted from the web story Mother Jones had already published and fumed at not having been given prior review of McClelland’s tweets, but said nothing at the time to suggest McClelland had lacked K*’s consent. The magazine began work on the print article. Planned for January, it included K*’s story. Fleming, whose knowledge of Haiti and of K* in particular made her an attractive source, stopped returning the editors’ and fact-checkers’ emails.
A few weeks later, on November 2, Fleming emailed the editors a scanned, hand-written letter in Haitian Creole. It was from K*, she said.
You have no right to speak of my story.
You have no right to publish my story in the press
Because I did not give you authorization.
You have no right. I did not speak to you.
You have said things you should not have said.
The magazine, deep in the production cycle, redrafted the story to remove all but the most oblique and passing mention of K*. Fleming backed off, though McClelland’s tweets, as well as the blog post touting them, remained online. The article, a first-person account of McClelland’s time in Haitian displacement camps, ran in January.
• • • • •
That might have been the end of the story. But a few weeks ago, on June 27, McClelland published an essay on the website of Good magazine. Titled, “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD,” it described how, after contracting post-traumatic stress disorder during her reporting trip in Haiti, she medicated herself with rough sex. It also told, for the first time in a full-length article, the story of K*’s rape. Though K*’s name was changed to Sybille, the details, for anyone who knew the story, were unmistakable.
“I think one of the worst things about PTSD is that nobody understands it,” McClelland later told Ms. Magazine. “This conversation needs to be happening. I’m a writer. I can’t really sit around and say, ‘I wish someone else was writing about this, I’m too much of a coward to deal with the consequences.’ I kind of felt like I had to.” She added, “This was not my Haiti coverage; this was about me.”
The provocative article inspired a heated debate among bloggers over its treatment of rape and post-earthquake Haiti. Then, four days after the story went online, a group of 36 women who work in Haiti, mostly as journalists or NGO workers and most of them American, sent an open letter to Jezebel.com denouncing the article. “The way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible,” they wrote. “As women who know and love Haiti, we are deeply troubled by Ms. McClelland’s approach.”
The speed of the backlash, and its apparent size relative to Port-au-Prince’s small community of American journalists, was unusual. “The Good story made it clear to us how out of touch Mac McClelland was with the reality on the ground in Haiti and how little regard she had for the people in her stories,” one of the letter’s organizers told me in an email. But she said their quarrel was about more than just the latest article. “Most if not all were familiar with MacClelland’s other work on Haiti, as well as the controversy regarding the Mother Jones story featuring K*, ‘Mac’s Must-Read Tweets from Haiti.'”
A week later, prominent Haitian author Edwidge Danticat, a small celebrity in the Caribbean nation and one of the women to sign the open letter, posted her own response on Essence.com. She published K*’s November letter saying that McClelland did not have consent to tell her story — the first time it had become public — and wrote that K* was “angry” and felt McClelland had “ignored” her wishes. “Our choices about when and how our story is told must be respected,” K* reportedly told Danticat. The novelist also suggested that K* had never consented to be reported on in the first place.
Ms. McClelland has stated on this same twitter account that she had K*’s permission and K*’s mother’s permission to ride along with them, but she certainly–according to K*’s lawyer, and the driver on the ride along, and K* herself–did not have K*’s permission to tweet personal and confidential information about her.
The post revealed, for the first time publicly, K*’s letter and much of the eight-month-old dispute between Fleming and Mother Jones over the story. But Fleming had only complained about McClelland violating what she says was a promise to grant the lawyer prior review. Danticat’s charge that K* had never consented in the first place was new. Coming so soon after the already controversial Good article, the revelation proved explosive, with critics of McClelland’s Good story clearly feeling vindicated. McClelland’s own bosses said she should not have published the Good piece. “Mac understands that this was a serious lapse in judgment,” Mother Jones editors Bauerline and Jeffrey wrote in the comments at Essence.com. The September MotherJones.com blog post lauding McClelland’s tweets from Haiti went down a few days later. (Bauerline told me they had meant to remove it in November, when they received K*’s letter, and wasn’t sure why it had remained online.) McClelland was less willing to concede fault, writing that she was sorry if she “caused K* any distress whatsoever” and added, in seeming half-apology, “I take full responsibility for using a few of the already-published details about K*.” Of course, she was the one who had published the information on Twitter in the first place — her identifying tweets, like the Good story, are still up.
McClelland and Mother Jones dispute that K* had never consented to being the subject of McClelland’s reporting. After all, she had consented ahead of time to McClelland’s ride-along, as had Fleming, Charles, and K*’s mother. If you let a reporter ride along in a car with you, knowing she is acting in her capacity as a reporter, doesn’t that imply you consent to letting her report the ride? And why would that consent apply to only certain mediums and not, for example, to Twitter? There are exceptions, of course — reporters are sometimes invited to closed-door meetings, for example, on the condition that they don’t report what they see — but McClelland insists she made no such agreement.
Still, the Good story revealed little about K* that hadn’t gone up on Twitter and the September MotherJones.com post aggregating McClelland’s tweets. Why, with this article eight months later, did both Danticat and Fleming — and apparently K* herself, not to mention 30-plus signers of the open letter — publicly turn against McClelland?
Bauerline suggested that McClelland’s unusual writing style — very personal, a clear if sometimes over-the-top attempt at something like Hunter S. Thompson covering human rights — might have rankled some people in Haiti. “I think, as it played out and as criticism came in, people started feeling that this wasn’t what they had signed up for. Particularly the advocates were I think not happy with how it played out,” she said.
“Perhaps there was a feeling … that they were on the same side”
The same criticisms that people had made privately to McClelland’s editors about her Mother Jones work were made publicly after the Good article. For critics, it wasn’t just that McClelland had been so willing to defy K*’s wishes. It was that she’d done so not to draw attention to the plight of sexual violence, or the need of helping Haiti, but to herself. McClelland, purportedly trying to help the young rape victim tell her story, instead cast K* as a supporting (and unwilling) character in a story about herself.
Still, that is not the same as writing without consent. It’s possible that the issues of consent — whether K* explicitly consented to McClelland’s reporting, and whether McClelland agreed to Fleming’s prior review — simply got confused. “This is an area where you’re particularly likely to have misunderstanding,” said Brian Concannon, who as director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti deals frequently with victims as well as reporters. “It’s a very highly fraught situation.” The “cultural and linguistic” barriers, not to mention the near-chaos of a third-world disaster zone like post-earthquake Haiti, made McClelland’s ride-along especially prone to misunderstandings. He added that Mothers Jones’ reputation as an “openly progressive” publication might have led K*’s handlers to be laxer about clarifying ground rules than they would have been with another reporter. “Perhaps there was a feeling shared by everybody that they were on the same side,” he said. McClelland might have been sympathetic to the cause, but she is still a reporter first.
There is one person who could clear both issues up: all of these conversations went through Alain Charles, the driver and translator. When I asked Fleming, Charles’s boss, if she would put me in touch with him so he could verify her story, she refused. I contacted him directly, but the response I received was from Fleming: “I told you last week that we are not talking with reporters because that is what K* has requested. I am offended that you ignored her wishes and contacted Alain directly without copying me. I have tried to assist you by answering limited questions. I will repeat: We are not speaking to reporters, including you.”
For all the anger and accusations flying, there seems to be little concrete evidence, with the obvious exception of McClelland’s Good story publishing details that McClelland knew K* herself and the Mother Jones editors wanted to remain private, that anyone involved in the episode ever acted with less than the best intentions. And yet, there were so many missed opportunities to prevent things from going so far. McClelland, even if she had K*’s consent, could have clarified her use of Twitter and unique reporting style before sending her first tweet. Fleming could have better understood McClelland’s work before allowing the ride-along; after the fact, she might have been less antagonistic in expressing her concerns, and thus more likely to influence the reporter’s writing.
The episode offers a window into the cozy relationships that can develop in conflict zones between reporters and aid workers. The two often need each other — the reporter to get access, the aid worker to draw attention to his or her cause — and might come to believe they’re on the same team. But when one of the two violates that unspoken partnership, as Fleming seems to believe McClelland did with her initial tweets, their relationship can go sour. That mistrust can make their common goal — in this case, telling the story of a young Haitian rape victim — more difficult, and more likely to fall apart.
It’s only if reporters and advocates work together to navigate the fog of war that can surround foreign disaster reporting, Concannon said, that a young woman like K* can be protected. Protecting trauma victims might not be in a reporter’s job description, but protecting sources is. Is it up to the journalist to make sure her reporting doesn’t unduly endanger sources? Or is it up to the source and her advocates to determine what’s best? “It’s everybody’s responsibility,” Concannon said. “And it’s a delicate balance, where people like us, who are advocates, they see some value in press coverage towards the greater advocacy effort. That can obviously be good. You have to do it in a way that doesn’t traumatize people.”
“Frankly, I find the entire thing heartbreaking on all sides,” Danticat wrote in an email. “There was no intent on my part to harm or shame Ms Mclleland, just to help K* tell her side of the story, which had been missing from the conversation.”
She added, “If there is a human takeaway from this it’s that, nearly two years after the earthquake now, we all need to renew our commitment to Haiti’s women and girls, to continue to do all we can to help them in concrete ways, which is what I saw K* and the other rape survivors trying to do for one another in Port-au-Prince.” Meanwhile, the American journalists and aid workers are still fighting.