On the Relationship between Journalism and History: Thoughts on the New York Times Haiti Ransom Project

By Paul Cohen

Like many historians, I am of two minds about The New York Times’s “Haiti Ransom Project.” On the one hand, the in-depth piece on the massive “reparations” France imposed on its erstwhile colony Haiti in the nineteenth century to indemnify former French slaveowners in exchange for diplomatic recognition is an important moment in journalism, as remarkable as it is commendable. Its reporting draws much needed attention to a decisive moment in world history. Its central argument – that the neocolonial yoke forced onto Haiti first by France and then by the United States has played a crucial role in perpetuating poverty and government dysfunction in that country – is spot on. This historical reality, and its lasting consequences for Haiti, need to be communicated forcefully to audiences in both the United States and France. The Times has told this story in a way that successfully reframes the conversation about the towering historical, moral – and yes, financial – debt France and the United States owe to Haiti today.

On the other hand, The Times’s presentation of the Haitian indemnity payments story as a “mystery” that its intrepid reporters have only now unraveled is, at the very least, misleading. “Only a few scholars have examined it deeply,” we are told. The Times goes further, chronicling with no small amount of chest-thumping the extensive original archival research they conducted.

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In reality, this is a dimension of Haitian, French, and Atlantic history well-known to historians. We are today well into the second generation of scholars doing wonderful and important work on Caribbean, Atlantic, and colonial history – including historians who have published a substantial body of work specifically on the questions of debt and reparations. As Mary Lewis, one of the historians consulted by The Times, remarked in an article published in 2020 in the American Historical Review, the country’s leading history journal, “The literature on the Haitian indemnity to French planters is too vast to list in its entirety here.” The paper’s reporting was not news to historians.

Nor was this exactly news to audiences outside the academy. Haitians have long been aware of this part of their history. In the wake of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, the French center-left daily Libération published a petition signed by prominent Haitian and French intellectuals calling on France to reimburse its historical debt and ran a separate piece revisiting the history of the indemnity. Marlene Daut, Professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia, published an essay titled “When France Extorted Haiti – The Greatest Heist in History” in the American edition of The Conversation in 2020.

To be fair, The Times provides a lengthy discussion of the sources it drew from in its “A Look Under the Hood” section. But as its lengthy discussion of historiography clearly demonstrates, this was hardly new terrain that the Gray Lady resolved to venture onto. Specialists in the field will quickly recognize just how selective the list of scholars credited here is, and how many scholars working on these questions have been left out.[1]

Moreover, the papers’ reporters should be applauded for “opening the hood” onto their methods and explaining in a clear and thorough manner what historical research in fact consists of: immersion in past scholarship; dialogue with other scholars thinking about similar historical problems; long, hard work in the archives; deep reflection on what the primary source evidence gleaned in the archives means; the careful crafting of a historical narrative. To my mind, this is one of the Haiti Ransom Project’s most valuable contributions: to convey to readers what serious historical research consists of, how hard it is to pursue, and just how important this work is for making sense of our world today.

And that is precisely what The New York Times has done here – no more and no less than what all historians do. And no more than what dozens upon dozens of historians working on the histories of Saint-Domingue, Haiti, the Haitian Revolution, colonialism, empire, and capitalism have been doing for decades. Every history PhD student will smile knowingly as they read The Times reporters brag about the “months” they spent in the archives “sifting through thousands of pages of original government documents, some of them centuries old.”

It is hard not to conclude that historians’ work in the archives, their analyses, their arguments, and their voices have to a real extent been silenced here. Indeed, the article’s section on “Secondary Sources” – as lengthy as it is – is framed in a way that functions not to credit previous work on the question, but rather to legitimate the journalists’ claims about the originality and importance of their work. After repeatedly remarking how “few” scholars have worked on the indemnity question, the “Under the Hood” section goes on to cite no less than seven works by various historians focused specifically on the topic. Consider for example how the authors cite Thomas Piketty, credited here as one of the economists who verified the precise calculation of the total amount Haiti paid to France, and quoted briefly at another juncture. But you wouldn’t know it from this piece that Piketty devotes a whole chapter of his Capital and Ideology to reparations not just in the French context, but also in Britain and the US (whose national governments compensated slave owners following abolition). Interestingly, Piketty makes even bigger claims about the world-historical importance of these significant wealth transfers than The Times does.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean this to be an exercise in boundary policing (journalists, stay in your lane!). I think it’s great that The Times is giving space to subjects like this. I also thought the 1619 Project a wonderful initiative. It wasn’t perfect (show me a work of historical scholarship that is), but it brought a good fifty years of historiographical reflection on the history and legacy of slavery in the United States into the public sphere and launched an important national conversation.[2]  

Likewise, I believe the Haiti Ransom Project is, in most respects, an outstanding and important example of reporting. Its authors appear to have made several real contributions to historical understanding: we have a more precise picture of Haiti’s indemnity payments to France; the authors’ reconstruction of the role of the French Crédit Industriel et Commercial bank, which long ran Haiti’s central bank, siphoned off enormous sums of government funds, and saddled the country with crippling debt, is particularly significant. And The Times appears to have linked Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s demands for reparations from France to the US-French sponsored coup that overthrew him for the first time. The paper has put enormous resources and an ambitious vision into making an important story known to a broader American public.

But there is a big difference between the 1619 Project and The Times’s latest endeavor. The 1619 Project was a polyvocal enterprise which encompassed contributions from authors writing in a variety of capacities and genres, including historians. The 1619 Project as a whole made no claims to having “uncovered” a heretofore “unknown” past that had somehow been overlooked by historians. It gave historians’ credit where credit was due. More importantly, it communicated forcefully to a broad American reading public that what historians do when they head into the archives and sit down to tease out the significance of what they find matters.

With the Haiti Ransom Project, The Times has taken most of the credit, and given short shrift to historians, in three distinct ways. First, the project doesn’t seem to have properly acknowledged individual historians. Rather than make grand claims for originality, it would have been more appropriate to put front and center the historians who already covered this ground, done a lot of the archival work, made the arguments recapitulated here, and sought to bring the implications of their research to bear in order to sway public policy with regards to Haiti.

This isn’t just a question of fairness. The history of the study of Haiti’s history is itself an important part of this story. That the project takes as its starting point the affirmation that this is “A Silenced History” – a silence perpetuated by France and the United States to conceal an uncomfortable past and quash potentially costly demands, and one which The Times proudly promises to break – demonstrates that its authors grasp this important truth. But they would have done well to meditate the Haitian-American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s influential 1995 book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (which the Project doesn’t cite – and which, incidentally, discusses the Haitian indemnity). Trouillot invites us not only to consider blind spots in Western historical narratives, but to understand them as significant historical phenomena in their own right, the products of historical processes like empire, nation-state formation, and capitalism. Historical narratives, Trouillot reminds us, are always embedded within a web of power relations – which is why there is “power in the story.” Those who work to exhume these histories therefore have important roles to play. 

Take one of the most striking omissions in this piece, the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams’s classic book, Capitalism and Slavery. That the book, whose arguments about the centrality of Caribbean slavery in the formation of modern capitalism have proven deeply influential, was published as far back as 1944 reminds us that the broader questions The New York Times is asking aren’t quite as novel as the paper would like to suggest. What makes Williams relevant in this context isn’t so much what he had to say about Haiti – his book is about slavery in the British rather than French imperial context after all. Rather, it’s his own broader historical significance. After using his scholarship and teaching to develop and disseminate sophisticated critiques of colonial empire, Williams entered political life, playing a decisive role in Trinidad and Tobago’s independence and serving as his country’s first prime minister. As Williams’s example reminds us, Caribbean scholars have long understood the necessity of rigorous historical research for bolstering emancipatory claims, fashioning post-independence national identities, and pushing back against neocolonial interference.

One can only understand how The New York Times came to produce its deep dive after considering Haitian intellectuals’ own longstanding struggle to make sense of their nations’ history – and to make that history known – as well as how historians in the United States, France, and elsewhere have become increasingly interested in this history in the last twenty years. There is a context for the production of the scholarship that The Times relied on, and that history is as much part of the story as that of the indemnity payments itself. Deep in its final installment, the Haiti Ransom Project admits as much when it concedes that “scholars have increasingly explored the history of Haiti’s payments.”

The second way in which the project has given short shrift to historians is that it seems to have soft-pedaled the debts its authors owe to a number of individual historians who actively collaborated with the project. As the paper indicated in an oddly titled “A debate is rekindled among historians” update posted on the Monday following the Project’s publication, journalists speak all the time with historians without citing them in their published stories. But it’s one thing for a historian to chat for twenty minutes over the phone with a reporter on broad issues; it’s another matter altogether for a historian to sit down with journalists for many hours, share primary sources, arguments, and ideas, put reporters in touch with research assistants and introduce them into wider scholarly networks. There is a crucial labor and intellectual property dimension at play here. Journalists are paid for their work. Historians (or those in the academy at least) do this for free, on the tacit understanding that this represents a public service dimension of their vocation as scholars and teachers, an unremunerated expectation of their paid job with their college or university. It’s worth recalling that history professors are, for the most part, never paid for their scholarly writing (nor are they for their editorial, peer review, or research grant adjudication activities for that matter). Historians are compensated in other ways, through citation or some other form of acknowledgment. What does it mean when media outlets don’t credit historians’ hard labor and hard-won ideas in some way? What does it mean when platforms like The Times (which, we should recall, is today a profitable enterprise) create monetizable content based on historians’ substantive but unremunerated and unacknowledged contributions?

And third, the Haiti Ransom Project has not fully acknowledged its debt to the historical discipline as a whole. What The Times has done here – ask historical questions, delve into archives, make sense of primary sources, reconstruct what happened and why, and what it means – is precisely what historians do for a living. Or those historians, at least, who are today fortunate enough to have found a paying gig. For the painful truth of the matter is that the historical profession in the United States (and elsewhere) is in profound crisis, buffeted by a perfect storm of evaporating tenure-track positions, politicized attacks from the right, shrinking prestige associated with the history major, and precipitous drops in student enrollments in history classes. (And however embattled historians feel themselves to be, I am well aware that journalism as a profession is itself very much embattled too, and that The Times, with its vast newsroom, plentiful resources, and healthy balance sheet represents a happy exception in this respect.) In the current moment, for a major news outlet to demonstrate in so crystalline a fashion the importance of serious historical scholarship for deepening our understanding of past and present, and to omit mention that this story would not have been possible without the existence of a high-quality, public-facing, institutionally-rooted historical profession is to throw up a few more rows of bricks atop the wall separating the historical discipline from the public sphere in the United States.

The real issue is not that the Haiti Ransom Project has somehow injured historians’ pride by failing to cite every scholar who has worked on Haiti, as some have claimed in the days following its publication. It would be absurd to insist that journalists include footnotes in their stories in the same way that historians do in their peer-reviewed scholarship. The real issue is that the project’s failure to adequately frame its debt to the historical discipline represents a lost opportunity. The Times’s reporting is marvelous proof-by-example of the great value of rigorous, archive-based historical research. That it did not make this more explicit leaves readers in the dark about the value and relevance of historians’ work today. The paper trumpeted its pathbreaking coverage while passing over in silence the fact that whole new fields of research – including Atlantic history, colonial/postcolonial history, the new history of capitalism, and the new diplomatic history – have sprung up in recent decades to investigate precisely the questions posed by The Times piece. We live today amidst ill-intentioned McCarthyite-like attacks on historians for their alleged penchant for Critical Race Theory and “cultural Marxism.” In this context, it behooved The Times to inform their readers that it is precisely those scholars whose work on race, empire, and capitalism has left them most vulnerable to the right’s anti-historical crusade against open-ended inquiry who made the Haiti Ransom Project possible.

It boils down to this: if media like The Times value and use the work produced by professional historians, as the Haiti Ransom Project has done – and if they wish professional historians to continue to enjoy the job security, intellectual freedom, institutional support, and funding that make their work possible – then it is indispensable to make this debt explicit.  

So, what is to be done? First, venues like The New York Times should be encouraged to continue devoting space and resources to historical questions. The Haiti Ransom Project is a vitally important contribution, for it commands us to confront the legacies of slavery and colonial empire in Haiti, and the lies and omissions embedded within collective memory that have legitimated French and US policy with regards to Haiti. Embattled as historians and journalists are, the most important takeaway here is the terrible responsibility France and the United States bear for Haiti’s problems. We need more historically-inflected reporting from The Times and its peers.

Second, media outlets should give credit where credit is due. This is in part a question of framing, of communicating clearly to readers that while the ideas, arguments, and material being presented may be new with regards to national conversations, they aren’t necessarily new to historians. Journalists need to underscore to their readers that historians have been working hard and thinking deeply about these questions, and that the value of the taxpayer, tuition, and endowment dollars that fund history departments is precisely in helping to inform such enterprises. It also means properly crediting historians for their ideas and labor when it directly informs reporting. This is a matter of fairness, accuracy, rigor, and ethics.[3]  

Third, given how important stories like these are, venues like The New York Times should open their pages to historians on a regular basis. The Washington Post already does this with its Made By History feature (though these are short pieces rather than deep dives). It’s common in other countries – one thinks of The Guardian in the UK, which regularly publishes first-rate long-form historical pieces, or of France, where a number of historians are regular contributors to newspapers like Le Monde and Libération. Big newspapers might also look to smaller publications for models, like The New York Review of Books, where historian Tony Judt wrote knowledgeably and eloquently about the contemporary European scene. The left-wing magazine Dissent has long given historians a prominent place on its editorial board. Media outlets like The New York Times need to find more ways to offer historians a voice and a platform.

Finally, journalists and historians need to find new ways to partner as equals on projects like this one. Indeed, given the extent that the Haiti Ransom Project’s authors worked with historians, perhaps we should discern the outlines of a fruitful collaborative model for journalists and historians to work together on similar future endeavors. It’s easy to imagine teams composed of journalists and historians working as equal partners to conceive, research, and write exciting pieces like these. This would entail thinking about shared bylines, pooling resources, forging ad hoc or more longstanding institutional arrangements between newspapers and universities, and triangulating between differing work methods and writing genres. For a story like this one, it would be especially important to invent new collaborative frameworks and share resources with journalists, intellectuals, historians, librarians, and archivists in Haiti, who work under especially challenging circumstances.

The simple fact of the matter is that journalists and historians need each other. As I have argued here, the Haiti Ransom Project was built atop existing historical scholarship. Moreover, greater involvement from historians would have improved the piece, saving it from errors of fact and under-contextualization (stopping The Times for example from listing amongst its “secondary sources” the works of Moreau de Saint-Méry, a French slaveowner who during the French Revolution fought abolition as a representative of Martinique in the National Assembly before joining the community of white planter exiles in the United States, and whose writings betray a preoccupation with race thinking). Notwithstanding former Times Magazine writer Adam Davidson’s accusation that, unlike journalists who are “on the side of narrative … academic writing is so often boring, unreadable to a lay person,” there are in fact many accomplished professional historians who write compelling work in gripping prose (think Jill Lepore, Mary Beard, or Ada Ferrer).[4]  

But historians should remember that journalists bring something crucial to the table too. Trained like historians to dig up sources, assess them critically, and construct narratives communicating their meaning, journalists can also produce first-rate history. Former New York Times foreign correspondent Howard French (who incidentally published an essay on the Haitian indemnity in the Los Angeles Times last year[5]) authored one such example with his recent book, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World.[6] While historians tend to be better equipped to scour archives and rare book libraries for relevant material, journalists are more in their element calling upon government officials, public figures, civil servants, and other human sources (we have journalists rather than historians to thank for putting the former French ambassador on the record in the Haiti Ransom Project concerning Haiti’s 2004 coup). And, whether historians like it or not, the power of the platform matters. Thanks to The Times’s global reach and prestige, the Haiti Ransom Project not only grabbed public attention but provoked immediate response: the Crédit Industriel et Commercial bank in France rapidly announced that it would launch its own internal investigation into its role in Haitian history. A newspaper like The New York Times can change global conversations in ways that historians’ monographs and journal articles simply cannot.  

There is perhaps no better exemplar of the synergies that bind the two fields than C. L. R. James, whose Black Jacobins (1938) represents the great defining text for Haitian Revolution historiography, who like his compatriot Eric Williams played an important role in Trinidad and Tobago’s independence movement, and who long worked as a journalist.  

The marriage of journalism and history can produce vitally important work – the traction that the Haiti Ransom Project has rightfully found is proof enough. History and journalism need each other – and more importantly, our troubled world urgently, desperately needs more historically-informed journalism.  It’s up to venues like The Times to seize the moment and work with historians to invent new forms of reporting.  


Paul Cohen is Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto. A historian of early modern France, his research focuses on the formation of nation-states, the social history of language, the invention of linguistic nationalism, and early modern empire.

Title Image: Aerial view of Port-au-Prince by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Spike Call, U.S. Navy.

Further readings:

Allsop, Jon. “The Times, Haiti, and the Treacherous Bridge Linking History and Journalism.” Columbia Journalism Review (24 May 2022): https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/the-times-haiti-and-the-treacherous-bridge-linking-history-and-journalism.php.

Bhatia, Pooja. “Hello, Columbus.” London Review of Books Blog (27 May 2022): https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/may/hello-columbus.

Daut, Marlene L. “What the French Really Owe Haiti.” The Nation (13 June 2022): https://www.thenation.com/article/world/haiti-france-reparations-slavery/.

Katz, Jonathan. “What’s New and Not in the NYT Haiti Blockbuster.” History News Network (24 May 2022): https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183231.

Lewis, Mary. “A Commercial (Neo)Colony? The Role of the Merchant Lobby in France’s Recognition of Haitian Independence.” Age of Revolutions (20 June 2022):, https://ageofrevolutions.com/2022/06/20/a-commercial-neocolony-the-role-of-the-merchant-lobby-in-frances-recognition-of-haitian-independence/.

Wilentz, Amy. “The New York Times Corrects Lousy Haiti Coverage in … The New York Times.” The New Republic (25 May 2022): https://newrepublic.com/article/166594/new-york-times-haiti-ransom-lousy-coverage.

Endnotes:

[1] For useful introductions to the rich historiography on the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath, see the “Haitian Revolution” bibliography, Age of Revolutionshttps://ageofrevolutions.com/haitian-revolution/; Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, “The Haitian Revolution,” in Oxford Bibliographies(2010); Stewart R. King, “Slavery and the Haitian Revolution,” in The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas, ed. Mark M. Smith and Robert L. Paquette (Oxford University Press, 2010); Nathalie Dessens, “Saint-Domingue Refugees,” in Oxford Bibliographies (2012); Sue Peabody, “French Emancipation,” in Oxford Bibliographies (2014); and Marlene Daut and John Garrigus, “Haitian Revolution Reading List,” Age of Revolutions (15 June 2016), https://ageofrevolutions.com/2016/06/15/haitian-revolution-summer-reading-list/.

[2] For a critique written by a historian who was consulted by The New York Times, see Leslie M. Harris, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project.  The Times Ignored Me,” Politico (6 March 2020), https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/06/1619-project-new-york-times-mistake-122248.

[3] This is a point made by Danielle McGuire, “Historians Are a Great Resource.  Journalists, Be Sure to Give Them Credit,” Columbia Journalism Review (25 April 2018), https://www.cjr.org/criticism/historians-journalists.php.

[4] Adam Davidson’s remarks in his Twitter thread responding to the Haiti Ransom Project controversy, https://twitter.com/adamdavidson/status/1528448476257914881.  See for example Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (W. W. Norton, 2018); Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile Books, 2015); and Ada Ferrer, Cuba: An American History (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

[5] Howard W. French, “The West Owes a Centuries-Old Debt to Haiti,” Los Angeles Times (10 October 2021), https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-10-10/the-west-owes-a-centuries-old-debt-to-haiti.

[6] Howard W. French, Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War (W. W. Norton, 2021).

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