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At last: the truth about the horror in Haiti

The man's body lies on the street, his skin emphatically dark against the whiteness of the swirling dust and the rubble around him. The narrator tells us the man has been dumped outside a police station. Some people stand a few feet away and stare. The man's feet appear to be bound together. The viewer isn't sure if he's alive.

Then as the camera closes in, he moves. And he speaks. What he says is translated as this: "I'm not afraid of your camera. You think you're God, don't you, white man?"

It's a moment to shock you. And it is viscerally, shockingly authentic. This is Haiti, a few days after the earthquake.

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Frontline: The Quake (PBS, 9 p.m.) is a searing, perplexing look at Haiti. If you think you've been informed about the earthquake of Jan. 12 and its aftermath, you haven't. This is not pop journalism done by celebrity reporters standing in the midst of visually striking rubble and nattering about the tenacity of the survivors.

Tonight's program, outstanding as it is about the situation in Haiti, forces us to ask questions about TV news reporting. Because The Quake is so disquieting you have to wonder about the superficiality of what we saw on our screens in the days and weeks after the earthquake struck.

The thing is, I suspect, we like our news light and optimistic. Even when there's horror and tragedy, what most people want to know is that everything will be fine in the end, that in the face of tragedy and horror the survivors behave well. For instance, early in The Quake, reporter Martin Smith tells us, "The world had watched hours of dramatic rescues on television, but the truth was, only a very small fraction of those caught in the rubble survived. Fewer than 150 people. Many tens of thousands were buried." That sums it up. What TV news brought us from Haiti, over and over, were scenes of somebody being dramatically rescued from under rubble. The sheer scale of the disaster and the lives lost was less important.

On our TV news at the time, there were also the inevitable scenes of looting - and the tut-tutting of reporters accompanied this footage. As this Frontline points out, sometimes the looting was highly organized and aimed at keeping people alive. Even though relief efforts poured into Haiti, Smith points out, after a week only a tiny fraction of the population had actually received food and water. A doctor interviewed says of that first week. "It was a mess. Television reporters landed before doctors. Shoes and clothing before bandages." And when you hear that you have to wonder - was it so important for TV reporters and star anchors to get there first and pose in the midst of the chaos?

The program points out that those who would normally be responsible for handling the catastrophe in Haiti - the local government and the United Nations - were among those devastated by the quake and thus struggled to respond. It looks at the poorly co-ordinated relief effort and asks if the developed the world can do better, and how?

Among those asked is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is utterly unconvincing in her answers to question and indeed bristles at reporter Smith's skepticism. She talks about the United States and its "investment" in Haiti. But, as the program underlines, the various U.S. administrations, and especially that of former president Bill Clinton, have had highly complicated and at time dubious connections to Haiti's powerful ruling class.

The program ends with a return visit to Haiti, six weeks after the quake struck. It suggests that the disaster is, in reality, still unfolding daily. And it isn't very optimistic about the foreseeable future,

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This program is not for the faint of heart. The details about the deaths and injuries are hard to take. During one interview done at a makeshift hospital, the viewer can hear the relentless screaming of someone in agony. And yet it must be watched, because this is an instance of a TV report bearing witness, requiring us to look at death and horror. And it doesn't flinch, as most TV reporting from Haiti obviously did.

Check local listings.

Also Airing:

V (ABC, A Channel 10 p.m.) is back with a batch of new episodes. What is now called the "Spring season Premiere." Anyway, the attractive aliens are up to no good. Only a few people on earth seem to grasp this. Tonight that silly young man Tyler (Logan Huffman ) is on the space ship, lured by the blond and comely Lisa (Canadian Laura Gansevoort), not realizing that she's a reptile underneath the Prom Queen surface. What's it all about? Our obsession with surface beauty and the importance of universal healthcare, that's what.

Law & Order SVU (CTV 10 p.m., Wednesday NBC, 10 p.m.) is spectacularly lurid. The detectives handle the case of an investigative journalist found dead in her bed with an "X" carved into her cheek. Is this the killer known as "Bedtime Butcher"? The trail leads the detectives to a patrol cop (guest star, former Charlie's Angel Jaclyn Smith), a "jealous ex-lover of the prime suspect", and the suspect is played guest star Ann-Margret. Oh lordy. A former Charlie's Angel star in a lesbian relationship with Ann Margret. That's some plot.

The Hour (CBC, 11:05 pm) only has two guests tonight. George Strombo interviews Hillary Clinton and comic/actress Caroline Rhea. I have no idea if he asks Clinton about Haiti.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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