Backchanneling 101

Backchanneling 101
Farah Louis

A primer for bush-league politicians about protecting Haitian-American interests   

By Garry Pierre-Pierre | The Conversation

It was a beautiful Saturday morning a few weeks ago when my phone rang. Seeing who it was, I tensed up, but I tried my best to lighten the mood. 

“What’s going on my brother,” I said jovially. “I’m fine my brother,” he replied. But Gérard Cadet, a vice president at the powerful union SEIU 1199 was not fine. 

What followed was a barrage of threats about an upcoming candidate forum, the one for Brooklyn’s 45th City Council District. Captain Cadet warned me that if The Haitian Times went ahead and invited the other candidates, incumbent Council Member Farah Louis would not be part of the debate. Cadet went as far as to call the debate anti-Haitian.

Stunned, I told Cadet that we plan to hold forums for all areas with large Haitian enclaves. In fact, I pointed out, we already held one for Brooklyn’s 40th District. He said he didn’t mind those because there is no Haitian incumbent to defend. 

By this point, I was shocked and astounded. I told Cadet as forcefully as he had warned me that he has the right to have his preferred candidate not show up, just as we have a right to go on with our event regardless of his wishes. I also told him that his move is bush league and ended by reminding him of what happened in Georgia when incumbent David Perdue skipped the debate with challenger Jon Ossoff. 

The phone call lingered with me much longer than these calls usually do. In many ways, it was a complete backchanneling fail. The entire saga leading up to the call, in fact, is a cautionary tale for aspiring rainmakers. 

Lesson #1: News trumps views

To begin, it’s important to know that every day, we get push-back from people upset at our reporting for one reason or another. While some conversations may get tense, the callers often know their boundaries and end up agreeing to disagree. 

But Captain Cadet, in his self-appointed role as ombudsman, chose to bully our news organization about any critical coverage of the Haitian-Americans of his backing.  

For months, Captain Cadet had been working me like an All-Star point guard working the refs. He started by telling me how The Haitian Times was the envy of other communities throughout the city for its quality journalism. Then he told me outright that he had some sacred cows The Haitian Times couldn’t touch no matter what the story. 

Like a good ref, I listened, but it didn’t affect me at all. At the end of the day, decisions are made by the collective, not by diktat. News judgement takes precedence over personal ties or views. That’s the way real newsrooms operate. 

Lesson #2: Put it in writing

Even before the forum episode, Captain Cadet got into rare form when we reposted an article from The City news site about a legal entanglement involving Brooklyn surrogate Judge Dweynie Paul. 

“You can’t post that,” Cadet scolded during a different phone conversation. 

“This is not original reporting,” I retorted. 

“You can’t post it, it hurts Haitians,” he said. 

For good measure, we followed up with our own story, explaining how different folks have a variety of caregiver arrangements that don’t always include a “fair” wage. Captain Cadet didn’t like that story either. 

Soon after, The Haitian Times published a story looking into how various City Council members dole out their discretionary funds. The first article in the series was about Mathieu Eugene, the 40th District honcho who has done absolutely nothing for the community since he was first elected in 2006. 

The next article was about Louis’ discretionary spending and according to her and Cadet, we had gone too far. They challenged our numbers verbally, so we waited for their version of the facts in writing. To date, we have not received their numbers.

The lingering resentment from these stories is ultimately what triggered Cadet’s call about the candidate forum on that beautiful spring Saturday.

Lesson #3: Have a little class

So, the ombudsman, who also plays the role of self-appointed rainmaker, decided that The Haitian Times must be aligned with his personal agenda or… or what. 

This is all sticks and no carrots. Captain Cadet and his powerful union have done precious little for The Haitian Times. While they boast of their work in the community, it is largely because a great number of their members are Haitian, many of them working in low-wage jobs like home health aides.  

Captain Cadet’s vision for the community may be noble, but his pugilistic ways have no class. As it turns out, I was not the only ref that he was working. When a community activist decided to endorse Judge Paul’s opponent, Captain Cadet was so livid that he threatened to investigate that activist’s legal standing for making endorsement in New York state. 

Lesson #4: Know who you’re dealing with

I know it is in a labor union’s DNA to be feisty. Factory owners did not take too kindly to the prospect of unionizing their workforce and being forced to pay benefits or providing better working conditions. In those fights, the union and media were not adversaries. 

But in Captain Cadet’s new world order, The Haitian Times cannot publish anything without his permission. In his world, he doesn’t have to say anything to me, I should know better.  What this logic shows is that Captain Cadet doesn’t understand the motivations of journalists. He doesn’t understand why we do what we do. 

Journalists are rule breakers, very much akin to a little kid who does exactly the opposite of what he’s told to do. We’re independent thinkers not prone to group thought. 

Lesson #5: Put the community first, not your agenda

To be clear, I know the Haitian community is close-knit and that we must protect ourselves from those who loathe or are jealous of the progress we seem to be making. I’m all for that, but it seems that Captain Cadet cares more about his coterie of candidates than the community writ large. If he cared so much about the community, he would not have allowed Eugene to fleece the community for as long as he did over the last 14 years.

Yes, that’s right, the good captain was the architect of Eugene’s rise to the City Council. He knew for years that there were blistering complaints about Eugene. He did nothing. If it wasn’t for term limits, we’d probably have to live with Eugene until he decided to retire. Thank God for the City Charter revision that ushered in term limits. 

Captain Cadet would have just watched because in his mind, it’s more important that we have a Haitian in elected office, even if that official couldn’t care less about Haitians. 

All these machinations are why The Haitian Times exists. They are why we are and will remain an independent force to defend the community’s rights, not the interests of a small-time political operative.   

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