Over 150 journalists and professors sent an open letter to CBS News' "60 Minutes" on Wednesday, claiming the program had misrepresented the continent of Africa by rendering the "people of black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible" in its coverage.
The letter was sent to "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager via email and orchestrated by Howard French, an associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a former senior writer at The New York Times. During his tenure at the Times, French headed the paper's West and Central Africa bureaus and previously taught English literature at the University of Ivory Coast.
French took special issue with the program's handling of the recent Ebola outbreak, a crisis that has claimed some 10,000 lives in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. He says "60 Minutes" and chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan only interviewed "white foreigners who had come to Liberia to contribute to the fight against the disease."
"In that broadcast, Africans were reduced to the role of silent victims," the letter reads. "They constituted what might be called a scenery of misery: people whose thoughts, experiences and actions were treated as if totally without interest. Liberians were shown within easy speaking range of Logan, including some Liberians whom she spoke about, and yet not a single Liberian was quoted in any capacity."
In addition to French, the letter was signed by a number of notable writers and journalists, including Teju Cole, a New York Times photography critic and novelist who frequently features characters of Nigerian descent in his fiction.
Ultimately, the letter urged CBS News to re-think its approach to covering Africa and shed its stereotypical depictions of the continent in favor of a more nuanced viewpoint.
"Africans themselves are typically limited to the role of passive victims, or occasionally brutal or corrupt villains and incompetents; they are not otherwise shown to have any agency or even the normal range of human thoughts and emotions," the letter reads. "Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public."
CBS News pushed back against the criticism in a statement provided to The Huffington Post via email.
“'60 Minutes' is proud of its coverage of Africa and has received considerable recognition for it," a spokesman for the program said. "We have reached out to Mr. French to invite him to discuss this further and we look forward to meeting with him.”
In November, Logan quarantined herself in South Africa following her trip to Liberia and tearfully recounted her experience covering the epidemic during a segment on "60 Minutes Overtime."
"It's really been hard on all of us, not just on me," she said at the time. "The scale of this tragedy and the brutality of this virus, the way it tears through families. And all the children, there's so many children, and such little children, of course that's also one of the things that tears at your heart."
Read the full letter to "60 Minutes" on French's website.
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