Lisa de Moraes, Deadline, March 25, 2015
A group of academics and journalists is accusing 60 Minutes of turning black Africans into background extras in its recent segments from the continent.
“60 Minutes has managed, quite extraordinarily, to render people of black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible” in a series of recent segments, says a letter penned by Howard W. French and signed by more than 150 people that was emailed to 60 Minutes exec producer Jeff Fager and posted on the blog A Glimpse of the World. French, who spent most of his 23-year career at The New York Times as a foreign correspondent, now is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he has taught journalism and photography since 2008.
In the letter, the signers most notably dinged the CBS newsmagazine for a segment in which Lara Logan went to Liberia last year to cover the ebola epidemic in that country. “In that broadcast, Africans were reduced to the role of silent victims. They constituted what might be called a scenery of misery: people whose thoughts, experiences and actions were treated as if totally without interest,” the letter scolds. “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” though Liberians not only died of ebola, many of them contributed to the fight against the disease, including doctors, nurses and other caregivers, some of whom died in the effort. “Despite this, the only people heard from on the air were white foreigners who had come to Liberia to contribute to the fight against the disease.”
“Taken together, this anachronistic style of coverage reproduces, in condensed form, many of the worst habits of modern American journalism on the subject of Africa. To be clear, this means that Africa only warrants the public’s attention when there is a disaster or human tragedy on an immense scale, when Westerners can be elevated to the role of central characters, or when it is a matter of that perennial favorite, wildlife.”
Speaking of wildlife, the letter also smacked the newsmag for two segments it said were “remarkably similar . . . featuring white people who have made it their mission to rescue African wildlife. In one case, these were lions, and in other, apes. People of black African descent make no substantial appearances in either of these reports, and no sense whatsoever is given of the countries visited, South Africa and Gabon.”
In all these segments, the letter said, “Africans themselves are typically limited to the role of passive victims, or occasional 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. Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public.”