An open letter to “60 Minutes” criticizes America’s most-watched news show over its Africa coverage

Weeping Africans? Check.
Weeping Africans? Check.
Image: Reuters/James Giahyue
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the United States, television news doesn’t get much more prestigious than 60 Minutes. It is the most watched news program in the country, with some 13 million viewers a week, and one of the few places where you’ll find investigative or in-depth journalism on US broadcast television during peak viewing hours on Sunday evenings.

But its legacy of reporting on international news with depth and nuance, while not a perfect one, doesn’t seem to apply at all to its recent coverage of Africa, critics are arguing. Howard French, a veteran journalist and author who has reported from and about African countries for years, has written an open letter to 60 Minutes producer Jeff Fager, raising concerns about the show’s approach. The examples he cites include a recent report on Ebola in Liberia, which failed to include a single interview with a Liberian, or any other African. His letter has been co-signed by more than 200 people including authors like Teju Cole and Binyavanga Wainaina, and Sean Jacobs of the popular blog Africa is a Country.

Quartz reached out to both French and 60 Minutes. Here’s what 60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco told us, via email:

60 Minutes is proud of its coverage of Africa and has received considerable recognition for it. We have reached out to Mr. French  to invite him to discuss this further and we look forward to meeting with him.”

And here’s what French told us (also via email) about his campaign:

Q: Why complain now?

A: 60 Minutes has been treating Africa this way for a very long time, as a backdrop for white people of varying descriptions, of wildlife, and of African villainy, more occasionally. The three segments I refer to in my letter came in a relative concentrated period of time, and sort of stunned me in their narrow and antiquated approach.

Q: What has 60 Minutes said in response to your letter? 

A: The program’s spokesman says they are “proud of” their Africa coverage and asked if I would like to visit their office. I replied that a good start would be to engage on the issues raised in my letter. I would love to hear about all that fantastic work in Africa that I’ve missed, though. I would love to be proved wrong.

Q: What do you think leads to programs being produced this way still in 2015? 

This is the way the media in general treats Africa. The media pretends that it only serving up what people are interested in, or in another version of the editor’s role, what’s “truly important.” What the media is doing, in fact, is training the public’s sensibilities by its own approaches to a variety of topics. Africa has traditionally been accorded very little space in the media, and when it is mentioned, it has usually been for the same reasons that I’ve criticized 60 Minutes: immense tragedy, interest in a white person playing a starring role, or wildlife. Over time, these become accepted as the only reasons most people would want to pay any attention to Africa.

* * *

Here’s the full letter, which was posted to French’s website:

How Does Africa Get Reported? A Letter Of Concern To 60 Minutes

March 25, 2015

Jeff Fager, Executive Producer, CBS 60 Minutes (by email)

Dear Mr. Fager,

We, the undersigned, are writing to express our grave concern about the frequent and recurring misrepresentation of the African continent by 60 Minutes.

In a series of recent segments from the continent, 60 Minutes has managed, quite extraordinarily, to render people of black African ancestry voiceless and all but invisible.

Two of these segments were remarkably similar in their basic subject matter, featuring white people who have made it their mission to rescue African wildlife. In one case these were lions, and in another, apes. People of black African descent make no substantial appearance in either of these reports, and no sense whatsoever is given of the countries visited, South Africa and Gabon.

The third notable recent segment was a visit by your correspondent Lara Logan to Liberia 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.  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.

Liberians not only died from Ebola, but many of them contributed bravely to the fight against the disease, including doctors, nurses and other caregivers, some of whom gave their lives in this 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 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. As a corollary, 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. Such a skewed perspective not only disserves Africa, it also badly disserves the news viewing and news reading public.

We have taken the initiative of writing to you because we are mindful of the reach of 60 Minutes, and of the important role that your program has long played in informing the public. We are equally mindful that American views of Africa, a continent of 1.1 billion people, which is experiencing rapid change on an immense scale, are badly misinformed by much of the mainstream media. The great diversity of African experience, the challenges and triumphs of African peoples, and above all, the voices and thoughts of Africans themselves are chronically and woefully underrepresented.

Over the coming decades, Africa will become the backdrop of some of the most significant developments on the planet, from unprecedented population growth, urbanization and economic change to, potentially, the wholesale reconfiguration of states. We would like see to 60 Minutes rethink its approach to Africa, and rise to the challenge of covering topics like these, and many more, that go well beyond the bailiwick of the staid and stereotypical recent examples cited above. In doing so, 60 Minutes will have much to gain, as will the viewing public.

Howard W. French

Associate Professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Author of China’s Second Continent and A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa