Howard French, On Himself
Written by Bwog Staff
On Monday evening, Bwog’s Claire Sabel joined Columbia International Relations Council and Association (CIRCA) to hear journalist, author, photographer and most recent addition to J-School faculty Professor Howard French talk about his life and work. French has had a fascinating career in journalism, spent predominantly working for the perennial Columbia favorite, the New York Times. French accurately inferred that the handful of listeners present were those interested in careers in journalism, and thus spoke mainly of his work.
Having graduated college French did what many students do, go home. For him this meant joining his family in the Ivory Coast, where his father was working for the World Health Organization. His experiences there were to launch both his fascination with the African continent, which in his opinion is still the region least intensively, and least well-covered in the world. French set out helping his father, but soon, by virtue of his fluency in French, found himself working with a French writer helping to translate her novel. Subsequently engaging in some freelance translation and local reporting, he eventually became acquainted with the Washington Post’s Bureau Chief. When the Post correspondent had to unexpectedly return to the U.S., French took his place.
French quickly became involved in coverage of the war between French and Libyan forces in Chad, the first of many conflicts he would report on over the next 20 years. Despite his highly regarded work covering conflicts West and Central Africa, and in Central America and the Caribbean—he was nominated as a finalist for the Pullitzer Prize for his writing on Zaire—he says he has never considered himself a “war reporter.” After his initial stint at the Post, he was hired by the NYT. Despite his considerable experience abroad, he had to start at the bottom, working for four years as a Metro reporter. Undeterred by this, French had higher ambitions: to take on new countries, cultures and politics, not to mention languages. “I like challenges,” he mentioned more than once. He soon moved on to cover Central America, then returned to West Africa, before next choosing to take over the Japan Bureau. In order to prepare for this next challenge he spent a year studying intensive Japanese, as well as graduate courses in East Asian history and political science. French’s last years with the Times were then spent in China, before he left the newspaper and was hired by Columbia.
This was not a lecture with an agenda. Leaving plenty of time for discussion at the end, he seemed genuinely interested what the attendees had to say. He also pointed out that the mass media coverage of Haiti would soon have to move past the disaster phase, after which the emergence of sensitivity to the political and cultural environment there would truly emerge. French criticized what he called “differentiated levels of respect” in journalism to describe the different attitudes adopted to cover regions depending on their perceived relevance to the West—a perspective many of us might do well to keep in mind, despite Columbia’s own efforts to raise awareness as well as financial aid.
Photo by The Journalism School