Pulitzer Prize Winning Columnist Nicholas Kristof discusses his career in FODP Interview
March 8, 2011
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The Future of Diplomacy Project
Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times columnist and co-author of Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, discusses his long career as a foreign correspondent, his work to fight the oppression of women and diplomacy as a global trend during his Future of Diplomacy Project Interview in September 2010.
Burns: We’re very pleased to have Nick Kristof here, the award winning columnist for the New York Times, for the Future of Diplomacy Project interview. Nick, you’ve just spent a day talking to students at the Medical School and at the Kennedy School.
What’s always intrigued me about your column and about your reporting is that you tend to focus, or maybe solely focus, on individuals and particularly the poor and the powerless and the people who don’t have a voice in the halls of the UN and the White House: what led you to go from Harvard College, to the New York Times, to that focus in your reporting?
Kristof: Well I think that the focus on some poverty or social issues really arose after I got the column in 2001 (I was a beneficiary of 9/11 in that respect), and I found that when I did a column about an issue that was already on the agenda, if I wrote about President Bush, if I wrote about any Iraq, then people who started out agreeing with it thought it was brilliant, people who started out disagreeing with it thought it was completely beside the point and nonsense, and it really seemed to me that I was having much less influence, and that in general pundits have less influence than we often credit them with, but the area where it really did seem to me that a journalist has power is kind of as a gate keeper function: it’s that spotlight that we carry and when I shone that on some issue that was not on the agenda but helped project it onto the agenda then that actually really did seem to have an impact and then the focus on individuals really came later. I was frustrated by why my reporting on Darfur wasn’t getting more traction and…
Burns: With readers or with..?
Kristof: With readers. It felt like, you know, hundreds of thousands of people are being driven from their homes, vast numbers being killed and raped and it felt like my columns were just kind of disappearing without a trace into the pond and at the same time there were two hawks, two red-tailed hawks in Central Park, that were driven out of their condo, out of their nest in a condo, on Central… just next to Central Park and New York was all up in arms about these two homeless red-tailed hawks. I knew I was doing something wrong if I couldn’t get as much attention for Darfur as these two hawks were so I looked at the research about, kind of, what builds connections and there’s been a lot of very interesting work in social psychology and to a lesser extent in neurology about what makes us care and one of the answers to that is stories about individuals.
Burns: And you’ve… well you made your presentation tonight at the Kennedy School: it consisted of a Powerpoint presentation where you told a series of individual stories, about women in this case, and you and your wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have written a book, “Half the Sky”, about women. Talk about that for a minute: what led you to write that book?
Kristof: Well, when I started out in the world as a foreign correspondent or in international affairs I thought that I’d be going to the Council on Foreign Relations and smoking a pipe and thinking deep thoughts about non-proliferation and then really over time, and it may be especially when we lived in China it really … we really came to believe that the most effective way to chip away at global poverty was to focus on women and also that really the central injustice of our time was the, kind of, routine oppression that is inflicted on so many women around the world but things that weren’t really on the agenda and so … and then the more you look at that the more staggering it is and so it just created a feedback mechanism that led me to write more about and ultimately led Sheryl and me to write the book.
Burns: You said… you made a remarkable statement today at the beginning of your talk at the Kennedy School. You said, and I’ll just paraphrase, that the great moral struggle question of the nineteenth century was slavery and the great moral struggle of the twentieth century was totalitarianism and the great moral struggle of our time will be challenges for women and gender inequality. When you speak around the country, when you write and you get people writing back to you do people accept that challenge? Do they understand it the way that you do, the away you framed it?
Kristof: There’s a lot of pushback on that issue and I think that people initially tend to think it is meant in some kind of hyperbolic way but what I come back with is the fact that there are 100 million women, more or less, who have been discriminated against to death, that in any one decade more girls are discriminated against to death than all the people who died in all the genocides in the 20th Century and that’s a bit of data that just tends to stagger people and I think that they…
Burns: People just aren’t aware of those numbers?
Kristof: Right, right and everybody thinks that there are more women on the planet than men…
Burns: …as your survey at the Kennedy School showed today when you asked the audience to raise their hands.
Kristof: That’s right. I mean a very, very bright group and they, most of the people, thought that there are more females on the planet than males; actually there are more males. At the medical school I asked the same question and they also… most people thought there were more females than males; in fact because there are so many girls who either suffer sex selective abortion or who are discriminated against to death then there are in fact, you know, substantially more males than females on the planet.
Burns: I certainly saw in the arc of my own career which began (diplomatic career) which began in 1980 to 2008 that in 1980 issues about women were not on the agenda of the United States or even the United Nations. In 2008 they are at the top part of the agenda, everything from trafficking in women and children to poverty to health issues where women are concerned and you’ve written about that. What accounts for that change? How did… it’s a positive change because we ought to pay more attention to these issues.
Kristof: I think that there are a few things that are going on. One, I think, is just a broadening of a sense of what history is and if you look back at the way history was written until, well, until about 1950, history was essentially a clash of interests between nations or peoples. It tended to revolve around what Kings did or Presidents and wasn’t really about people, and then you began to get some of these more social historians who provided just a new way of seeing history, a new way of seeing humanity and that in turn, I think, began to affect the way we in journalism provided the first rough draft of history, if you will, the kinds of things that we thought were important and so we began to think well if … I mean in my case it was in 1989 I for weeks was covering the aftermath of Tiananmen and it was a front page…
Burns: You were based in China
Kristof: I was based in China; that’s right. I was on Tiananmen Square when the troops opened fire. For weeks you couldn’t write a story that wasn’t on the front page and we don’t know but somewhere in the order of magnitude of 500 people died at Tiananmen and then the next year I came across a study that indicated that every year in China 39,000 baby girls died because they didn’t get the same access to food and healthcare as boys and I’d never written a column inch about that and so I think that, you know, essentially our focus is broadening. We’re looking more at these social issues and once you begin to be aware of them then it’s impossible not to address them.
Kristof: I mean… I think a little it’s …
Burns: It gives you the moral urgency of addressing them?
Kristof: Yes. I think it’s the same as sort of slavery that until 1780, say… I mean people were aware of slavery but they didn’t really think of it. There were a few Quakers jumping up and down about it and that was about it and then really quite quickly, you know, people… the facts, I mean the raw facts of slavery, were presented to people and, once people actually looked at it and thought about it, it was so repulsive that you had to act. I think that that is parallel a little bit to the way we are now waking up to poverty, trafficking, these other kinds of issues.
Burns: Right. Our project here on the Future of Diplomacy means to look at diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft as opposed to just seeing current history through the lens of what the military can do for you; so an argument I would make is that our country needs to pay more attention to negotiation, statecraft, diplomacy as a way of acting in the world. It seems to me that there’s a link with your work because we’re…one of the great events of our time is we’re seeing a democratisation of international politics, NGOs as actors, individuals as actors, not just nation state. You’ve written from that perspective: do you think that’s a trend that is ephemeral or do you think it’s a trend that’s going to be with us for a long time, the fact that individuals, for good or ill by the way, can make a supreme difference in the world?
Kristof: My hunch is that that is a trend that is going to expand, largely because of technology, social networks, ease of communication. I do think that a fair amount of that will be for ill that we’re now seeing the way… I mean Osama bin Laden is one example of that; [inaudible] is another but I also think that the issues in general can increasingly be perceived as transnational ones and it’s sort of ridiculous for our statecraft or our understanding of contemporary history in southern Africa to be essentially defined by what is happening in Malawi in terms of the Malawian government when the overarching issue that is happening in Malawi is AIDS and, you know, that is the same as in Zambia and Botswana and Swaziland and so on and so … and you can’t talk even about the stability, the political stability, of these societies if you ignore some of these health issues, hunger issues, agriculture and perhaps climate change in a longer run and so I do think it’s important to, you know, to broaden our perspectives and that statecraft, if you will, does need to include some acknowledgement of the individuals, the other actors, NGOs, and these other kind of broad underlying trends.
Burns: Right, such as the transnational issues. It does seem to me that a lot more time is being paid by Presidents and Prime Ministers to climate change, to trafficking in women and children, to drugs, to crime cartels. That’s a big change in where the international agenda is and you’ve reported…you have probably been the leading person, at least writing, on op-ed pages to talk about this but there are some blank spots and so I’ve always wondered (I don’t mean to…I certainly wouldn’t single out the New York Times because I think the New York Times is the finest international coverage of any paper in the country) but here’s a conflict in Congo, bloodiest conflict in the world in the last decade, and yet we read so little about it and so much more, relatively speaking, about other challenges: what accounts for that?
Kristof: In journalism we tend to be really good at covering what happened yesterday; we tend to be really bad at covering what happens everyday and there also is a tendency to tune out just long running things that are … especially that aren’t spectacularly violent. In Congo the last mortality study was that 5.4 million people had died, as you say, the most lethal conflict since World War II, but most of those people died not with a bullet in the head but of starvation or malnutrition or diarrhoea as a consequence of excess mortality because of the war…
Burns: The ravages of the war …
Kristof: The ravages of the war and, you know, it… I think that journalist just kind of get … they feel, “Where’s the news in another 30,000 people dying in Congo that this … that’s just kind of happening.” So I think that’s part of it. The other is, that for television in particular… I mean, traditionally I think we in journalism had a certain attitude of “We know better and this is important and, damn it, we’re going to tell you!” In today’s business environment for journalism that doesn’t play and if you are the executive producer for a television show then you can send a camera team out to eastern Congo: it’ll be incredible expensive, it’ll be risky to some degree and your ratings will drop and, in contrast, if you put a Democrat and a Republican in a room together and have them yell at each other your ratings will go up.
Burns: A sad commentary on the nature of our political discourse that you’re describing in our own country. Why do ratings drop because an international issue is on the table? Because an international issue is on the table and not one concerning…? Are we in a more isolationist phase of our history?
Kristof: I mean I think it might even have been worse at a previous time but I think maybe journalists cared a little less about ratings at some point but I think that, you know, there’s just a sense that it’s too bad that people are dying in Congo but “Ah, Africa’s always a mess. It’s not my problem.” and people just turn the channel. I mean I get it… whenever I write about these issues I get a lot of pushback from people who say, “Look, we have tremendous problems in America right now and, you know, why should we possibly worry about Sudan or Congo or wherever it may be. Let’s solve our own problems first before we go worrying about other countries.” and I think in particular in the case of Africa there’s a perception that Africa is always a mess and so that, while it’s unfortunate, that’s just Africa’s destiny. It may be that we as journalist have unfortunately, and also humanitarian organisations, have played a role in that by focussing so much on all the terrible things that happen, that we lead to this misperception that Africa is just perennially destined to be a failure, which I think is utterly incorrect.
Burns: Right, right. The narrative on Africa in our public discourse is not accurate because there are many positive success stories occurring economically and politically on the continent right now.
Kristof: Yeah, the… I think the part of the problem is that we in journalism, we cover planes that crash, not planes that take off but in the context of domestic aviation viewers understand that. They see planes flying and they know that if you cover a plane-crash that does not mean that all planes are crashing. When we cover Africa and we cover Sudan crashing, Congo crashing, Sierra Leone crashing then people don’t have that broader context to know that Ghana is taking off, that Botswana is taking off and so they kind of think that Africa is composed of all these warlords doing terrible things to each other and I think that maybe we in journalism should think deeply, and aid organisations as well, about the risk that by trying to call attention to terrible problems we are creating a worse business environment for Africa, a worse tourism environment and possibly creating more difficulties for a continent that we are, in fact, trying to help.
Burns: Right. A final question and it links your focus on women with my focus on American foreign policy. I worked for Madeline Albright and I worked for Condoleezza Rice (I did not have the pleasure of working with Secretary Hillary Clinton) but it seems to me that those three women, the first three women … female Secretaries of State in American history, have changed the agenda. Each of them is pointing the way towards a focus on women’s issues for the first time. Secretary Clinton when she visited India for the first time as Secretary of State spent the first part of her trip focussed on local issues having to do with poor people. She didn’t go just to Delhi to talk to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Secretary Rice, Secretary Albright put issues like trafficking women on the US agenda. I find that hopeful. I find it a trend that we have to continue to focus on so, to end this interview on a hopeful note, do you think we’re making progress in at least asking the right questions about what our government should be doing in the world?
Kristof: Yeah, I think we are. I do think that probably at the end of the day it may matter a little bit less who the President is or maybe even who the Secretary of State is than whether… how many women diplomats there are in the ranks all the way up or how many women there are in the political system, ambassadors, this kind of thing, but I do think that, you know, it clearly does matter to have an infusion of X chromosomes and that people just notice these issues that maybe men had been somewhat oblivious to. I think more broadly I also think that once people pay attention to these issues and especially once young Americans have travelled and seen them first hand and so it’s a reality to them, then it becomes very hard to tune out afterward and that there becomes an ongoing commitment to address them in a way that really does make me hopeful and also I think that there’s probably more realism now on the part of do-gooders and understanding that there will be mistakes, acknowledging those mistakes, using better metrics to register progress and accepting that changing the world isn’t about making it perfect but reducing some of the worst aspects of it.
Burns: Good. Nick, thanks for coming back to your alma mater, Harvard, and thanks for being with us today.
Kristof: It was my pleasure, Nick.
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