Heralded as part Rachel Carson, part Mother Teresa and part Indiana Jones, Nicholas Kristof was called to accept his Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism on Tuesday night with an introduction designed to set him apart.
In a profession so many join with ambitions of global impact, “the reporter who’s done more than any other to change the world is Nick Kristof,” said Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Ticking off the 53-year-old New York Times reporter’s often harrowing topics – reported from the world’s darkest corners of human suffering and, especially, systematic crimes against women – Jones echoed the thoughts of many in the Cambridge, Mass., audience: “He sometimes shames us; he always inspires us.”
Clearly uncomfortable on a pedestal, Kristof jumped in with tales reflecting insecurities and fears that might be familiar to average reporters and editors. Like his memory of an address he was to give years ago at Harvard (his alma mater), accompanied by his daughter. Watching in surprise as his potential listeners bolted across the street to hear an impromptu Harvard Yard talk by Bill Clinton, Kristof turned to her to observe that “you may be the only person in the audience.” Her response: “Dad, may I go hear Bill Clinton?”
After noting his pride in sharing the platform with recipients of the year’s Goldsmith investigative-journalism prize – a Chicago Tribune team honored for its painstakingly reported six-part series on deceptive industry promotion of toxic flame retardants – Kristof noted how he and other investigative reporters shared the frustration of not being able to gain enough attention for subjects that are difficult for the public to grasp.
Sometimes, he remarked, it’s a readership or ratings problem, with the audience increasingly attracted to lightweight banter. “You can put a Democrat and a Republican in a studio together and their ratings will go up,” he said. Meanwhile, stories of human trafficking around the globe, or the horrors of African warfare, for example, can’t get the same attention.
In the midst of his Darfur reporting about eight years ago, Kristof recalled being amazed at the wide attention being given to the eviction of nesting red-tailed hawks from their skyscraper roosts in the Central Park area. “New Yorkers were up in arms, outraged” about the homeless birds, he said, while he continued to have trouble drawing attention to a subject of global horror.
Kristof won his second Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his commentary on the Darfur genocide. He won a 1990 Pulitzer for international reporting with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, then a fellow Times reporter, for their coverage of the Chinese democracy movement.
Kristof expressed concerns about things that he might do to soften the impact of the inhumanity he often details in his reporting. In pursuing the work in “Half the Sky” – the 2010 book on the oppression of women world-wide that he wrote with WuDunn – he noted that they recently initiated a videogame to attract new audiences to learning about the harrowing subject. “We worry that it’s going to cheapen what are really life-and-death issues,” he said. But the need to increase understanding is great. “We’ll let you know how that experiment unfolds.”
Mostly, though, Kristoff worries about his profession’s ability to call more attention to global issues, reflecting the sharp reduction of emphasis that U.S. news organizations have devoted to international coverage – as well as to domestic investigative reporting, which like the world-wide variety is extremely costly. Foundation money has helped, he noted, but a new dedication among publishers and broadcasters is needed.
An even deeper concern, though, reflects the fall-off in the public’s view of the media, so high in the post-Watergate days three decades ago, when Kristof joined the Times. Citing a recent study that shows “two-thirds of people say that media regularly gets the facts wrong,” he suggested that today’s audiences further may have a frightening reaction to news reports: using them “to confirm our biases, rather than making us question them.”
He remains hopeful. At its best, journalism “can still really play such an important role in any society.” And courageous reporting, he suggested, still has the opportunity to win over the public.
Kristof shared the story of one tension-filled trip he made to cover a Pakistani warlord who was wreaking havoc in his district and buying off the police who might otherwise protect visitors. The columnist, terrified that he might be in danger after hearing locals tell their stories, “tried to make a quiet exit” from the area. So he was shocked, and a little unsettled, to find people crowding around his departing team, cheering: “Long live journalists!”
Said Kristof, gesturing to the Goldsmith-winning investigative reporters in the audience, “I wish we’d hear that more in this country.”
Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism” (U. Missouri Press, paperback, 2010), often writes about award-related topics for Poynter.