Two girls walk through the market in the Abushouk Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, home to nearly 55,000 people, near the North Darfur capital El Fasher. (photo: Ian Timberlake/AFP/Getty Images)
I wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.
Nicholas Kristof has lived on four, and reported on six continents, including spending formative years based in China and Japan, before he took his place on the Op-Ed pages of the Times in the cathartic year of 2001. And as he tells us, he soon realized that opining, however brilliantly, left him preaching to the choir. People who already shared his perspective would cheer him on; those who didn’t would not take in what he had to say. The true power of his editorial platform, he realized, was its capacity to bring lesser-publicized events and ideas into the light.
He is credited, most famously perhaps, for bringing the unfolding genocide in Darfur to the world’s attention. But even that “success,” which brought him a second Pulitzer Prize, left Nicholas Kristof wondering and wanting. The world’s reaction to Darfur, in his mind, did not match the tragedy at hand or the moral responsibility it should have engendered. He wanted to understand the fact — as I’ve pondered with many guests on this program across the years — that horrific images and facts are as likely to paralyze and overwhelm as to mobilize us.
And so he started reading research on brain science and the biological basis for compassion, to explore what makes the difference between moral paralysis and compassionate mobilization. We are hard-wired as humans, it seems, to respond powerfully to a single individual’s story and face. But add a second face, and that response diminishes. Add facts, and multiply that story by hundreds or millions, and empathy withers altogether.
Nicholas Kristof reframed his journalistic approach accordingly. It is fascinating to hear him talk about this, and about his own enduring worries about its manipulative connotations. He works to balance the riveting story with the big picture. An empathetic response to a single human story, he’s also learned by way of science and his own experience, can become a portal to a larger awareness. Facts and context can then begin to play a meaningful supporting role.
In the early 2000s, I felt that Nicholas Kristof was simplistic about religion too. Granted, most Western journalists were on a new kind of learning curve with regard to religion. Over the years, I have been deeply impressed by his unusual willingness to learn in public — to admit that he did not understand something, to publish his surprise and self-reversals. He’s gained a very complex and contradictory view of religion as a force in the world — capable of nurturing the worst of violence and the best of care.
He also offers a penetrating view of the self-defeating liberal-conservative/secular-religious divide on global issues as in our domestic political life. He is one of the voices waking up the world to the global scourge of sex trafficking. He believes that this will ultimately galvanize the moral consciousness of this century as slavery galvanized the 19th century. But he is watching with dismay as, for now, the two most effective activists on this issue — liberal feminists and conservative Christians — cannot agree on a shared vocabulary for describing the problem, much less join their energies.
We spend a lot of words these days on the way journalism is changing — usually with an eye to the technological and financial pressures that are changing it. Nicholas Kristof embodies deep cultural shifts that are also transforming journalism as we have known it. His journalism is a new paradigm, I think, one I’m now grateful for. I’ll call it journalism as a humanitarian art. And I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.