Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Twice he has won the Pulitizer Prize, the first in 1990 for his reporting on China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement and the second in 2006 for his commentary on the conflict in Darfur. His most recent book is the bestseller Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
Below is an edited transcript from the public discussion Kristof had with Sheila Coronel, Professor of Professional Practice at the Columbia Journalism School, as part of the “Covering Conflict” series sponsored by IRCPL.
Sheila Coronel: Welcome, Nick, to the journalism school.
Nicholas Kristof: Thank you.
Coronel: Let’s start with your book… The book is on the bestseller list and it’s in its seventh printing.
Nicholas Kristof: Twenty-first, actually.
Sheila Coronel: Oh, my information is obviously dated.
Nicholas Kristof: It tapped a market that nobody—neither we nor the publisher—really knew existed. It really struck a chord.
Sheila Coronel: Twenty-first printing, that means how many copies?
Nicholas Kristof: About 230-some thousand sold.
Sheila Coronel: Wow, that’s amazing, and the book was launched just late last year.
Nicholas Kristof: Yeah.
Sheila Coronel: Wow, that’s great. So the book has been on the bestseller list. It’s gotten a phenomenal audience. Yet it is about something that is—especially for someone like me, who comes from that developing world—something that is so commonplace, something so entrenched and so widespread that most journalists don’t even consider it as news.
You’ve talked about more girls being killed as girls, because they are girls, than people who perished in the wars of the 20th Century. But why this book and why now?
Nicholas Kristof: You know, really it was a gradual process for Sheryl, my wife, and me. We spent a lot of time abroad and I think it gradually snuck up on us that really the central human rights cause, and it seemed to us more broadly that the central moral challenge of our times was this kind of gender inequity.
And when I say that I think people always think this is really meant in some kind of hyperbolic sense, but can I ask you folks a question? Are there more males or females in the world today? Come on. Let’s have a show of hands. If you think there are more males in the world today can you raise your hand? And if you think there are more females in the world today can you raise your hand?
I’m afraid this latter group is wrong for the reason that Sheila just mentioned. In the U.S. there are more females, in Europe there are more females, in this room I think there are pretty much more females; given equal access to food and health care, women live longer.
In an equal world there would be more women, but it’s not an equal world and when we began to realize the toll of this and realize that there are somewhere between 50 and 110 million women missing from the globe—that in any ten years there are more girls who are discriminated against to death than all the victims of all the genocides of the 20th Century.
Just the scale of it struck us as something that really deserved more attention, more coverage, and I think it was some combination of that intellectual realization of the scale of this, and a couple of things we encountered that made us think that this is something that we wanted to write about.
Essentially, as writers, we have a spotlight. You get a lot more bang for the buck when you illuminate something that is not illuminated, that is in the dark, and help draw attention to it.
Coronel: But why now? Haven’t there been more strides that have been taken by women in the last generation or so than there had been, say, in the last hundred years? Aren’t there more women, as you can see, in colleges, more women in schools, at least in many parts of the world, women in the professions, more women who are taking on leadership roles in governments, in companies?
Kristof: Yeah, I mean, I think that this book could have been written at approximately any point in the last 400,000 years. Since Gutenberg anyway—it would have worked better since Gutenberg.
One answer to that is our appreciation of the issue. I mean, not ourselves, but in general I think the public has become increasingly aware of this. And part of it also is that, aside from the issues of injustice that are out there—human trafficking, girls being discriminated against to death—the other side of the coin is a more optimistic one. There is an increasing appreciation, I think, that if you want to address global poverty, civil conflict in society and terrorism, then there’s no magic solution, but educating girls, bringing those educated women into the formal labor force, probably accomplishes more than any other single strategy you can pursue.
And I think the contrast between Pakistan and Bangladesh is an interesting one in that respect. I mean, there are various differences, but one is that Bangladesh really went out of its way to educate girls in a way that Pakistan did not. And that in turn helped revitalize Bangladesh’s economy, Bangladeshi civil society. I think that is one reason why Bangladesh is rather more stable today, although I don’t want to exaggerate that too much.
It has always been evident that terrible things have happened to women. I guess this is a long way of saying that, increasingly, what is becoming more evident over time is that if you want to make strides against global poverty, against these other problems, then one way of doing that is to focus on girl’s schooling and these other issues.
And to me, it strikes me, covering Afghanistan, that one of the metrics that American commanders use in Afghanistan is the proportion of girls who are going to school. Because they realize that those districts are gonna be the more stable.
So you have these hard-bitten military commanders who at one moment are talking about air strikes and the next moment, they’re talking about getting more girls in school. And I think that’s a powerful reminder that there are ways to achieve stability in society that don’t necessarily involve dropping incredibly expensive bombs on villages.
Coronel: Since this is a conversation about conflict, can you talk more about the relationship between the state or the status of women and civil conflict or religious conflict?
Kristof: The correlation between societies where women are marginalized and those that have more conflict is fairly well established as an empirical matter.
The reason for that is—you know, it’s open to speculation. I think that the pathway has to do in part with the youth cohort, the baby boom, the population bulge. It’s long been known that countries that have a demographic bulge of people between the age of 15 and 24 are much more prone to terrorism, to civil conflict to a people.
And societies where women are marginalized are in turn much more likely to have very high fertility rates and to have that kind of a youth bulge. But in addition on top of that, I think it is reasonably clear that what matters more than just the proportion of the overall population that is 15 to 24 is the portion of the population that is young men age 15 to 24.
And in those societies where women are completely marginalized and they stay in a home and they’re not in the workforce, then in effect that magnifies the proportion of young men and their impact on society. Those societies tend to take on to some extent the ethos of an army camp, boys locker room, you know, a prison—whatever the metaphor is that you want to pursue.
There’s a certain amount of work in the field of sociology that looks at these very male-oriented societies and the conflict that tends to arise. And the final element of this I think is that those societies also often end up being polygamists and that reduces the number of young women who are available for these young men to marry.
And the upshot may well be that you have a lot of young men in their mid-20’s who otherwise might be finally getting married and settling down who stay single and—in effect—15 to 24, when they’re actually in their late 20’s. So it’s in part a function of a demographic aspect, but it becomes magnified and creates a kind of instability.
Coronel: Two weeks ago we saw these bombings in Moscow where there was a female suicide bomber. Can you relate that into this sort of pathology or the situation that you describe?
Kristof: Well, I think that women tend to be certainly marginalized in those societies, and the fact that they’re occasionally given a suicide vest I don’t think changes that fundamental dynamic. But I also think it is important to note that we often from afar exaggerate the degree to which this is a gender battle. This is men versus women. And it really isn’t.
One of the things that struck me the most in reporting was the degree to which we found women doing terrible things to other women. And for example, look at brothel owners around the world. I mean, in the U.S. pimps are men. But around the world, most brothel owners, most human traffickers are women.
Most of the people who decide whether to cut a girl’s genitals—FGM—are the mothers. Men tend to be more excluded from that. Over and over it’s the mothers-in-law who make the decision about whether to take a young woman to hospital when she’s in obstructed labor. And it’s the mother-in-law who says, “I gave birth at home. No need for her to go,” and so she dies.
If you ask people if they are in favor or against wife beating, then the best predictor of their answer is not whether they’re male or female; it’s how much education they have, whether they live in a city or a rural area.
Essentially the problem here really is patriarchal and often misogynistic attitudes and value. But those attitudes and those values are absorbed and transmitted almost as much by women as by men.
Coronel: In this book and in much of your work, you take a stand, which not many journalists at least in this country do. You’re not just reporting, but urging people to do something, to take action. Isn’t that a risky position to take as a journalist?
Kristof: Well, one risk is that I will be proven wrong, which I am periodically. There are a couple of elements to that, I think. One is the notion of expressing opinions.
When I got the column in 2001, it felt incredibly strange to be writing my opinions in the column. And I showed my draft columns to my wife and she would look at them and say, “You know, this opinion is pretty feeble. Looks more like a news analysis than a column.” I would go back and add a few adjectives. And gradually it’s become much more natural to grill out opinions.
And these are issues that I care passionately about. I do have strong opinions. And of course, in the world of columns, you’re expected to throw opinions around. I think the other thing that I’ve done that has raised more eyebrows has been, to some degree, the injection of myself in some of the stories.
Coronel: Such as?
Kristof: Such as in Cambodia, buying two girls from a brothel. In 2004 I bought two girls, one for $150, the other for just over $200, and returned them to their villages, working with an aid group. I think that was the first time that a New York Times reporter had actually bought two human beings.
And I think that raised journalistic eyebrows. Is this really appropriate, to be jumping into the story like that? And things like that have happened a number of times.
Coronel: That’s also raised eyebrows not just among journalists but also among feminists, because it was like playing to the trope of the white man rescuing these poor third-world girls from misery and a lifetime of abuse. Does that bother you?
Kristof: Well, it bothered me much less than the alternative of leaving them in the brothel to get AIDS and die.
I mean, you’re right, I think it made people uncomfortable for that reason. I must say, it didn’t make the two people in question uncomfortable. Because again, given the alternative that they get stuck in a brothel, it seemed rather better to them to fit into a stereotype.
One of the problems that relates to that a little bit that does bother me more, that I wonder about, is that when I go in and do some reporting, I typically try to find some microcosm, some way of telling the story. And so for example, in Haiti, I wanted to tell about some aid group doing something interesting as a way of building a narrative that would tell the story. I’m a huge believer that often local organizations, in this case a Haitian organization, are the ones that actually have the most local knowledge, and tend to be most cost-effective. And that often we would get more bang for the buck if we support local organizations abroad.
But those of you who read the column know that very often I pick organizations run by Americans; my protagonist will be some American from, you know, Columbia River maybe who’s off in the middle of nowhere.
And the reason, basically, is that it’s an awful lot easier to get readers to read about some New Yorker who’s off in Haiti than to get them to read about a Haitian who’s doing good work in Haiti. And it’s already so hard to get readers to care about Congo or Darfur or whatever the issue is, that to miss the chance to create this kind of protagonist—this kind of a vehicle that can help tug people in—strikes me as missed opportunity. But I am very sensitive to the notion that, you know, sort of highlighting the wrong kind of hero sometimes.
Coronel: The good work that Americans do rather than the good work that local people have to do?
Coronel: But I think one reason for the success of your book and your reporting is precisely because you tell these compelling stories. Half the Sky is full of these compelling stories of women who’ve undergone the most horrible abuse and yet overcome them.
This storytelling technique is a deliberate one, isn’t it? You’ve talked about this in previous forums. Your reading of marketing specialists and social psychologists. Can you talk more about this?
Kristof: Sure, I’m laying bare the secrets in my cupboard here.
Coronel: The “Save the Darfur Puppy” syndrome, as you said on one of your columns.
Kristof: That’s right. The origins for this came when some of my earlier columns from Darfur—I was just very frustrated that I’d been writing about hundreds of thousands of people being driven from their homes, vast numbers of people dying, starving, and I’d write the columns and they’d just kind of seem to disappear without a trace. And those of you who in New York then may remember that there was a hawk, a red-tailed hawk in Central Park, Pale Male, that was kicked out of his nest in a condo there.
And New Yorkers were all up in arms about this red-tailed hawk being homeless. And I couldn’t get people to care nearly as much about hundreds of thousands of people. And so that was enormously frustrating. And it drove me to try to understand, what resonates in us? What makes us act or care about an issue? And I came across work, a little bit in neurology but mostly in social psychology, that goes to exactly this question.
We flinch at the idea of marketing a cause. We think that marketing is what Coke and Pepsi do. And obviously they do and they do it with incredible sophistication even though it doesn’t matter to the world one whit whether we drink Coke or drink Pepsi.
On the other hand, it would matter tremendously if we could get people to care about malaria or, you know, girls’ education around the world, and we don’t invest the same energy or attempts to build those connections.
And the lessons that have been learned from social psychology are, one, it’s all about individual stories. We know intellectually that our interest in helping a class of people diminishes as that class gets longer. You know, one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.
On the other hand, what becomes clear is the point at which our empathy diminishes. You know what the number is? It’s when the number of victims reaches two. The moment you have more than one victim, then empathy and sympathy diminish.
Coronel: You use the example of Rokia, right? The woman from Mali?
Kristof: These studies have revolved around a seven-year-old girl called Rokia who the social psychologists seem to love. And it’s typically, in various situations, “Would you help Rokia?” And in some cases there’s a boy equivalent of Rokia. And it turns out that everybody wants to help Rokia.
You just have a picture of Rokia, she’s hungry, people want to help her. Nobody wants to help 21 million hungry West Africans in another version. But even if it’s just Rokia and this boy’s name—which I now forget—nobody wants to help, or they don’t really want to help the two of them. They want to help either one or the other but not both.
And most confounding, if you provide background information—if you say that Rokia is malnourished because there has been a drought in Mali, and that there are many, many other people who are hungry there—then again, people’s interest flags. It’s very much an emotional connection. The other aspect is that people want to be a part of a positive story. They want to be in a situation where Rokia’s hungry, and you feed her, and then she lives happily ever after.
And I think that one of the mistakes that humanitarian organizations make is that they overdo the misery and the tragedy of it. People really don’t want to be a part of something terribly sad. So that’s really the reason why so many anecdotes in our book take this course, where it’s somebody whose trajectory plumbs the absolute bottom of humanity, but then manages to rise above it, to overcome this, to really be inspiring, heartwarming, positive.
And it was a reflection of this research in social psychology that that’s what we kind of yearn for. And the book was kind of an experiment in whether that would resonate.
Coronel: Has it been successful in achieving this aim? In getting people to sympathize with this woman and doing actually some of the things that you ask them to do in the book? Which is to contribute to these organizations, to help women out in developing countries and so on?
Kristof: Yeah, I think it’s been very successful in opening people’s eyes to things happening a long way away, and in getting some people to connect with these issues. We wanted to, in effect, write a sort of do-it-yourself guide to foreign aid or foreign policy. And I think one of the other potential pitfalls or minefields is that there’s a tendency with any good cause for people to exaggerate and make it seem more important or easier—in other words, to oversell.
And I think that people on the fence are very skeptical of that. They sense it, and when we looked at historical analogies, one of the things that had worked was those efforts that had, if anything, undersold rather than oversold.
And so we try to acknowledge that helping people is harder than it looks. It doesn’t always work, and yet these are some of the kinds of interventions that have the best record, here’s what you can do yourself. And it’s been particularly exciting for us that there are a lot of young people who, after reading the book, have then wanted to give their parents gray hairs and go off to Ghana, Somaliland, wherever it may be.
Coronel: The way you’re talking now is very different from the way a lot of American journalists I know, at least a lot of the journalism professors in this school, have taught. I mean, you’re talking about marketing causes. You’re talking about getting people to actually do something. You’re going beyond opinionating, if there is such a word, to asking people to take concrete action based on what they’ve read.
Kristof: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think that—
Coronel: I mean, are you blurring that line between advocacy and journalism?
Kristof: To some degree it’s a fine line, and I must say that people will periodically come up to me and say, “Nick, you’re such a great crusader” or something, and I will flinch at that. Because that suggests a notion—as does “advocate”—that maybe one’s primary loyalty is to a cause or an issue and that one becomes somewhat less skeptical of that along the way.
And I think that kind of journalistic skepticism is incredibly important at every step. On the other hand, Sheryl and I wrote Half the Sky not just to inform people, but ultimately because we really do think this is a moral challenge.
Human trafficking, for example. You go out and meet girls who are locked up in brothels and who are gonna die of AIDS as a result. And it doesn’t just feel like an important story, it feels like an horrific human tragedy. And I think a lot of us went into journalism to some degree wanting to make a difference. It’s a very fine line how you pursue that.
You can’t cover every city council meeting trying to make a difference. But on the other hand, you do hope that you do have some kind of a larger contribution, that it makes the world a better place. And on some of these issues that I gravitated to, yeah, I want to make people spill their coffee when they read a column. And after they read the book, I do want them to go and donate, volunteer, whatever it may be—help chip away at some of these problems.
Coronel: Before we leave the book, let’s talk about some of the criticisms that have been made about it, if only to save them the trouble of asking the questions. First, U.S. feminists say it underplays or makes light of women’s oppression in the U.S. You say that women are so oppressed in third-world countries while American families are more concerned with the glass ceiling and not life-threatening issues that threaten women elsewhere.
Kristof: I do think that American feminism and the human rights community traditionally both didn’t focus enough on the issue of women’s rights around the world. I do think that actually in both cases, over the last 10 years or so, they’ve become more attentive to these issues.
Clearly there’re enormous problems within this country. I think in the case of women’s rights, the two probably most serious ones are domestic violence—a vast problem—and trafficking, which is also a vast problem. I don’t mean to suggest that we should be trying to end trafficking in India and not in New York. But it’s also true that if one looks at the scale of the problem, there’s no question that the most egregious kinds of violations are abroad.
Coronel: The second criticism, from the more structural school, is that the solutions which you offer are Band-Aid solutions—increasing spending on education for women, removing fistula operations, what else? Salt iodization. Solutions that do not address the underlying causes of poverty and inequality in the world.
Kristof: I’ve become more sympathetic to Band-Aids over the years.
I think that especially when—for example, when I was in the university there was a tendency to seek overarching solutions to problems. And frankly, the result was often things that were somewhat symbolic. It was to hold a conference or to pass a law. And there’s clearly a role for laws and conferences, but on the other hand, I think that actually your generation—those of you who are students—have been better at actually doing something that makes an incremental difference for real people somewhere.
That instead of having a conference on ending female illiteracy, you’ll sponsor a third grade class in a particular refugee camp somewhere. It’s not gonna end the global problem, but for those third graders, it is transformational. And over time I’ve become more sympathetic to the idea that that is something that actually makes more of a difference.
I don’t think one should ignore the other end—
Coronel: The larger end?
Kristof: —especially in the case of health. Clearly some kind of intervention needs to be top down—vaccination campaigns, whatever. But there is an awful lot to be said for these kinds of individual Band-Aids, if you will. Can I tell a really hokey story?
Kristof: I traveled a lot with a Hawaiian cameraman and we used to debate this issue a lot. You know, about helping individuals. He used to tell this utterly hokey Hawaiian parable, which I’m sure some of you have heard. But it very much resonates with me about these issues. And it’s about a boy walking along the beach and all these starfish have washed up—you know this?
The boys is frantically throwing the starfish back into the water and a man comes up and says, “What are you doing? There are millions of starfish that have been washed up. You can’t make a difference.” Boy throws in another one and says, “Well, sure made a difference to that one.” I think there’s a lot to be said for that.
Coronel: But it’s the sort of hokey-ness and these kinds of stories that you bring out in your book that cause more cynical development workers to say that you’re treating the issue of women’s human rights like it was your personal discovery, when people have been working on this for the last two generations.
Kristof: Yeah, I think that there is genuinely some discomfort—and I sympathize with it. I mean, there have been so many people who have been working in their field for decades, for their lifetimes. And then it is frustrating to have some guy come along and write a book and then everybody starts talking about it.
And they’re right, I sympathize with it—I mean truly, the success of Half the Sky is very much a credit to the groundwork that so many NGOs have done for years, for decades, building awareness, building up evidence that these interventions do work.
On the other hand, I think that it is really important—one of the reasons I write about these issues in the Times and why we wrote the book is that if only women write about women’s rights, then the cause is marginalized immediately. If one wants to get broad acceptance, it is really important to have, you know, “dead white guys” write about these kinds of issues. I think there’s a bit of an analogy with gay rights.
Gay rights began to get broader traction when you had a lot more straight people writing about them. And in the same way, more broadly—the holocaust wasn’t a Jewish issue. Civil rights weren’t a black issue. And when you have a hundred million women discriminated against to death around the world, that obviously isn’t just a women’s issue. And I think it is important that this really broad coalition try to bring about change.
Coronel: So what you’ve done is actually mainstream the issue into popular consciousness in the same way that Rachael Carson embedded an environmental awareness in the 1960’s.
Kristof: Well, that is the aim; that is the goal.
Coronel: How do you keep up the energy to do this, Nick? I mean, you’re probably on the road how many months in a year? Is it—don’t you get—Kristof: I’m always nervous child protective services is gonna attend one of these lectures and take away my kids.
Coronel: Yes, exactly, but also don’t you get compassion fatigue? I mean, after seeing the 24th woman whose been forced to work in the brothel, don’t you just stop feeling anything about it?
Kristof: To some extent, one does encounter compassion fatigue. I’m sometimes embarrassed by how clinical I can become when I’m out reporting.
I’m leaving this weekend to go to Sudan, for example, and I’ll be in rural areas and I won’t have much time. And I’ll be out to try to find the most compelling story that I can within a limited time. So somebody will come to me and they’ll tell me some heartrending story about some 30-year-old man. And frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote, that if I want to get American readers to care about my story, that if I have some middle aged man in my lede, they’re gonna tune out. And so what I’m looking for is—maybe it’s gonna be some nine year old girl with soulful eyes, whatever it may be—some story that can get readers into the column.
And so I’m sometimes kind of embarrassed by the way I will cut somebody off and say, “Well, you know, it’s terrible that you were shot in the leg, but…” You know, meanwhile, go off and find somebody who was shot in both legs or was shot in the stomach or—I really want to find the most compelling anecdote, the way I can get readers into those stories.
Coronel: One reviewer who reviewed a documentary made about you and your trip with students to Africa said that you’re a cross between Mother Teresa and the James Woods character in Salvador. Do you guys know the James Woods character in this? A very intense foreign journalist who is obsessive compulsive and just runs around, with the heart of Mother Teresa. Is that an accurate description of you?
Kristof: Well, I’m trying to remember. I think I watched the movie ages ago, but I mean without remembering much of that character, I think that is probably a little closer to the cross than Mother Teresa. I usually leave my habit at home.
Coronel: But you have succeeded in creating a sort of niche for yourself. There is, I think, a sort of Nick Kristof brand, however you describe it. It’s sort of an engaged journalism in difficult parts of the world, but also the less obvious stories, the less headline grabbing stories.
Kristof: The reason I choose the more obscure stories to some degree really reflects a realization, awakening, that I had after I got home. When I got the column in the end of 2001, initially I thought, “Wow. I’m gonna be molding people’s opinions over breakfast twice a week. Boy, am I powerful!” You know, it turned out in fact that if I write about anything that people have already thought about—if I write about gun control, healthcare, Middle East policy—then by and large, I won’t change their minds.
If they start out agreeing with me, they think I’m brilliant. If they start out disagreeing with me, they think I’ve utterly missed the point. And I think that we exaggerate the degree to which pundits actually influence public opinion because, you know, we tend to find them very influential when we start out agreeing with them.
And in contrast, at least for me, I found that where I really can have an impact isn’t actually writing about those things that are on the agenda already. But it’s shining the spotlight on some kind of uncomfortable truth out there and helping bring awareness to it, helping put it on the agenda. And so increasingly over time it’s been—as a result it’s been Darfur, Eastern Congo or trafficking or fistula maternal health, whatever it may be.
Coronel: How long do you think you can keep doing this? I mean, I’m asking it not—maybe partly under personal reason—how sustainable it is from your point of view—but also, in terms of the changes that are now taking place in the media industry. There’s fewer resources for international reporting. People’s attention is being dispersed among so many news sites. There’s an information overload. Is this sustainable?
Kristof: I’m fueled by copies of The New York Times each morning. It’s certainly true that there’s a real crisis in journalism as a whole, and television in particular has largely dropped the ball on covering the world. Television is not covering, you know, Eastern Congo, these kinds of issues.The New York Times, thank God is still paying my bills, is happy to send me off to these places. And so I think that it’s sustainable for me, writing for The New York Times for the foreseeable future. At a personal level, I think that maybe there’s one element of—at what point do you just kind of burn out?
And the truth is—I think people often think that it’s incredibly depressing to run around war zones, Cambodian brothels, wherever it may be—and the truth is that usually in the places where you see the worst of humanity, you also see the very best of humanity.When people are tested in those ways, they do terrible things. They also do extraordinarily wonderful things. And I usually come back from these places feeling utterly inspired by some of the people I’ve met there. In Eastern Congo, you know, I was aghast at some of the victims that I met and the stories they told me, and the warlords I met. But the single person who just left the deepest impression on me was actually this Polish nun in the town of Ruturu.
At a time when it had been abandoned by aid workers, she was keeping orphans alive, feeding starving children, keeping out thugs and soldiers, and it was just an incredible example of how somebody expresses their humanity by looking after those around them. And I just came back and I wanted to grow up and become a Polish nun. Maybe that was the closest I got to Mother Teresa. Aspiration.
Coronel: Okay, last two questions before we ask our audience to ask their own questions. First is the Barbara Walters question. What was the worst thing ever said about you? This is how she gets people to talk about unpleasant things.
Kristof: Well, I think that there is a critique of my reporting—I mean, there are many plausible critiques, but one is that I tend to go off and focus on the worst stories and the grimmest places, and that it becomes something close to “genocide porn,” if you will.
And that it also at times magnifies the sense of contempt that a lot of Americans have for poor countries. I think that one of Africa’s problems, for example, is getting tourists, getting Western investors. And if I go around—and in general, reporters go around—and go to the worst-performing parts of that continent, and tell those stories, then that tends to leave Americans thinking, “Well, that’s Africa.” Those are legitimate criticisms that I worry about.
Coronel: Well, let’s just say I’ve heard worse things said about journalists.
The last question is the Mark Taylor question and it is, “What keeps you awake at night?”
Kristof: I think the thing that I worry about most, it’s not the horror stories when I’ve interviewed somebody. You do build up some kind of numbness, if you will, to those. It tends to be issues of safety and security either involving you or involving somebody whose safety you were responsible for.And in particular one of the things that I think we don’t always appreciate is how any kind of foreign reporter who goes to Sudan, Zimbabwe, whatever it may be, is very dependent on local reporters, local drivers, interpreters, and in general those people are the ones who take all the risks, get none of the credit, and after you leave they’re there behind.
One of my rules after a couple of problems is that when I’m in a really nasty thuggish area I try not to have columns pointing that out appearing until after I’ve left, and that helps keep me safe. But if the government figures out who has helped me tell those stories then that person is at risk.
And so far, so good. But I’m always nervous that I’m gonna—I mean, I’m going to Sudan this weekend. On one trip to Sudan I was stopped at a checkpoint and the guys at the checkpoint tried to arrest my interpreter, a 19-year-old kid who’s studying English at the local university. I hired him for a few days, and they told us to go on; they said, “We’re just gonna hold him for investigation.”
And I was afraid—you know, we both thought that that investigation was gonna end ten minutes later with him getting a bullet in his head. And for people at that checkpoint that would have been entirely in character. And, in fact, we were able to resolve it and get him out of trouble, but those kinds of things really do terrify me.
Coronel: Well, thank you for answering those questions. I’d like to invite our audience to ask their questions.
Audience Member 1: I’m a journalism student here and I’m from Zimbabwe. I just want to thank you for writing that column. I read it yesterday and it was very compelling. But I wanted to just find out, as a journalist how do you reconcile not writing a balanced report?
I understand that you want to shine a light on a certain situation, but if someone is reading the story and that’s the only impression they have of the country, as a journalist do you see it as your responsibility to show the different sides of a situation?
Kristof: I think the area that troubles me the most is less in terms of an individual country, and more about the continent as a whole. It really does trouble me, and what I try to do—and it’s, you know, not very successful—is that periodically I will do a column, for example, about various successes.
But it’s a pretty feeble response. I mean, the way I justify it to myself is that—covering Congo, for example—if you think about how many hundreds of thousands of deaths there have been for every column inch that the Congo war has gotten, it’s the most under-covered war in history. So how can one say there should be less coverage of it and more of the successes?
But that issue of trying to provide some kind of a greater mosaic of the good and bad for the continent as a whole, it really does trouble me.
Audience Member 1: Well, thank you, though, for writing that article.
Kristof: Thank you.
Audience Member 2: For Americans, two of the most common pathways to working on global development issues are the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service, and I was wondering if you could offer your critiques of those programs for young people looking to go abroad. What would you do specifically to change or reform them?
Kristof: First of all, I would really encourage you, those of you who are thinking about it, to go abroad and take some time, and don’t just go with a herd of other students to Paris or Florence. Get out of your comfort zone and get out of the capitals and ideally embed yourself in some little community, some project somewhere.
For that kind of thing the State Department isn’t really so good. The Foreign Service tends to keep you in this little foreign ghetto in the capital and often has somewhat limited interaction with the local people. Various aid groups tend to be pretty good at that. You know, even just teaching—my son is a high school senior, so he’s thinking about a gap year for next year and looking at options that would embed him in the middle of nowhere.
I’m thinking about chartering a plane to drop him off with about $4.00 in cash in the middle of the Gabonese jungle and sort of charting his journey out. Don’t tell him I said that.
I think that this kind of getting people truly out of their comfort zone in some project somewhere is a really important experience to have, and the Peace Corps is one way of doing that.
Audience Member 2: Just to follow up, you’ve been critical of the Peace Corps and just if you could elaborate on that.
Kristof: Sure. I think the main problem with Peace Corps is that it’s this fairly long commitment. It’s a 27 month commitment and so it doesn’t really fit very well into people’s graduate school schedules.
So I think it tends to get people who are already deeply interested in development but not people who—you know, people sign up for TFA because they have a little bit of time between college and whatever they want to do next and it’s kind of just a thing to do.
You don’t sign up for Peace Corps that lightly, and I wish there were programs that did offer people an alternative—to do something to similar to Peace Corps but just for one year, for example.
And to go abroad and teach and—you know, I’m under no illusions; the great beneficiaries of this would be Americans, not the people they would be teaching. But I think this would really be great for those individuals and for American foreign policy as a whole.Audience Member 3: Hi there, I liked your remarks about the demographics of 15- to 25-year-old males, levels of education, poverty, and its correlates, the marginalization of women. Scholars at the University of Vermont indicate that concentration of wealth is also a leading indicator of violence in any society.Do you think that marginalization of women may be a tool used to keep wealth concentrated? I guess that’s really the question. And leaving it out of reporting, does that perhaps contribute to this issue about contemptibility, but for the wrong reasons and the wrong people?
Kristof: One of the things that I find distressing in some societies is that the wealthy elite, who tend to be very well educated—their solution to this kind of upheaval and unrest tends to be to build really good protections for themselves, rather than to try to educate the broader population, for example.
The role of the traditional feudal elite in Pakistan is one example of that. They’ve been really good at building barricades and have invested negligible effort in trying to support broader education.I do think that is beginning to change with a middle class emerging in places like Pakistan, and India as well, and the middle class is beginning to show more interest in these kinds of issues in a way that the feudal elites did not.
And that potentially is a real opportunity to begin to address these issues and bring about change. Because fundamentally, at the end of the day, one isn’t gonna end these problems from Columbia University or from The New York Times. They’re gonna change because people within those countries are leading that charge, and we can support it, but we’re only gonna be Sherpas to their work.
Audience Member 4: Hi, my question is informed by Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. You touched on this a little bit at the end but just to preface, in the book he talks about how there’s a lot of conflict reporters that basically become addicted to war and danger, and so they’re just gonna keep covering it until they get killed.
So how do you balance getting close enough to the action to actually know what you’re talking about with mitigating the risk enough that you can reasonably expect to survive a lifetime of that kind of work?
Kristof: I spend so much of my time scared that the fear tends to overcome the addiction part of it. It’s also true that in general the addiction tends to come when you have a bunch of reporters in a crisis zone sitting together at the bar in the hotel where they’re all staying talking about how they’re all gonna, you know: “Okay, we can go tomorrow to Jalalabad. I think that road to Jalalabad is gonna be safe—or we can get on local buses and wear burkhas and nobody’s gonna notice.”
When you get a bunch of reporters together, especially over a few beers, then competitive instincts start to blossom and people do things that they wouldn’t do.
I find it safer to hang out by myself and just be terrified. That tends to be a pretty good instinct. One of the other central rules of traveling in war zones: never accept a lift from a photographer or cameraman. They are crazy. And when there’s gunfire, any sane person will immediately stop, ask questions, whatever, and if you’re driving that’s okay. You can give a lift to the photographer, but if they’re driving: “Gunfire! Hit the accelerator! Got to get there while they’re still shooting!” You know?
I’ve had enough bad experiences that have taught me that things can be going perfectly well one moment, and all of a sudden they’re not and there’s no way out. And so I try to be very careful.
Audience Member 5: I’m also a journalism student here. I was wondering if you would reflect bit upon the statement that you made at the beginning of the talk about how many women seem to be perpetuating violence or oppression of other women. And I just want you to clarify a bit more, because as far as I understand it, these cultures have sort of evolved to become that way. I’m not sure that the women consciously oppress others, but it takes sort of a separate perception that they’ve evolved to espouse.
And I’m wondering if that takes us to judging on precarious grounds, because then we also are getting to the danger of imposing our culture upon another culture, and suggesting that perhaps it’s superior to theirs?
Kristof: It’s a really important question, and this question of when cultures clash—are we imposing our culture on another? Are we suggesting that our culture is superior?
And it’s one that Sheryl and I have wrestled with a fair amount. I think there are two answers to that, one a kind of theoretical one that we have to answer ourselves and the other a practical one on how one brings about change.
At a theoretical level, answering it to myself, I think that one has to wrestle with it, and it seems to me that the answer is sometimes that there are gonna be elements of a culture that are indeed better or not as good as those in others.
And Sheryl when she’s asked that question talks about foot binding. She’s Chinese-American and foot binding was very much a part of her culture for hundreds of years, and Sheryl’s grandmother had her feet bound, and thank goodness there were a lot of people protesting that it was a really bad element of Chinese culture.
On the other hand, it clearly doesn’t work for a bunch of Americans to go around and arrive in a foreign country and say, “Your culture is barbaric.” And I think too often that something like that has been the approach that we’ve tended to take. And I think there’s a very good example in the case of FGM, Female Genital Mutilation.
There’s really been an international—and this goes back to this larger question of global solutions and structural solutions. Since the 1920s, but especially since the 1970s, there’s been an effort to ban FGM. And laws passed, conferences were held, and it was rebranded from Female Circumcision to Female Genital Mutilation.
And all this effort essentially had zero impact. I was in Guinea last year where FGM is not only illegal, but in some cases punishable by execution, and 99 percent of girls are still cut. In contrast, there have been some local efforts from within cultures and within religions and societies to end FGM, and those have been remarkably successful.And I think that if more of our efforts tried to bring about change within cultures—not by standing in front with a megaphone telling people about the flaws in their culture but by supporting local change-makers from within and being Sherpas to them—that we would accomplish an awful lot more.
Audience Member 6: Nicholas, you spoke about making a connection with leaders so they took action. How do you get these women to open up to you?
Kristof: A lot of these issues, especially, obviously, issues having to do with rape or sex are often taboo, and somebody might tell nobody else in their community. In some cases they may not even have told their husband.
But I’m a Martian. I show up and plunk myself into their community and it’s easier to confess this kind of thing to a Martian than it is to somebody you’ll see in your community thereafter.
And so it can be very—you know, I ask really awkward questions and sometimes the interpreter will blanch and say, “I have to ask that?” But I say, “Yes,” and surprisingly often the person will answer and answer honestly.
In the case of rape in Darfur there was also a sense among a lot of women—and you see it in the Congo, too—that terrible things have been done to them, to other women, and they can’t fight back another way. One thing they can do is to tell the world, if you will, to get the word out.
And so they do want the word to get out, although they’re also embarrassed. They’re ashamed. They often think that they have done something wrong. There’s a deep ambivalence. But at the end of the day they usually do want the world to know what is going on.
Audience Member 7: Hi, first of all, thanks for coming, it’s very interesting to listen to. You mentioned that a goal of yours is to mainstream the issue of gender rights and women’s rights. How instrumental do you think your book was in actually getting at the issue? “Gendercide” was on the cover of The Economist a couple weeks ago. How do you like the coverage that you’ve had?
Kristof: I’d love to claim credit for the “Gendercide” cover on The Economist. I just have no idea whether the person that wrote that cover story just read Half the Sky or whether it was something they were, you know, interested in for a long time.
There are certainly other people that have written about it periodically over time. It’s hard to mainstream an issue with a book because in general the people who tend to buy a book and read a book about a topic tend to be those who already care about it.
Sheryl and I have been trying to wrestle with this question and I think it’ll be easier with a paperback. Some colleges have chosen Half the Sky as a freshman read and we love that because then you expose a lot of people and you force them to encounter issues that they might not naturally gravitate to. And likewise television—it looks as if there’s gonna be a TV documentary series. And then the technology that we’re kind of playing with the most in this respect is a game—online games.
Who knew that we had game rights to the book? Turns out we did, and so we gave them to a group called Games for Change which is executive producing an online social action campaign game that’ll be out quite a while from now, but it’s kind of in the works. The idea is that—you know, zero barrier—people play a game, it can go viral, it can expose people to something and then once they’re exposed to it draw them in and get them more engaged. And so if I tell you more about the game I’ll have to kill you. But stay tuned.Audience Member 8: Hi, thank you so much for coming, I really appreciate it. I was wondering, I’ve recently seen some of the videos that you’ve produced while you were in Congo right after the earthquake in Haiti. And two questions kind of came up from watching those.
One, as a journalist I was wondering how you got people to trust you—and this has kind of come up—you mentioned being a Martian, telling a nobody rather than everybody.But I also was wondering about the videos themselves. I mean, you have people who are telling you very personal, private things about, for example, being raped or whatnot. Are you showing these to those people? In some sense the more digital we get I just wonder if that’s something that happens? I mean, an article, that might be different. You’re publishing this for a New York Times audience, so that’s not necessarily these people in rural Congo. So I just kind of was curious about that.
Kristof: There’s a real problem with getting any kind of meaningful consent from somebody. I mean, obviously you need to get consent but to what extent can it really be meaningful in the case of a video if it’s somebody who has never been on the Internet, doesn’t really know what the New York Times is? That is something that we wrestle with.
It would maybe be a problem less in Congo, where the videos were probably less likely to really enrage any particular faction. In Darfur the government was denying that these rapes were taking place. A woman who confessed to having been raped was at risk of being prosecuted for adultery if she was married, or fornication if she was unmarried.
And there have been women who have been arrested, flogged, jailed for these things. And I just agonized over this question. On the one hand, if you just describe this in generic terms and you don’t have an individual, you can’t get people to care about it.
It’s only when you have a real person and a real photo that you can get people to worry about it. And so my solution was, other than to get what consent you can, to try to shoot them in ways where—the names tend to be very commonly used. So if I say she’s Mahboula, age 19, in Kalma camp there are a million Mahboulas who are 19, and ages tend to be very flexible anyway.
But I don’t say what village they’re from, what tribe they are, their father’s name, things that the authorities can use to track them down. And, you know, so far, so good. Nobody has gotten in trouble. But that’s one of those things I do lose sleep over at night.
Audience Member 9: I commend you for your columns and the amount of compassion and empathy you show for victims, but I have a question about it. Do you have a sense that the victims that you concentrate on are third-world, let’s say terrorism victims, as opposed to first-world, western victims of terror or Israeli victims of terror as opposed to third-world victims? Does it go by culture or is it the individuals themselves and the needs that they have and the problems that they have?
Kristof: I tend to focus on the issues that I choose largely because they tend to be neglected, and by shining my light on something that people are not paying attention to, I can change the dynamic, get more resources applied to them. And so that tends to affect how I allocate those resources.
I’ve been thinking that I should probably do more on some of the domestic poverty in this country, for example. I’ve been playing around a little with education in this country. I’ll probably go to Pine Ridge Reservation in this country, which is probably the reservation with the most desperate poverty in this country. I’d like to do more on some of these issues.
But it’s really this question that—I think I can get the most bang for the buck, the most impact for my real estate and op-ed page by focusing on things that are completely neglected.
Audience Member 10: Hi. First of all I wanted to thank you for all of the writing that you did on healthcare in this country. That really affects this country and your writing was powerful and I was able to use it and forward it to people and change their minds about that.
But what I wanted to ask you is about crowd-sourcing. I’m one of your Facebook fans and one of your many Twitter followers. And there’s a lot of very optimistic things being said about crowd-sourcing, especially after the Iran election and the Haiti earthquake. People were able to get information that they wouldn’t have been able to get other ways.
And I hear many more optimistic things about it. So, the pessimistic things: I looked up Darfur in Wikipedia, and the entire entry didn’t use the word “genocide” at all. Which I found really surprising, as maybe an example of crowd-sourcing not working, or maybe there’s something I didn’t understand. I didn’t really know, but I was just wondering what your take on it was as a whole.
Kristof: Well, I mentioned going to Pine Ridge—actually, that was suggested when I asked people on my Facebook page: should I do more domestic stuff? And people had different views but somebody gave Pine Ridge as an example of a good place, and I said, “Yeah,” you know, “that’s right.”
And so I can’t guarantee that if you’ll rush up to my Facebook page and put in your favorite cause that I’ll necessarily be swayed. But there are times when really good ideas come up like that.
I think better ideas tend to come up on Facebook than on blog entries, probably because Facebook has more accountability. Your friends see what you’ve done on Facebook and tend to have smarter ideas.
It doesn’t always work. I am planning my next “Win a Trip” journey and I was trying to figure out how long it takes to get from Libreville, Gabon to Brazzaville, Congo. I asked on Twitter and I got a zillion people who said, “Oh, according to my map it’s X number of miles.” Well, I was actually trying to figure out how many days it was gonna be. Finally several people seemed to have a consensus that in one day’s drive you could get from Libreville to Brazzaville. And so I began plotting my journey on that basis and, well, so much for my Twitter readers. It looks like it’s at least three days drive depending on the roads. So it’s a mixed bag, but there are times when I’ve certainly benefited from it.
Audience Member 11: Thanks very much for coming. What are some specific professions that are helping the most people the most?
Kristof: I think one can do a lot of work in a lot of different fields. Obviously, for me, journalism has been a way that I feel like I can chip away at some problems in the world. But for others it’s teaching, it’s medicine, it’s public health, it’s advocacy, it’s public services. And I also think that it’s business, for that matter.
And I think it’s up to everybody what they want to do and how they want to do something. But one thing I really would suggest is that you find some niche in your life to connect with a cause larger than yourself. And don’t just think, “I’m gonna work really hard for the next 40 years and then I’m gonna retire and spend money on good causes.”
I think that for your own sake, as much as anybody else’s, it is really good to have at least one element of your life be something that has some kind of a higher social purpose. Not just because it does good to other people, but because it does good to you. It helps lend a thread of fulfillment in your own life.
Audience Member 12: Hi, thank you so much for coming. My question kind of combines two that were already asked in another way. With the media landscape so different than it used to be, and constantly transforming day-by-day, someone who wants to get involved in international reporting, but isn’t an established journalist yet, doesn’t necessarily look for a newspaper—
It almost seems overwhelming to even consider how you would get started doing this sort of work. It used to be that you could just go apply for a job as a reporter and then you—hopefully—go and cover whatever you wanted to cover. Now, if you want to cover something it seems as if there are many different ways to go about that.
So for someone who does want to cover international stories and be an international reporter, what would you advise them to do?
Kristof: I don’t have any brilliant silver-bullet solutions, but obviously what some people do is they actually go off and work for a newspaper that is based abroad, typically an English language paper. The Cambodia Daily has a long tradition of taking really smart young Americans who go over and work on the Cambodia Daily for a while and just enjoy the thrill of being in Cambodia and then usually parlay that into a journalism job back in the States after a few years.
And the same thing happens in a lot of places. Increasingly, obviously, you need to have some kind of multimedia experience. I think social media are important.
The other thing that I’d say is that as television drops the ball, more and more of what we think of as journalism is gonna be provided by a combination of think tanks and maybe advocacy groups. Aid organizations could be doing an awful lot more of what we think about as journalism just with aid workers in the field, because they’re actually there. If they entrust them to blog, to Twitter, to Facebook, to shoot videos, that could be a really powerful tool.
There is a chance now for YouTube videos to go viral if they’re really well done. And if I were running an aid group I would hand out flip cameras and try to get people on the ground who could put together some really cool videos that might go viral, might spread the word. But unfortunately I’m not running an aid group. So can’t hire you. But there are options out there, I think.
Audience Member 13: Hi, I’m an undergraduate here at Columbia College. I’ve not yet read Half the Sky but I have a question about yours and Sheryl’s choice in titling the book. It’s a reference to an oft-quoted Chairman Mao saying, oft-quoted in China at least. And maybe some members of the audience don’t think of China as an examplar of human rights. I don’t wish to make a definitive statement about China’s human rights records but I will say that in my time in the countryside in China I do see a lot of slogans encouraging people to see their daughters to school and even saying, “We’ll pay you to send your daughters to school.”
Were you and Sheryl trying to hold up China as an example of a country that has succeeded in educating its girls, and if so, how can other developing countries follow through?
Kristof: Part of it was simply that we were desperately trying to come up with a title, and the publisher didn’t like our suggestions and we didn’t like their suggestions, and we all thought Half the Sky was kind of lyrical and it kind of worked.
But the broader part of it is that—and this is something we talk about in the book—one of the real impediments is that we psych ourselves out, because we think that oppression against women is embedded in some foreign cultures and you can’t fight culture.
And China is, I think, a good example of the opposite. A hundred years ago China was arguably the worst place in the world to be born female. You had foot binding, you had child marriage, you had female infanticide, concubinage, the whole works. And these days it’s one of the better places in the world to be born female, and it is precisely because of those kinds of changes that China has had, it’s economic boom.
Those factories in coastal China—70 percent of the employees in those factories are young women from the villages, from Hunan, from Guangxi and so on, who ended up getting those jobs. That economic boom was very much on the backs of these young women, and there was a larger point we were trying to make as well.
Audience Member 14: I have a somewhat difficult question; I’m surprised, actually, that it hasn’t come up yet. I’ve been following the recent scandals with the Vatican, and Maureen Dowd and others, especially the latest Newsweek, have suggested that if women were in positions of leadership within the church that things would have taken a different turn earlier and some of these things could have been prevented.
As someone who’s done all this research on positive roles of women in positions of leadership, what are your views on whether this still applies in a religious areas versus say the political arena?
Kristof: It seems to me that religion is indeed part of the problem in much of the world. Religions typically evolved at times of great inequality and tended to sanctify that inequality, and tended to sort of say, “This is God’s will.”
And in particular, in addition, one religion after another has the willies about menstruation, and that tends to add to this notion of women as ritually unclean in some respects, and adds to this sense of women as second class citizens. And I think if one doctrinally is taught all the time that God sees husbands as in charge of their wives, that does have some kind of a broader effect on one’s values, one’s attitudes. So I think that religions have truly been indeed part of the problem, one of the reasons for these kinds of inequities.
Having said that, if you try to look at what the solutions are, it’s also very clear that religion is part of the solution. In Afghanistan, if you were trying to get more girls into school, or Pakistan, you’re not gonna do it if you have a bunch of Americans who march in and just say, “Get your girls to school.” The people who have the greatest influence there are precisely the clerics. And the clerics are disproportionately educated and partly as a result, in many cases, they do favor much broader girl’s education.
Likewise in Africa, for example, the fastest growing religion—maybe in the world—is Pentecostalism. And there I don’t agree whatsoever with Pentecostal theology—I mean, a lot of the teaching is actually very traditional about men being in charge.
But the reality is that in Pentecostal churches, women are very much invited to speak up in church. And the upshot is that very often this is the first chance that an illiterate woman has ever had to speak up and to be given a sense of moral authority. And to have people listen to her.
And because Pentecostalism has spread so far in Africa and Latin America and elsewhere, it has become, it seems to me, a real vehicle for women’s empowerment in much of the world despite the very conservative social tone of so much of its teachings.
So I think it’s a complex issue, a complex picture. It’s certainly part of the problem, but I think we also have to acknowledge that it’s also gonna be part of the solution.
Coronel: Well, thank you Nick for answering all these questions. Thank you very much.
Mark Taylor: I’d like to thank both Nick and Sheila.
In these last remarks Nick used the word “complex” twice. We live in an extraordinarily complex world, but nevertheless love simplicity. One of the pressing things about so much of what’s going on in journalism, I think, has been the loss of support for the kind of time that it takes to give reflection. The kind of reflection you’ve seen Nick give tonight to these complex problems is all too rare.It takes time and it takes reflection, and the depth of thought and the depth of commitment that you show in your writing and have shown tonight—we’re deeply in your debt for all of that.