Nick Kristof and the Perils of Parachute Journalism

A well-meaning journalist brushes off critiques by experts in the field. He owes it to his readers to keep learning.


Nicholas Kristof‘s latest column for the NYT has the subhed, “Perhaps the most devastating blow anyone can suffer is to lose a child. In the Central African Republic it happens all the time. Welcome to the world’s most neglected crisis.” It starts, as these things do, with an anecdote:

Perhaps the most devastating blow any human can suffer is to lose a child, and Julienne Moada has already lost three. A Pygmy living on the edge of the jungle in what may be the world’s most wretched country, she has borne five children and now cradles little Bruno, a fourth in peril, with fierce devotion and desperation.

Bruno, severely ill with malaria, barely responded to his mother’s caresses. Here in a country torn apart by civil war and ethnic cleansing for 14 years, where government is mostly just a rumor, kids die routinely because of the chaos and dysfunction. Still, Moada sat beside her hut made of leaves and dared to be optimistic. “I think he’s a little better,” she said hopefully.

I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip, and this year the winner is Tyler Pager of Northwestern and Oxford Universities. We came to Central African Republic, arguably the capital of human misery, because it constitutes one of the most neglected crises in the world.

Central African Republic ranks No. 1 as the hungriest country, according to the latest Global Hunger Index. A quarter of the population has been forced to flee fighting, and the Red Cross warned that humanitarian conditions were “rapidly deteriorating.” Yet the United Nations says that its humanitarian plan for CAR is only 2 percent funded.

This country also embodies a larger truth: For thousands of years, humanity’s greatest challenge was poverty and disease, but increasingly it may be conflict.

You can probably predict the rest.

Sarah Knuckey, co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, offers some corrective pushback via her Twitter feed.

For whatever reason, while she properly threaded her tweets, they’re not reproducing correctly here so I’m cutting-and-pasting the words of the 20 tweets:

Our team happened to be on the same flight as @NickKristof leaving the CAR one week ago

When we saw him at the airport, we all said: shit, the NYT almost never covers CAR and now Kristof is going to write some shallow, reckless “dark continent” article

Some of our team attempted to ward this off — expecting Kristof to write about “miserable” victims, they talked to him about some of the many Central African activists who work to promote peace, & provide education & other basic rights & needs

But the published Kristof piece is true to form

He actually uses the line “capital of human misery” and refers to the whole country as “wretched”

The “experts” he quotes are foreigners

Central Africans are “victims”

The solutions he offers are largely top-down, externally imposed

When he mentions the work of civil society, he focuses on foreign NGOs

There is little recognition of the agency and work of the countless Central Africans who run NGOs, provide healthcare, work for peace, prosecute crimes, risk their lives to protect others

He could have mentioned groups like AFJC – an NGO of Central African women lawyers who support women seeking accountability for sexual abuse

He could have discussed Central African humanitarian NGOs like JUPEDEC, which works around the country doing civilian protection & humanitarian work, helping communities respond to the conflict

He could have talked about the efforts led by Central African faith leaders to promote social cohesion

He could have discussed Central African human rights groups like RONGDH, whose members document violations and promote accountability for abuse

He could have discussed Central African activists like Moussa Abdoulaye, who started a school for marginalized youth in his neighborhood. 500+ kids are now receiving an education because of his work

He tells his readers that death results from “chaos and dysfunction,” and fails to grapple with the complexities of the conflict, the harms of colonization, the systems & structures leading to poverty

Amazingly, peacekeepers are @nickkristof’s unequivocal heroes, and he makes no mention of the killings and rapes they’ve committed, and how distrusted they are by many CAR residents

Yes, the CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, civilians are regularly attacked, and suffering is immense & mostly ignored outside the country

The reality of those harms can be brought to the attention of NYT readers without painting the entire country as “wretched,” the residents all miserable victims

A better article would highlight the many harms and challenges faced by Central Africans, elevate the *many* local efforts to counter the war & humanitarian crisis, and amplify the reforms identified as critical by local leaders

Perhaps because she included his Twitter handle in several of the tweets or because the thread had been retweeted dozens of times*, Kristof responded a couple hours later:

That, as Erin Simpson and others noted, was hardly a useful rejoinder:

Kristof is a great journalist. Along with his wife, he won the Pulitizer Prize in 1990 for deep reporting on the Tiananmen Square crisis. He won another in 2006 for his commentary on of the horrors of Darfur. He’s been a finalist another five times and won numerous other awards.

He’s a serious thinker. He’s a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard and earned a law degree at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He spent a year studying Arabic in Egypt.

Nor does anyone question his commitment to human rights or to Africa. In addition to his prize-winning Darfur coverage, he regularly shines a rather powerful spotlight on a continent that gets scant attention from the American press. According to his Wikipedia bio and apparently every introduction given of Kristof in the history of the universe, “Desmond Tutu of South Africa has described Kristof as an ‘honorary African’ for shining a spotlight on neglected conflicts.” (That line appears on dozens of pages of Google; I gave up before finding the original source explaining what prompted Tutu to say that.)

Let’s just say his street cred on this issue is high.

Knuckey makes a serious point: Kristof starts his fact-finding trips with a specific agenda and worldview, which his trips confirm, allowing him to “shine a spotlight” on the story he went to find. For experts in the field, who don’t simply parachute into a situation for a few days at a time and write 800-word columns, this approach is frustrating. Kristof (and his colleague Tom Friedman) are often the target of scholars and activists because their columns are surface deep and often mired in approaches long since dismissed by the experts.

Kristof’s response to Knuckey was high-handed and unhelpful. It would have been perfectly reasonable to note that, in an 800-word column, one simply can’t cover every angle of a story. Further, he’s not writing for the people of the Central African Republic but rather for an American elite he’s seeking to influence. He wants his readership to feel for the plight of the world’s poor and to implore their government to do something about it. In a country where America First was the central theme of the winning presidential campaign and most Americans think we spend far too much on foreign aid, that’s an understandable and even laudable goal.

The problem with brushing off Knuckey’s critique, though, is that she’s trying to signal that his preferred policy option—more money from the American government distributed either to the CAR government or to Western IGOs—has been demonstrated time and again to be incredibly ineffective. Further, she’s right that, however well-intentioned, his laser-focus on the horribleness of the countries he spotlights robs the people there of agency. While Kristof is very much a progressive, his approach is implicitly a modern-day White Man’s Burden: we enlightened Americans must step in to save the noble savages from their wretchedness.

Frankly, that’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve studied, written about, or taught international politics for over three decades now but Africa only comes onto my radar screen when crises hit, so starvation, civil war, piracy, and disease are the main lenses through which I view the continent. It’s natural to fit new stories into comfortable molds: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Rwanda, Sudan.

In fairness to Kristof, he does occasionally draw attention to progress in African countries; but, certainly, tragedy is his predominant focus. Because Kristof is a decent human being, his coverage of Darfur affected him deeply. He’s ashamed his country didn’t do more to prevent massive human suffering and wants to use his column to urge action. But he owes it to his readers to continue to learn from Knuckey and others who are actually in that fight on a daily basis.

_____________

*There have been 432 retweets of the initial posting at this point, but presumably a lot of them came after Kristof’s response drew further attention to them.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Media, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    As H. L. Mencken put it there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.

    I can’t blame Mr. Kristof too harshly for it. The search for master strokes, for grand solutions that will solve difficult problems, is irresistible. What’s the “neat, plausible” solution for conflict?




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  2. R. Dave says:

    I don’t know…it seems to me that when you have conflict, poverty, starvation, and disease affecting millions of people, the small-scale local efforts that Simpson wants highlighted amount to little more than feel-good cherry picking. For instance, there were plenty of Jewish efforts at resistance to the Holocaust, but surely the extermination of millions of Jewish people is the main story, and victimization rather than resistance is the dominant theme, of that period. There’s nothing patronizing or colonialist about focusing on the major elements of a situation rather than looking for inspiring but marginal anecdotes to report.




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  3. Hal_10000 says:

    Kristoff was also one of those who was most ardently the narrative of Somaly Mam, an advocate against sex trafficking. He mindlessly repeated her outlandish stories of abuse and praised “rescue” orgs (that mainly, like rescue orgs in this country, arrest and confine consenting adult sex workers).

    But Somaly Mam was a fraud. She made up her entire life story. Kristoff pushed this tragedy porn for years without any skepticism. The awards don’t impress me that much; they are often awarded to spectacular if incomplete reporting.




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  4. MBunge@mail.com says:

    Writing to fit an agenda is a common journalistic weakness but this post is a yet another example of why James Joyner’s beloved “experts” have lost some of the status and authority they so desperately crave.

    She doesn’t point out even one thing actually wrong in Kristof’s piece and her criticism is built not with expert analysis but politically correct whining. Most importantly, she completely misses the point of what Kristof is trying to do, which is get people to pay attention to CAR and do something about it. NONE of the examples she brings up would serve that goal in the slightest. In fact, writing about those things would likely produce the opposite reaction, NYT readers shrugging their shoulders at CAR and moving on.

    And while I’m no “expert,” I’m pretty sure the reasons CAR is so much worse off than other African nations have little to do with things like “agency,” the legacy of colonialism, or Westerners accurately describing wretched places as wretched. Frankly, nothing in her critique of Kristof’s writing demonstrates she actually has a deeper understanding of the situation than his admittedly paper-thin one. She may possess a lot more information but knowledge has little to do with wisdom.

    And I’d even give Kristof a break for the tone of his response, given the personally insulting character of her comments and that her complaints boil down to “You didn’t write what I would have written, jerk!”

    Mike




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  5. Just 'nutha ... says:

    “It would have been perfectly reasonable to note that, in an 800-word column, one simply can’t cover every angle of a story. Further, he’s not writing for the people of the Central African Republic but rather for an American elite he’s seeking to influence. He wants his readership to feel for the plight of the world’s poor and to implore their government to do something about it.”

    And if he was a smart and aware as people keep claiming he is, he might have said that.




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  6. michael reynolds says:

    Kristof is smarter than his critics. Americans give less than half a dookie what happens in Africa. The only place we care less about is South America. We do not pay any attention to Africa unless there is a humanitarian crisis.

    So what purpose would this columnist (not reporter) serve by talking about all the great work already being done in the CAR? What message would Americans take from that? They would cross Africa off their worry list on the theory that, “Oh, the spirited locals and the woke NGO’s have it all under control.” There are not ten people in the US of A who give a rat’s ass about the CAR, there are a few million who care about starving or abused African children.

    So in the end this complaint is really a ‘look at me!’ plea for all the no doubt wonderful people in the CAR and in the NGO’s. But the column they think they want would just switch off reader’s interest in and concern for, Africa in general, and the CAR in specific.

    I am in very rare agreement with @Bung on this. Every single time anything is written anywhere, someone will pop up to whine because, in effect, “You didn’t write what I would have written, jerk!”




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  7. michael reynolds says:

    @Just ‘nutha …:
    Or he might have assumed that anyone reading the opinion pages of the NYT is bright enough to figure that out.




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  8. Franklin says:

    And while I’m no “expert,” I’m pretty sure the reasons CAR is so much worse off than other African nations have little to do with things like “agency,” the legacy of colonialism, or Westerners accurately describing wretched places as wretched.

    Well you got the first part right!




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  9. MarkedMan says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You didn’t write what I would have written, jerk!

    When I read the excerpts, this is exactly what I thought. The writer had a narrative they felt should be pushed. Kristof responded that he was reporting what he saw.

    FWIW, I think the narrative she is pushing is worthwhile, and I don’t even fault her much for attacking a famous columnist in what I assume is a bid to draw attention to that narrative. Development is hard. Progress is hard. And the “big man” model that exists in so much of the world (and was the sole model even in Western Europe until the 1700’s) does hold people back. I think she is doing good to highlight what local people are accomplishing on their own.




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  10. michael reynolds says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I can tell you what effect similar criticism has had on my own writing. When people complain about this or that group, I tend to just avoid writing about that group. There’s a particularly obnoxious ‘academic’ who makes a habit of attacking pretty much every representation she finds of Native Americans. My guess is that in 3 years (there’s a long lead time) what we will see is fewer books referencing Native Americans. The line of least resistance is always ‘fck ’em, I don’t need the bullsh!t.”




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  11. Francis says:

    Back when I was a water lawyer, I knew some engineers involved in water development projects in third world countries.

    The worst way to do water projects? Fly in a bunch of well-meaning white Christian americans to build infrastructure. That way is virtually guaranteed to result in an abandoned project.

    The best way? Send the smart kids (boys and girls) in the local community to a nearby school, from first grade through a mechanical engineering degree, for free. He’ll build their own infrastructure, thanks very much.

    Of course, if you don’t have an education pipeline full of smart kids, the best time to start filling it is today. 20 years ago would have been preferable, but one takes what one can get. Until such time as the locals can actually start running their own country, try not to do too much harm.




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  12. Steve says:

    Show them you really care. Start a hashtag campaign




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