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Nicholas Kristof on Hope, the Times and Why He No Longer Considers Himself a Progressive




Throughout his new memoir, Nicholas Kristof escapes plane crashes, dodges warlords and debates whether to let his family know he’s in danger in the moment or later. He also, not for nothing, survives and thrives as a globe-trotting newspaper writer during a period in which the shape-shifting economics of journalism have left that kind of career vanishingly rare. “Kristof has kept the tradition of the front-line columnist alive,” as the editors of Deadline Artists, one of the best anthologies of American newspaper columns, put it. 

Kristof’s book is called Chasing Hope, itself something of a rare endeavor—and perhaps a surprising one for a writer who has covered so much horror in his career. His central theme—one chapter is titled “How Covering Genocide and Poverty Left Me an Optimist”—is that we know how to address many of our most intractable issues, if we can only muster the will. Kristof and I talked about everything from where he sees progress to the resistance to conservative voices in journalism and why he no longer considers himself a progressive. 

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To me, the most important quote from the book might be this: “We in journalism have become instruments of fury, also victims of it, for we lost the public trust.” We all understand in a way what's happened, but how do you think we get out of it?

I think good journalism has never been better, but bad journalism has rarely been worse. And I wonder if we're so focused on all that goes wrong, that we don't focus enough attention on solutions, on progress and this miasma of despair that I think is overdone. I fear that relentless negativity of coverage makes it harder to govern and leads to a certain amount of paralysis.

Are you saying coverage choices are causing the decline in public trust?

When I see these T-shirts, “Noose. Rope. Journalist. Tree. Some assembly required,” I just recoil because I've seen so many journalists risk their lives to do heroic work. I think for quite cynical reasons, there are folks who are trying to bring the media down. But we've created some of this vulnerability. And I don't think we've been careful enough to include conservative voices in our ranks, which also creates a vulnerability. I say that as a good liberal.

You write that there's been a new wave of moralism washing through journalism with results that are neither fair nor good for the profession. How do you see that playing into this overall crisis of trust?

It seems funny for me to be complaining about moralism in journalism because much of my career has been spent arguing that journalism has a moral purpose. But you can't cover every event running some moral algorithm. And I worry that some young journalists in particular want to censor some views because they think that they are wrong or dangerous. I don't think we should platform every view, and it's a very difficult call, but I think that it is somewhat overdone among young journalists, in ways that diminish our credibility and authority and aggravate our problems with public trust.

Throughout the book you're interviewing terrorists, you're interviewing warlords, some bad people. What's off the table?

I wrestle with it all the time. I felt when I was covering global terrorism that I needed to talk to supporters of Al-Qaeda, for example. And I took considerable risks to get to those people. I think we likewise really need to understand people in this country, who, from my point of view, are extremists and have views that I believe are dangerous to the country. I think we need to make sure that the public understands those points of view. That needs to be accompanied by very solid fact-checking, which is where we sometimes go awry.

You’re critical in the book of how the New York Times handled certain episodes like the fraught exits of former editorial-page editor James Bennet and longtime health reporter Donald McNeil. Where do you see the Times culture today, following those episodes?

I mean, I'm biased, but I think the Times has never been better. And I think that part of that is, the Times did learn from those episodes. It has worked to try to bring in more voices, including those that aggravate the staff. I was really happy when they brought in David French. David is a conservative evangelical with whom I agree very little, but I think we're better when we read him. There are plenty of people still on staff, especially some young people in this building, who don't see why we need to have some of those conservative voices, who from their point of view say wrong things. I think, though, that the Times has worked quite a bit over the last half dozen years to try to explain why we do need voices across the spectrum. And I am 100% for that. My liberal opinions have more credibility if they're accompanied by Bret Stephens’ views, by David French's views.

When Bret’s arrival was first announced there, somebody had, in the coffee room, posted some nasty comment about him. I thought, how can you welcome a new colleague denouncing him before you've even met him? And I tore it down and threw it away. Is there still some incivility? Is there still a certain amount of hostility toward more conservative views? Yes. But I think there has been a strong effort from the top to make sure that we do have ideological diversity. And I do what I can in my little way and in the book, to try to make clear that is part of journalism, that journalism isn't just about preaching liberal orthodoxies to the world.

You write that “as progressivism became an ideology of the educated, it distanced itself from the people in nominally championed” and criticize what you call a progressive impulse to “address problems by revising terminology.” Do you consider yourself a progressive?

No. I resent having to redefine myself because five or ten years ago I might have. But the metric of progressivism should be progress. And in the West Coast cities, where progressives have dominated policymaking, we see regress. You look at homelessness, you look at homicide rates, you look at Education. When I was running for governor, in my 10-minute political career, people would want me to say how awful Republicans are. And I just think we can't blame this on Republicans. Because there aren't any in Portland. This is our mess. We created it. Seeing the challenges in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, have made me more wary of progressivism. Outcomes are what matter. And our outcomes on the West coast cities are not good.

Who are conservative columnists that have influenced your own thinking and work?

I read the Wall Street Journal opinion pages partly because they challenge me, they make me sweat. Bret Stephens sees the Middle East very differently than I do, but he forces me to confront issues like incitement of violence in Palestinian communities and textbooks, et cetera, that are uncomfortable for my narrative. And that's good.

We started out talking about ways in which we in journalism have caused some of our own problems. There's another strain in the book that is liberalism and progressivism causing some of its own problems.

I think what we need most in journalism, and maybe in life itself, is a certain amount of humility. Liberals and conservatives alike today don't have enough. My fellow liberals are convinced that we are just full of truth and justice, and conservatives are lost. I obviously think that liberalism overall has right on its side. But the left was fundamentally wrong on one of the great issues of the 20th century, which was communism and Maoism. Just in the last few years, the right was, I think, catastrophically wrong on COVID and downplaying COVID. We on the left were catastrophically wrong on school closures in ways that caused immense damage to children around the country. And I don't think we have fessed up to our mistakes in the way we should.

In the spirit of humility, are there columns you look back on over the years say, well, I got that wrong?

I got Iraq right, but then I got the Iraq surge wrong. And I think it was because I was full of myself and very proud of getting Iraq right, that I was then just resistant to actual evidence, in this case, that actually troops might be part of the solution. I was pro-intervention in Libya, and in retrospect, that was probably wrong. In China, I expected that there was going to be a more positive evolution over the last 15 years or so. And we have not seen that. I hope someday to be proven right, but it's taking a lot longer than I might have hoped.

Another topic you cover is the difficulty of getting attention to humanitarian crises: Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia, Darfur. That is not something we're seeing right now with Gaza.

Yeah. Gaza is getting plenty of attention, but Gaza has largely meant that other crises like Sudan are getting no attention. Imminent possible famine in Ethiopia is getting no attention. The Myanmar civil war is getting no attention. And even in the case of Gaza, right now, I'd say student protests in the U.S. are getting more attention than starvation in Gaza. So, we in journalism have this ability to focus and herd into one issue.

In part, I think there is a double standard, and that the world pays more attention to human rights abuses by Israel, than it does by Sudan, Ethiopia or Myanmar. It's also true that Israel does entail a special case because these are our bombs being dropped from our planes, in the case of Gaza. And I think that does entail a certain special moral responsibility. It is probably going to be easier for President Biden to improve outcomes in Gaza, than it is to improve outcomes in Ethiopia.

But is there a double standard having to do with people's narratives and in some cases, with antisemitism? Yeah. I think there is. And I say that as somebody who believes that President Biden should be much tougher toward Bibi Netanyahu.

Despite all the horror you’ve covered, you’re an optimist—that’s the biggest theme of the book. Do you have any optimism about this current crisis in Israel and Gaza?

I fear the Middle East is going to get worse before it gets worse. It is possible to conjure scenarios in which this crisis does lead to a Saudi-Israel-American deal and to a Palestinian state, just as the Yom Kippur war led to [Anwar] Sadat going to Israel, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace. But I think that's quite unlikely, and more likely we are going to see ongoing dysfunction and tragedy in both Gaza and the West Bank. My optimism is a generalized optimism, but I don't think every place is going to get better, for sure.

Why the generalized optimism?

I get asked a lot how somebody emerges from covering war and genocide, to feel hopeful about humanity. It’s a combination of seeing, over my career, vast material and moral progress. It's inconsistent and intermittent, but for example when I was a kid, a majority of human beings had always been illiterate. Now, we're pushing 90% adult literacy. That's just transformative.