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Nicholas Kristof's Call to Action

The journalist's traveling often leads him to tumultuous countries where he seeks to report the globe's untold stories.

By JANE AMMESON

It's not easy catching up with Nicholas Kristof, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist. Much of the time he's in the developing world, recording the effects of disease, poverty and war. Kristof, who grew up on a cherry farm in Yamhill, Oregon, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar, has lived on four continents, reported on six and traveled to more than 100 countries. His traveling often leads him to tumultuous countries where he seeks to report the globe's untold stories. Chicago Life talked to him while he was in his office at the Times and asked him about his views on philanthropy and how to better the world.

You often focus on war-ravaged countries. Your dad was an immigrant from Armenia, a country devastated by war. Did that have an effect upon you? People periodically wonder if my Armenian roots explain my interest in elsewhere, like Darfur, and I don't think so particularly. But I have spent a lot of time in the developing world, and you can't help --when you see how many people die of things that are really easy to address--thinking that these things should be a little more on the agenda. I've been surprised and maybe a little disappointed that my columns have less persuasive power than most people think. On an issue that is already out there, like torturing at Guantanamo or Iraq or President Bush, I think we change very, very few minds, but where we do have a real power is an ability to help put items on the agenda and shine a spotlight on them.

So you don't have a bully pulpit to make broad changes? My experience has been that when I write about a topic that has already been widely debated, then people who start out agreeing with me think it's a brilliant column. The ones who start out disagreeing with me, they think it completely misses the point. I think it's really rare for any Bush supporter, for example, to read a column critical of Bush and say, boy, that's right, or for a Bush hater to read a pro-Bush column and say, oh, yeah, I was wrong. But I think that the ability to make people see things that they might prefer to avoid is the only real power that journalists have.

Is it devastating emotionally to see so much horror and not be able to make great changes? People always worry about my psychological health. People always assume that I must be returning from my trips completely despairing of the human race, but though you see some really awful things, you do also see some heroic and inspiring things. You see aid workers doing amazing things. You see local officials who are standing up to some really terrible things, and so in the end, the trips give you as much reason to feel inspired as to feel utterly despairing.

What organizations do you recommend to people who want to help? One of those issues that I push is obstetric fistulas, which is one of those things where just small amounts of money completely transform and save the lives of these teenage girls who are left with these childbirth injuries and stink and are pariahs. I think that's just a great issue that needs more attention, and one reason that it hasn't gotten attention is basically [because] the victims are poor, young and rural and nobody gets more neglected than rural peasants. [A] few groups that I am pushing are the Fistula Foundation [and] the Worldwide Fistula Fund or www.wfmic.org.

Any others? Initially, when people were asking about helping, I would recommend Doctors without Borders, which is just a great organization that has been very active in Darfur. It's really on the front lines there. Frankly, after three years of doctors doing heroic work pulling bullets out of kids, you feel that maybe at this point just stopping the bullets being shot in the first place is important, and that is something that the doctors really can't really do, so I'm encouraging advocacy groups rather than just the treatment. One of the best of them is savedarfur.org.

What do you say to people who don't believe we'll ever effect long-term, major changes? When I hear from readers who say it's terrible what's happening there, but we've got our own problems and we can't solve every problem in the world, my basic answer to that is, we can't solve all the problems, but this is one that I think we actually can solve and that there is something special about a government choosing people on the basis of their tribe and skin color and wiping them out and that really should be a priority.

You were one of the first to break the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame story. How did that happen? Yeah, well, we met each other at a conference, and then he told me the story, and he asked to be unnamed initially, and I honored it. What was interesting [was] that initially there was very little reaction, and then I had two more columns with more details over the next couple of months and again the reaction was pretty mild, but it gradually started escalating, and we now know that the vice president's office was steaming about it.

You are frequently attacked by the right wing pundits and blogs. How do you handle that? I get attacked all the time, but I don't lose a lot of sleep over it. It's the guys with guns who are pretty intimidating and compared to that, getting denounced on a blog, I mean, I can deal with that. When I was in Saddam's Iraq, there were some officials who called me in and threatened me, and that was scary. Getting stopped at checkpoints by guys with guns who would just as soon kill you can be scary. I was in Iraq when a column I wrote appeared describing Saddam executing a religious leader by driving nails into his head, and I was summoned to the information ministry. Things like that do have a certain intimidating quality.

What's your response when people say that foreign aid doesn't actually help impoverished countries? There are immense problems with foreign aid, but there are immense problems with fire departments. Nobody thinks we should do without fire departments. When you actually see kids going blind because of river blindness or a kid whose got stomach blockages from worms inside [him or her], then it's really hard to make the argument that it's not worth it to try to save this kid's life by a dollar dose of malaria medicine or a mosquito net. One of the most poignant families that I ever talked to was in Cambodia. The mother had just died of malaria, and the grandmother was looking after four kids, and she had one mosquito net. It could fit three of the kids, and every night she had to choose which of the kids go under the mosquito net and which doesn't. Talk about psychological pressure. That struck me as just the kind of awful decisions that people have to make routinely in the developing world that nobody should have to. In that context, anybody meeting that family would immediately think it's worth it to spend five dollars to get them another mosquito net.

Senator Edward Kennedy once told me that there are leaders who inspire the best in people and there are leaders who inspire the worst. And he believed that our current leaders were inspiring the worst in us. Do you think that is changing? I've been really discouraged by the failure of our political leaders to do more, but on the other hand, there has been some real leadership shown by people who I wouldn't normally expect it from, including entertainers. Angelina Jolie has been to Darfur twice. That's pretty cool. You know, the major networks haven't done much with what's going on in Africa, but MTV has been all over it. There are a lot of students who have been just really active on the issues. I wish it were the White House being more active, but there is indeed some genuine leadership and world courage being shown.

Published: August 01, 2006
Issue: Fall 2006