All About Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof's journalism, which is largely focused on Africans, is exhausting to watch. And it is always about himself.

A still from a New York Times video about Kristof in Eastern Congo titled, "What are you carrying?"

I try not to post about either Nicholas Kristof or Jeffrey Gettleman, the Henry Morton Stanleys of their age.  Both work for The New York Times and both make Africa the focus of their journalism. Kristof as a columnist (“brings attention to human rights abuses and social injustices around the world”) and Gettleman as the New York Times’ correspondent in East Africa.

But even I could not resist the video below of Kristof.

First, a reminder of who is Kristof. He is a columnist for The New York Times and has gained a reputation for his mix of journalism and humanitarianism supposedly in the services of suffering African masses.  Kristof has his fans. Usually among well-meaning college students, including at his alma mater, for who helping people in faraway places seem attractive as politics. His general political orientation is that philanthropy and big philanthropists will save the developing world, with him playing a big catalyzing role. Like this.

Frankly, the most influential work I ever did was an article back in 1996 on ordinary third world ailments that kill lots of people. Bill Gates happened to read the article at a moment when he was wondering how to reorient his foundation, and he credits the article—actually, the chart that went with it—with helping him think about using his foundation to address public health issues in the developing world.

He has been the subject of numerous critical blog posts and media analyses of his journalism. Like his praise of sweatshops. Kristof literally wrote this:

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa.   If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.

At one point, in 2008, Kristof held a contest to take a young American journalist along with him to Africa. It led to such cliched insights about the young journalist’s experiences,

With each interview, African poverty ceased to be what she had known from television and became what was real … It was in the men who asked for her number and promised to save a month’s salary to call her in the United States. It was in the reality that though Americans had food stamps, Cameroonians had cassava, a fruit with no real nutritional value, or nothing at all … But there was beauty in Africa, too: baby elephants in rivers; the changing landscape; and the dozens of children who were always there, cheering and saying hello.

One more. One of the best takedowns of Kristof’s methods is by the great Alexander Cockburn in The Nation; it is about Kristof’s obsession with prostitution, comparing it with departed Times editor A.M. Rosenthal’s obsession with female circumcision in some African societies:

I’d gotten so used to Nicholas Kristof’s January visits to prostitutes in Cambodia that it was something of a shock to find him this January in Calcutta’s red-light district instead … So far as I know, Rosenthal never actually bought a young African woman to save her from circumcision. Maybe they aren’t for sale. In 2004 Kristof did buy two young Cambodian women–Srey Neth for $150 and Srey Mom for $203–to get them out of brothels in Poipet. There was something very nineteenth-century about the whole thing, both in moral endeavor and journalistic boosterism.

Cockburn wants Kristof to abandon this sensationalism and focus instead on the conditions that lead to prostitution.

If Kristof wants to confront the prime promoter of prostitution in India and many other countries besides, he doesn’t have to leave the East Coast of the United States. He can take his video camera into the World Bank and confront its current president, Paul Wolfowitz. Of course, it’s not as dramatic as buying Cambodian girls, or as colorful as retailing Geeta’s ravishing by the Arab.

Back to the clip. It is on the Youtube channel of The New York Times, we see Kristof sets out to draw attention to the fact that women do all the hard, physical work in Congo (well Eastern Congo to be exact): like carrying water or wood, or working in low level construction. He think he is Kanye West; calling it the “Congo Exercise Plan.”

So far so good.

But then he turns out it into a spectacle by focusing all the attention on himself. He ends with some bromides.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.