Author Talks: Nicholas D. Kristof on the price—and value—of seeking truth

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with New York Times columnist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and best-selling author Nicholas D. Kristof. In his book Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life (Knopf, May 2024), Kristof recounts his path from a small-town farm to every corner of the world to report on protests, massacres, civil wars, genocides, addiction, and despair. Despite bearing witness to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, he hasn’t lost hope for a better future. And when journalism is ingrained in truth, he says, it can encourage us to act when we most need to. An edited version of the conversation follows.

While this is your sixth book, it is your first solo author credit.

I’m so used to writing books with my wife that it feels a little strange to have first person throughout. But Sheryl [WuDunn] held my hand as I was writing it, so I’ll be OK.

People always ask how a married couple can write a book together and stay married. The truth is that if you can raise kids together, then a book is a piece of cake. Put a manuscript to bed at night, and it actually stays asleep.

So the way we did it was we would each write and report separate sections, and then the other would edit them—typically quite heavily. Were there occasionally some bruised feelings about the editing? Yeah, sure. But again, we’re both used to being edited, and it really helped to have another perspective. We were writing about gender issues, and it helped to have Sheryl, as a woman, as part of that process. So now I’m on my own.

Why an autobiographical book about your love for journalism?

The timing was partly because I had just run for governor of Oregon. I’d been bounced out of the race, and suddenly, I had time on my hands. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to write a book.

I care deeply about the state of journalism in America. I thought that in some ways journalism had never been better. Yet it was also a time of some astonishingly bad journalism. I thought that we were making a lot of profoundly problematic public policy decisions.

The title of the book is Chasing Hope, and a lot of people are despairing about the state of the world and of the country. One thing I’ve learned from decades and decades of covering war and genocide and disease is, actually, there is hope. It’s not a Panglossian hope but a notion that our problems were mostly created by us and can be solved by us if we have that confidence and work together.

Is the ‘chase’ getting harder and ‘hope’ a bit more elusive these days?

No, I wouldn’t say that it is. The challenges are very real, and that’s particularly true in the US. But look at the astonishing progress against poverty and disease in my lifetime that is essentially global.

Meanwhile, [when it comes to] life expectancy in the US, how can it be that people in Mississippi have a shorter life expectancy than those in Bangladesh today? We have real problems in the US, and they’re reflected in my hometown here in Oregon, where the depths of despair have claimed a third of the kids on my old school bus.

Having said that, we have a potential path to overcome climate change and carbon emissions, which is one of the more existential challenges we face. Will we take that path? Will we make it work? I don’t know. But it is possible to see a path ahead.

I’ve been covering predictions of US decline for pretty much my whole career, and early on it was going to be Japan. Japan is number one; it’s taking over the US. And then it was going to be China or Europe. At this moment, in 2024, the US pretty much stands as the pillar of the global economy.

The challenges remain real. I’ve seen them. I’ve reported on them. They break my heart. But I also have confidence that we can overcome them if we just get our act together.

‘Good journalism has never been better, yet much of the punditry has rarely been so reckless.’

Frankly, that has a lot to do with the business model of journalism collapsing for many news organizations. The New York Times has a great business model. I’m incredibly lucky to be at this organization where I can go and spend money to travel to Darfur or Myanmar and cover genocides. And the paper is happy to send me, even if nobody reads my columns.

But the fact is that around the country, especially in smaller towns and cities, newspapers, and increasingly TV stations and radio, don’t have a business model. The upshot is that they cover what they can, but there are no longer any real investigations. There’s often no accountability in local areas. That undermines American democracy.

If you were the executive producer of a national TV show, then you could go and cover some important issue. You could look at why child poverty in the US is so much higher than in other countries. Or you could put a Democrat and a Republican in the studio together and have them yell at each other, and you'd get better ratings. In that drive for audience, there’s been a tendency to cut corners and go for people who shout, and not to do difficult reporting.

In that drive for audience, there’s been a tendency to cut corners and go for people who shout, and not to do difficult reporting.

You see digital and audience metrics as a contributing factor.

At the New York Times, when digital metrics became available, I was very much an advocate for using them. My argument internally was that this wasn’t just going to drive us to cover Angelina Jolie, but rather, I wanted to understand how I could get people more engaged in coverage of malaria or AIDS or some distant crisis. That data would help me do so.

Frankly, I may have been naive. What we have learned is that basically everybody wants the stories about celebrities. They want the stories that feed their prejudices and biases. They don’t really want their biases challenged.

They’re not particularly interested in things happening a long way away. And we have learned a little bit better—at least I’ve learned a little better—how to craft stories that will manage to get some traction, even though they are about some difficult topics. By and large, the result has been that news organizations are less focused on spinach stories and more focused on brownies.

You have long been an advocate for journalism that is about solutions and advocacy.

I went into journalism, and a lot of people of my generation did, after Watergate, because we saw journalism as performing a public role, as serving the public, as being a public good. And not just one more corporation that would let us promote quarterly earnings.

Part of that role in serving the public good is meeting a public desire to improve public policy. It’s to provide people with answers to how they can not just make good investments in the stock market but also make good philanthropic investments at the end of the year to support organizations that get a lot of bang for their buck in easing poverty or disease.

There is a counterargument that when we walk down that path, we can lose our independence. We end up soliciting for organizations and being fundraisers and advocates. I mean, that’s a genuine, real risk. But journalism has always been about this balance. We funded our business model for many decades with corporate advertising. That created potential conflicts and risks, but we navigated them. It’s incumbent on us to still try to meet that public desire, not just to illuminate problems but also to illuminate solutions—to advise people on how they can donate effectively.

If we don’t do that, we mislead the public. We traditionally cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. The upshot is that people are going to assume that planes are crashing all the time.

We traditionally cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. The upshot is that people are going to assume that planes are crashing all the time.

Larry Summers said that events are mostly negative and trends are mostly positive. Well, we cover events. If we want to be the first rough draft of history, it’s worthwhile to do a better job covering those positive trends.

Should something fundamentally change about how we do journalism?

That’s a really important question hanging over the news media. How do we cover these issues wherein opinion is extremely polarized but wherein our best judgment is that the truth lies more with one side. In general, the way we cover things is we quote people from one side and the other, and it’s a marketplace of ideas. We let the public decide where the truth lies, but there have been times when that model doesn’t really work—when a tension forms between fairness, in terms of quoting both sides dispassionately, and truth.

One example of that tension between fairness and truth was the McCarthy period in the US, when [then-senator Joseph] McCarthy was accusing people of being communists. And the public thought, “Well, maybe the State Department is full of communists.” Then, it became incumbent on journalists like Edward R. Murrow to be less fair and more truthful.

The Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement were another period when the public didn’t really know whether George Wallace or Martin Luther King Jr. was right. It was important for journalists covering the Civil Rights Movement to come down on the side of truth and explain what was actually going on in these protests or in Saigon.

In those rare circumstances, including this coming presidential election, when there is that tension between fairness and truth, our prime loyalty has to be to the truth and to conveying what we understand as the truth to the public. That’s a really difficult process. Telling the truth would be more effective if it were escorted by having more conservative opinions in mainstream news organizations, for example—if it were more respectful of conservatives. Fundamentally, our loyalty has to be to the truth.

You say you want journalism that is both humane and tough.

There’s sometimes a tendency, especially in national news organizations, to celebrate toughness. One example is we have this rule that if you’ve said something to a journalist, then it’s on the record, unless you say ahead of time that it’s going to be off the record.

So you can’t say something and then say afterward, “Oh, and that was off the record.” Well, this is a rule that works really well for us journalists and it’s one that politicians certainly understand. But it’s one that a lot of ordinary Americans don’t.

I’ve seen in my fellow journalists this macho, “gotcha” mentality that celebrates hounding ordinary people or catching them in things or getting a great quote. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s partly because I grew up in a very small farm town, and I would meet the people I initially covered at the local general store or the feed store.

You see the costs of our coverage. It’s important to provide that accountability in our coverage. We have to recognize that we are covering human beings and we can show a little more humanity and sometimes a little less toughness, even as we provide that critically important accountability.

We have to recognize that we are covering human beings and we can show a little more humanity and sometimes a little less toughness, even as we provide that critically important accountability.

So are you done with wanting to be an elected politician?

I think so. It was an amazing experience. I learned a lot, and it was an incredible adventure. It was so funny, because I spent so much of my career adjacent to politics and yet it was so different being on the other side of it.

One of the things that my team and I all thought was that I might not know much about campaign finance or many of the local politicians here in Oregon, but I would really excel at giving press conferences and interviews.

That turned out to be one of the things I was worst at, basically because I would answer the questions, including the problematic ones. [My team] had to quickly coach me on answering the question I wanted asked, rather than the one that was actually asked.

It shapes my journalism. One of the things that still troubles me is the degree to which the West Coast has not been able to effectively address various public policy challenges the way the Northeast has. Somehow, the Democrats in the Northeast have managed to govern more effectively and get better governance for issues like homelessness, crime, and education than the leaders of West Coast cities from San Diego through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. There’s been a lack of pragmatism about public policy solutions that holds back the West Coast.

Beyond geography, you see a problem with revisionist terminology.

We haven’t managed to address homelessness, but we have been successful at renaming it—to houselessness or to people in need of housing, et cetera. That would be OK if reframing it somehow spurred effective policy. Sometimes, it’s a substitute for action.

The push to rename problems is well meant. It’s an effort to be inclusive. But that misunderstands inclusion. It works OK if you’re in this bubble of university-educated people who live in the world of words and have great facility for names. But most Americans aren’t like that.

They feel like they have to walk on eggshells. They feel excluded, because they don’t know how to refer to things. Instead of leading to the kind of progressive change that renaming advocates would like, it creates a backlash. It empowers conservatives who are less open to these kinds of changes, and it leaves many, many people feeling excluded.

Language is definitely going to change. That’s a good thing. But this attempt to breed revolutions in language often obscures the clarity of language; it obscures the ability to actually communicate.

I grew up on a farm with guns. And because I have many, many friends who have guns, I feel some sort of special obligation to write about gun safety issues—when we have 40,000 Americans a year now dying from gun deaths and when they’re the leading cause of death for young people, for example.

One thing that I see among my friends here in Oregon is the moment you talk about gun control, hackles are raised and the conversation becomes an impediment to making your argument. Gun safety is a framing that people are wary of, but it’s possible to have that conversation.

In general, we need a lot more conversations between the left and right to try to figure out ways of making some incremental progress on issues that concern us and to introduce a little more civility to the national conversation. That is going to involve efforts to build a language that can be a bridge between the two sides, rather than adopting new terminology that leaves the other side excluded.

How should business go about rebuilding trust with journalism?

Business journalism has gotten a lot better over the years and decades, but there’s still a remarkable gap in understanding, not only in the journalistic community but frankly also in the American public, about business and markets.

Journalists’ quantitative skills are often very weak. People often don’t understand basic economics. You can’t understand the crisis of homelessness on the West Coast unless you understand that it’s partly about supply and demand. We’ve done catastrophically in providing supply.

I’d like to see more outreach on the part of business and likewise on the part of journalists, to try to come together and discuss various business questions. I’m a strong believer in covering business—toughly, critically, and with accountability. It also has to be done with a good understanding of markets, of quantitative skills, of how things actually work. I’m not sure we always do that.

I would guess it would be humane, tough, and with some expertise.

There’s a lot to be said for expertise in covering business and markets. We can do a lot better there.

The book is quite candid. What did you leave out?

One of the negotiations that one must have in writing a memoir like this is with one’s spouse. I obviously consulted Sheryl: “Well, can I tell this story about when we were dating?” and so on.

That is an area where maybe it’s not a complete tell-all. There were just some matters of family privacy that were subject to negotiation.

I did not ask for the New York Times’ approval. I did not show it to New York Times editors or get their approval. One of the constraints I dealt with when I was running for office was that after decades of being paid to be provocative, all of a sudden, I had my hands tied. I couldn’t be provocative.

I would speak to groups of donors—Democratic donors in Portland during the Democratic primary—and often they’d just want me to say how awful Republicans were. And Republicans in the age of Trump have made terrible mistakes, but I kept thinking, “Look, in Portland, you can’t really blame Republicans for the mess, because there aren’t any Republicans in Portland. This is our mess. We created this.” But it was very hard to say that when you’re running for the Democratic primary for governor.

It was liberating to be able to again be provocative, to hold ideas up to the light, to talk about them, and to give my views—whether they’re about about journalism and things that we’ve done right and wrong or about politics.

The metrics that matter are not bestseller lists or that kind of thing. What you want as an author is for somebody to pick it up and be inspired and do things and act.

I’m hoping that at a time when journalism feels a little bit discredited, there will be some young people who will go out and want to cover a crisis in South Sudan or Gaza or Tigray or Myanmar, as well as these astonishing levels of child poverty in our country. I was inspired by an older generation of journalists, and I would love to help pass that baton on to the next generation.

What’s next for the 65-year-old Nick Kristof?

There’s so much more that I want to cover. I’ve been trying frantically to get into Gaza as a reporter for the past few months. So far, I haven’t found a way in. I hope that folks will see me with a Gaza dateline sometime soon. I care deeply about that story.

We can do more and better coverage of the crisis of working-class America. I spent a lot of time covering the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War, and yet every two and a half weeks, we lose more Americans to suicide, drugs, and alcohol than we did in 20 years of war. We as journalists, government officials, and politicians have not adequately focused on that crisis in America, at home.

The best metric for where society will be in 25 or 50 years is education, and we don’t do a great job in the US—especially on pre-K and K-12 education. There are so many issues that I want to cover more. I want to travel more, get out of my bubble, and try to get people to pay attention to the things I think they should. If you tilt at enough windmills, occasionally you will hit one.

So, this isn’t a Nicholas Kristoff ‘swan song’ biography?


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