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Observations: The fluffy reporter?

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image Photo by Monika Flueckiger: Nicholas D. Kristof during the session ‘Redesign Your Cause’ of the Annual Meeting 2010 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland

Should this column be devoted to horrors and injustices?


Nicholas Kristof is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. If there were any rock stars remaining in journalism, Kristof would be one of the few.

NickKristof Nicholas Kristof
I’m fascinated to learn from #Bahrain govt statement that I wasn’t detained but “sought police protection.” #sarcasm
— Tweet on Dec. 9, twitter.com/NickKristof

Kristof is known for bringing social injustice to light in places where “social injustice” is just a fancy way to describe rape, torture, murder and mayhem. He doesn’t report from a cushy office, he is right there in the thick of things — in clouds of tear gas in Bahrain and in the rubble-strewn hovels of the nameless, faceless victims of “social injustice” in Africa.

Over a million people follow his Twitter feed and millions more read his weekly op-ed in the Times and his blog. Last month from Cambodia, he tweeted live about a raid on a brothel owned by a former Cambodian military colonel.

NickKristof Nicolas Kristof
I’ve been told to rush out of town for safety. That’s what I’m doing now.
— Tweet on Nov. 7, twitter.com/NickKristof

He later followed up with an update on a 7th grade girl who had been freed from the brothel and is now doing fine.

Kristof would appear to be the height of what anyone would consider a reporter. He isn’t reporting on politics or business per se, so his articles are commentaries that mesh perfectly with the social injustice theme for which he is so successful and well-known. I have no idea how the 52-year-old columnist manages to put himself into the thick of things in the remote corners of the world but he does, and I have long appreciated his bringing to light issues that few people would ever know about otherwise. That he frequently does it while putting himself in danger illustrates what I perceive as his incredible commitment to his craft, his readers and the subjects of his articles. On top of all that, he manages to sum up the horrors of the world in 800 words.

And then, last week I read a 4,600 word treatise that was highly critical of virtually everything Kristof does and how he does it. Appropriately enough, Kristof himself highlighted the article via his twitter feed.

In the essay, author Elliott Prasse-Freeman, a founding research assistant at the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University, begins by focusing on a column Kristof wrote that appeared in the New York Times on Feb. 3, 2010. In the article, Kristof joins a woman from Portland, Oregon in a shanty owned by Generose, one of the victims among millions of victims of a largely unknown war in eastern Congo.

In Kristof’s telling, Generose was attacked by the Hutu militiamen who killed her husband. They cut off her leg above the knee, and then ordered her children to consume their own mother’s flesh. When her son adamantly refused to do so, he was shot dead.

The critical commentary, whether written either casually or intentionally well above what anyone would consider the typical eighth grade reading level, decries Kristof’s means of effectively furthering the victimization of Generose by making her a less-than-human subject in a true-life horror story of his own telling. In other words, what Generose suffered was bad enough, but what was worse was that she suffered again through Kristof’s words. The article implied that Kristof’s words had morphed Generose into a mere object for storytelling and lacked a real-world solution. That Kristof’s story was effectively framed to feed his affluent and generally well-educated readers the expected level of horror and titillation they have come to expect, so they can feel better about themselves as “being aware” while they climb into their Prius’s and SUVs to drive into the city for a shopping spree.

Wow. If Nicholas Kristof can be so thoroughly gutted in 4,600 words, what should I make of myself? Regardless of his motivations, he was in Generose’s mud-soaked shanty in the Congo to hear her story. He told her story to the world. Without Kristof, she would merely have been another faceless victim in a horrific sea of faceless victims around the world. Meanwhile, I rattle off another 1,000 words whining about getting old or some such thing.

Thanks to outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, I see the words of people who work hard to make a difference in the world — people like Mariella Smith of Ruskin, people from the Redlands Christian Migrant Association and others. I could devote the remaining years of my career to reporting on nothing but them and the issues they deal with. Or I could devote myself to reporting on the little shop of horrors we have here at home with the antics of the odd county commissioner or two and a handful of other elected officials — that in and of itself is a never-ending stream of fodder for titillation.

But instead, I give you what some people would refer to as fluff.

There is no shortage of bad news in the world today. There is no shortage of bad news right here in our own neighborhoods. Just drive by the food pantry on College Avenue in Ruskin at the right time and you’ll see crowds of people lining up for free food because they are finding themselves unable to buy food for their own table. The economy and our changing political system are important stories — particularly when they reach down to the level of our families, friends and neighbors.

Over the years, I’ve justified my tendency towards good news stories on the basis that the bad news is so readily available that, perhaps, a little fluff is good for our souls. I’ve written difficult stories in the past — one of the most difficult was talking to a young widow near what should have been her first wedding anniversary after her husband was killed in Iraq. Through her sobs, I barely understood a word she said, but I felt her grief deep inside my soul and what she was saying was crystal clear. Yet there were no words — not hers or mine — that could successfully convey that to the readers of this newspaper. In another story, I felt my own tears fall down my cheeks as I heard a radio operator call for a deputy that would never answer. He was killed in the line of duty and at his funeral that call was his final one.

As tough as those stories were to write, I felt privileged to do so. It was an honor to share their stories with you — to give a face to a fleeting headline. But I can tell you that good news, fluff perhaps, is much easier — not to write necessarily, but easier on the writer.

Nick Kristof illustrates the frustrations of the voiceless and the horrors of the otherwise faceless each week in 800 words. If he can essentially be accused of writing fluff for his own personal gain, what would a critic make of this column? To be honest, I’m not sure I need to know the answer to that.

In the end, I do know this: I have no power to change much of anything. It is the readers of this newspaper, upwards of 100,000 of you each week that have the power to affect change. I’ve been humbled and amazed to watch you do it in the past, I’m certain it will happen again in the future.

Should this space be devoted to the horrors and the injustices that are so easily found, often by just driving down the street? Or do we need a break from the seemingly endless stream of bad news in an increasingly angry and messed-up world? Maybe, just maybe, it’s good to talk about us on occasion. I hope that’s what I do here.

I don’t know the answer to that question yet. But I lean towards the latter. As Americans, as Floridians, as residents of South Hillsborough, we are blessed in so many ways. I could be wrong, but I think it’s OK to talk about us now and again without worrying about fixing the world.

P.S.: The column referenced above was actually about a woman named Lisa who walked away from a comfortable life in Portland to help women in the Congo, certainly a relevant and worthy subject. Yes, an argument could be made that Generose did become an object, a mere actor in Lisa’s story. But from my perspective, that people driving Pruis’s and SUVs now know that Generose not only survived but has moved forward illustrates her dignity, rather than de-humanizes her. That said, I don’t know Nick Kristof’s motives, but I do know that he has little need for my defense.

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