Good on Nick Kristof for admitting this (and for writing about Central Africa in the first place), but it’s bullshit and he should stop (via Oliver Willis):
[V]ery often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there.
And let me tell you why I do that. The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that.
One way of getting people to read at least a few grafs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.
The main reason this bothers me is not that it’s condescending to people in developing countries, it’s that it’s condescending to Nick Kristof’s readers. Worse than that, it is antithetical to the spirit of journalism, which should first and foremost strive to present things as accurately as possible.
Also too, and maybe this is just my own warped psychology, I don’t find that I can relate to Americans that go halfway around the world to help out some people they’ve never met before (though I greatly admire them, obviously). The story of someone trying to pull shit together in their own country seems more, not less, compelling and universal, at least to me.
Update. I agree with the ending of the piece I linked to up top:
He (Nick Kristof) has chosen a beat that’s far more challenging than those taken by his op-ed colleagues Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, who — when they do venture forth from their offices to do an interview — often just go to someone else’s office, bigger than their own.
Having said that, there’s wisdom in the question posed to Kristof on Friday. We think he would do well to ponder it and push himself to question his ongoing narrative. Maybe he’ll find a different storyline that reflects even more courage and vision, and puts aside his homegrown American heroes in favor of the richer yarns found on the ground.
It’s also him admitting that he doesn’t think he’s a good enough writer to pull people in through the merits of his work.
I always thought it was the job of a writer of nonfiction to make their subjects interesting enough to attract readers, not just give up on the hard parts.
As always with print journalism, the journalist is not the last word, the editor is. Maybe Kristof is purposely skewing the story toward Murkan to the Rescue, or maybe his editor throws the story in the trash if he doesn’t.
Either way, there’s no shortage of solipsistic Beckist Pig People in this country who can’t relate to anything outside their own proudly-narrow minds or little tribe, and plenty of corporate douchebags catering to this lowest common denominator.
It’s possible that this is a reason Kristof feels he needs to choose such foci; it’s also possible that it’s what it took to convince editors and publishers to let him write about these subjects.
Maybe it’s a bad memory, but I can’t at the moment think of any prominent writer in the billion dollar media who writes stories from the points of view of the actual struggling people in various, particularly poorer nations.
Unless, that is, you’re quoting the natives in order to create a sympathetic subject who is useful to decry some lefty leader the US foreign policy establishment hates.
@Mike G: Zactly. Great minds and all.
Thomas Friedman doesn’t just go to another office. He flies all around the world, and gets the story from whatever business leader or taxi driver he is standing next to.
I’m going to side with Kristof. There comes a point at which accusations of condescension, arrogance, or paternalism are cold comfort compared to the importance of awareness.
Americans — even DFHs — as a rule could give two fucks about people in developing countries. Yes, we get all excited about Darfur or whatever a celebrity endorses, but for years have remained largely ignorant of the disappeared in Guatemela or (Beck forgive me) the poverty/suicide rates at Pine Ridge. There is simply too much suffring to go around.
I agree that “someone trying to pull shit together in their own country seems more, not less, compelling,” but I think most Americans have either never seen true poverty, or — in my experience in So. WV — willfully ignore it. They are distracted by baubles, and assume that someone in Mingo Co. who can afford a pack of GPCs can afford rent.
You are atypical, Doug. Kristof understands his readership better than you do.
Manifest destiny, bitchez. It’s the reason we’re here on this soil in the first place, and it’s the reason we go to the Other to civilize the natives. Kristof knows it subconsciously, if not consciously.
Taibbi on this sort of reporting:
And to paraphrase a Simpsons quote, this is what Kristoff seems to be saying about his paper:
real simple, the christian missionary in bfe; sent there with donations pried from the christians in houses with mudrooms who want to know that their religion means something, other than you know the justification for wars and atrocities if not the causes, or the thing that makes people actual conduct the grunt work of fighting in those wars. so they are too busy to go themselves, though it sounds rewarding, besides they contribute an extra 5 or 10 when they go to church.., help folks feel better.
these are the readers, they want to know their money is actually doing something, then they forget it, and spend the same amount on mocha-carmel cafeshakes and a scone.
or, what you said.
Color me contrary here, but I don’t see the big deal here. Kristof is admitting that he’s pandering to his audience. He’s a columnist, of course he’s pandering to his audience. At least his audience is a little more sophisticated than Dowd’s or Friedman’s.
His audience swims in the same pool with Dowd’s and Friedman’s. The columnists don’t appear on the same days in the dead tree NYT.
I used to read him and found him refreshing. I think he does good work. Then, his writing got stupid and/or stale, and I quit reading him. I find that most columnists cannot sustain my interest for more than a few months (except for Krugman) because they pretty much write the same column again and again and again. Come to think of it, so does Krugman, but he manages to keep it relevant.
It’s the Culture of Bullshit, as I’ve noted many times before in various situations.
Salesmanship and marketing and evangelism– basically, BULLSHIT, or propaganda, American Style– has so pervaded and rotted our culture, that it’s everywhere. Everyone is selling, spinning, lying out their ass. It’s all propaganda. It’s all trying to SELL you something, trying to “get the reader to read in a few grafs”, well, why are you fucking MARKETING the article? Why are you selling the thing? Write a good article, do some research, provide useful info, and stop trying to compete for eyeballs, STOP SELLING GODDAMMIT!!
Fucking marketing everywhere. New! Improved! Free! Hurry while supplies last! Sex! Pretty White Girl Gone Missing! Bright Shiny Object! Famous wealthy people!
STOP THE BULLSHIT ALREADY! All of you, media, corporations, politicians, everyone. Just stop it. Stop hurting America.
Meh, I think it’s more he’s found his style, and that’s what he uses. It works for him, works for most of his readers, drives you crazy. If that’s the worst of it, we should be ok. At least he’s not a completely oblivious lying hack like most of them…
It’s Hollywood formula: Amistad, Avatar, all that White Savior stuff. It’s why they had to put a white hero into the movie of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: conventional wisdom says you have to have a hero who’s what the kids call “relatable.” Kristof, famed for his “look at how I’m helping Third World women, whom pampered American feminists ignore,” probably has a strong White Savior identification himself. The fact that he can articulate the problem is, I think, a positive sign.
Comrade Baron Elmo
Krystof translated: “I dumb down my articles so dumb people will give me page hits galore… then I concern troll my own damn self about it to show how much this sad, silly game pains me inside.”
Is Krystof’s entire career based upon the simultaneous having and eating of cake? Inquiring minds want to know.
Americans just can’t get behind a cause unless there is a magic white knight on the case.
@Mark S.: As usual, Taibbi illuminates my sentiments better than I could possibly dream.
@Josh: outdone again. Dammit!
Big White Christian Bwana never dies.
He just takes oldperson naps once in a while.
Staging a Comeback
I feel a pang of guilt reading this-I admit to finding Kristof very earnest but a shade boring. I only occasionally read a whole column of his, and it’s mostly because he writes about turmoil in places that, well, I can’t do anyting about and I feel bad enough about the state of the world as it is…oy. Sorry, Nick.
Perhaps condescending, but true.
And I’m sure that race is primary the issue. And his readers–and, frankly, Dowd’s and Friedman’s–are among the most sophisticated in the country. I know, I know, but there it is.
And it’s got very little to do with finding “a different storyline that reflects even more courage and vision, and puts aside his homegrown American heroes in favor of the richer yarns found on the ground.”
It’s gotta do with readers. I’m a writer. I’ve been hawking a book with an African protagonist, and it’s not gonna sell. My other book, no better written but much more familiar and relatable for the American book-buying demographic, sold fairly easily. The African book? Forget it. Because publishers want to make money, and that’s even a longer-shot, with a midlist author like me, when the project includes extra hurdles. Kristoff doesn’t need to sell, but I bet they track readership pretty closely. I’m sure that everyone who’s concerned about this repeatedly reads and emails articles that treat the issue more responsibly, right? I’ve just been missing all the links on my favorite blogs to obscure-to-me issues about Lagos and the heroic locals who work there.
This just in from Central Africa:
Isn’t this a real problem?
Any solutions, left or right?
Btw, a similar thing has been bugging me about American Nature documentaries and even IMAX films for some time.
It can’t be just about the grizzlies, it always has to be also about the lone researcher and his life in the artic. I don’t care about that guy. I care about the subject of the film (animals, nature, landscapes, seasons, …), not the human element in it.
Or, documentaries about e.g. railroads. There needs to be a jackass making a nuisance of himself, so that it’s a film about his travel and not just about trains.
Huzzah. I thought I’d be the only person in here arguing that Kristol is reflecting actual reality as it is, rather than as liberals wish it would be. We just got rid of a boxload of “we create the reality we want” types in foreign policy; I will not criticize the media for being reality based.
Listen to some disaster coverage. “Thousands are dead, and two Americans are injured!” They are accurately reflecting US interests, which is in Americans and not in all the suffering an enterprising reporter can dig up.
Maybe the problem isn’t that no nonfiction writer has ever had the chops to convey life as lived by nonAmericans to Americans. Maybe the problem is the audience.
Incidentally I’ve read that about China too: immense, most residents have not traveled abroad, matters by sheer size. The Chinese also have a hard time shifting out and seeing the world through a different viewpoint. Whereas if you’re a citizen of a tiny nation of world travelers it’s easier to get outside your own viewpoint: I would sincerely be interested in the success of this kind of journalism in, say, Holland or New Zealand. I suspect they have the same issues Kristol faces.
Finally, I lived in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. And let me tell you what, I bonded with other American volunteers. Random people visiting from 3 countries away you might meet in the market and invite to come sleep on your roof. The shared background culture, in a sea of unshared culture, is what did it. Kristol is just adapting to a very real part of the human psyche.
Yeah! If only we could return to the days of the 1800s or early 1900s, when the great newspapers were filled with stories about suffering random people unlike the paper’s readers. And editors put stuff in the paper regardless of whether they thought it would sell papers. Yeah, those were great times.
Race is part, but culture is more. I don’t think you’d sell something about a random white South African very easily, either.
The Karate Kid is a success, it’s aiming for the international market, and its protaganist is a black in a sea of Chinese. The white hero to draw white audiences thing may actually be changing at last. Maybe the failure of reviewers to comment much on KK is that we actually have arrived there. Like by the time interracial dating isn’t seen as a taboo, it’s also seen as a really weird thing to talk about.
@asiangrrlMN: I’m sure Krugman would much rather write about different things, but the powerful keep lying about and obscuring the same things all the time.
I was going to mention the Hollywood aspect, but you beat me to it. For me, the quintessential example is Mississippi Burning.
It’s a dilemma for me in that I think on one hand it’s a real compelling drama, Dafoe & Hackman are awesome, etc. On the other hand, why in the world are these white guys the focus of the movie?
Because having the FBI agents be black would have been kind of silly?
Kristof is absolutely correct, and you’re a tool for bitching about it.
It’s also the same reason it’s next to impossible to have a teevee show or movie starring a black guy – except if it’s a “black show” – because white folks will simply turn the channel without a moment’s hesitation.
Naturally there’s the feedback effect, which also makes Kristof complicit – joint liability exists.
@Brien Jackson: I wasn’t suggesting that the part of the FBI agents be played by African Americans – as you note, that would be absurd.
I’m saying that it was a movie about the ‘struggle’ these 2 agents endured fighting a corrupt system, etc. There were people in that film, and during that time who were ‘struggling’ a hell of a lot more than those 2 white FBI agents.
The movie could have focussed more on them, but for the presumption that white audiences can only relate to white characters.
I’m not even saying that my mind is made up as to whether that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I think it’s an amazing film – when I catch it on TV, I watch the whole thing. It’s just that I worry that too often a story about race has to have white heroes.
I dont really know that I agree with that reading of the plot line. The story focuses on the FBI agents because it’s superficially a movie about solving a crime.
Fleas correct the era
I’m not sure Dowd’s is really called “a beat”. Most of the ones I’ve seen were called barstools.
DougJ (and others),
I’m not intimately familiar with Kristof’s work (as I do not read the Times), but I did see the HBO Documentary “The Reporter” that does shed some light on why he reports the way he does. I found it interesting that he does try to focus on telling the story of one individual from the region he is reporting to personalize and humanize the the situation (in the case of the documentary, his reporting of the genocide in Darfur and the war in the Congo). He does this based on research done by psychologists that indicate people have more of an interest in reading/caring about the plight of a single individual rather than the plight of many people (reporting the plight of even two people doesn’t garner as much interest/sympathy as one person, which I found interesting and sad).
That said, I think I understand what Kristoff is trying to accomplish by focusing elements of his reporting on a foreigner (such as an American) as a bridge character. I don;t think it’s the sole focus – rather a device to get the reader to somehow identify with what’s going on. And more importantly, care about it.
For those interested, links/commentary on the film:
Given the whitewashed casting of The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia, 21, etc., I’m going to say we haven’t.