Nicholas Kristof wants to save the world with his New York Times columns. Why are so many of them wrong?

How Nicholas Kristof Gets Duped

How Nicholas Kristof Gets Duped

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
June 18 2014 11:53 PM

The White Knight

Nicholas Kristof wants to save the world with his New York Times columns. Why are so many of them wrong?

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and author Somaly Mam on September 18, 2012 in New York City.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Somaly Mam in 2012 in New York City.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Conde Nast Traveler

In April of 2010, New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof was preparing to head out on a reporting expedition to Sudan when he stopped in at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to chat with students about his career covering conflict abroad. Four years earlier, Kristof had won his second Pulitzer Prize for what the committee called “graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world.” Now, on the eve of another trip to the region, the forum’s moderator, Filipina investigative journalist Sheila Coronel, asked Kristof if he ever got depressed at the prospect of flying halfway around the world to hunt down another sad story.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a David Carr fellow at the New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

“I’m sometimes embarrassed by how clinical I can become when I’m out reporting,” Kristof replied. When he arrived in Sudan that weekend, he said, “I’ll be out to find the most compelling story that I can within a limited time.” He predicted that he’d hear “some heartrending story about some 30-year-old man. And, frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote. I want to get American readers to care about my story, and if I have some middle-aged man in my lede, they’re going to tune out.” Instead, Kristof would hold out for a more compelling subject, like “some 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes.”

Kristof feels lousy when he has to “cut somebody off and say, ‘It's terrible that you were shot in the leg,’ ” he said. “Meanwhile, I will go off and find someone who was shot in both legs.” But he does it because he knows that if he finds a compelling story abroad, Americans back home will line up to help. “I want to make people spill their coffee when they read the column,” he said. “I do want them to go and donate, volunteer, whatever it may be, to help chip away at some of these problems.”

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Perhaps that is how he came to write about Long Pross, a Cambodian teenager who said she was kidnapped, beaten, tortured with electric currents, tied up, and sold in a brothel at 13, “where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.” When the wound sprayed “blood and pus” on customers, Kristof wrote in a 2009 column, the owner “discarded” her. That story came courtesy of Somaly Mam, a telegenic Cambodian anti-trafficking activist who had rescued Pross after overcoming a similarly sad backstory. Mam said she had escaped rape and torture as a child sex-trafficking victim to advocate for girls like her, only to see her 14-year-old daughter kidnapped and gang-raped by human traffickers in retaliation. Kristof devoted columns to her, too, boosting her story and live-tweeting his ride-along on her 2011 brothel raid.

Last month, Newsweek revealed that the most horrific sections of Mam’s backstory had been inflated and fabricated, and that she had enlisted Pross—who had actually lost the eye after undergoing surgery for a nonmalignant tumor—to do the same. Responding to revelations about Mam’s deception, Kristof said in a column last week, “I wish I had never written about her.”

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When Kristof kicked off his Times column in 2001, he felt awkward behind the opinion desk. A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, Kristof had spent 17 years reporting for the Times, first in New York and Los Angeles, then in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo.* He picked up conversational Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and Arabic in his travels around the world and at home.* In 1990, he shared his first Pulitzer Prize with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, for their joint Times coverage of the uprising in Tiananmen Square. Now, settled into a column, “it felt incredibly strange to be writing my opinions,” he told the Columbia students. “I'd show my draft columns to my wife, and she’d say, ‘This opinion is pretty feeble. It looks more like a news analysis than an opinion.’ So I'd go back and add a few adjectives.” He laughed at the idea, but seriously: “Gradually, it’s become a lot more natural to hurl out opinions.” (Kristof didn’t immediately return an email requesting comment. Update, June 20: Kristof says he never received the email.)

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At first, Kristof patrolled the typical terrain of a Times opinion columnist—the Iraq War, U.S.-Iranian relations, post-9/11 domestic terrorism. Maureen Dowd snagged her own Pulitzer in 1999 by punning on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, week after week, but Kristof always kept one foot lodged in the reporting world, traveling to Shiite cities and publishing scoops on WMDs. Soon, he came to realize that the typical pundit’s influence over public opinion was “exaggerated.” When it comes to well-trodden political issues, readers who already agreed with his take would eat up his columns, while those who disagreed would reject them from the headline. The only way to change minds, he found, was to tell people a story that they had never heard before.

In March of 2004, Kristof took on an issue other American journalists wouldn’t touch. “The most vicious ethnic cleansing you’ve never heard of is unfolding here in the southeastern fringes of the Sahara Desert,” Kristof reported from the Chad-Sudan border. “It’s a campaign of murder, rape and pillage by Sudan’s Arab rulers that has forced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages.” Kristof reported regularly on the Sudan for two years, turning his op-ed perch into a bureau of one. But back in New York, his neighbors were obsessed with the plight of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk that had been kicked out of the nest he’d built on the ledge of an upscale apartment complex by the building’s co-op board. “New Yorkers were all up in arms about a red-tailed hawk being homeless,” Kristof told the Columbia students. Meanwhile, “I couldn’t get them to care as much about hundreds of thousands of people” who were being “kicked out of their homes” only to “disappear without a trace.”

The disconnect inspired Kristof to delve into social science studies on the psychological roots of empathy, which led him to an emerging body of work based on what inspires people to donate to charity. In one study, researchers told American participants the story of Rokia, a (fictional) 7-year-old Malian girl who is “desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation.” Then, they told them that 3 million Malawian children are now facing hunger, along with 3 million Zambian people and 11 million Ethiopians. The researchers found that Americans were more likely to empty their pockets for one little girl than they were for millions of them. If they heard Rokia’s story in the context of the dire statistics of the region, they were less inclined to give her money. And if they were informed that they were being influenced by this dynamic, the “identifiable-victim effect,” they were less likely to shell out for Rokia, but no more likely to give to the greater cause. To Kristof, the experiment underscored the “limits of rationality” in reporting on human suffering: “One death is a tragedy,” he told the students, “and a million deaths are a statistic.”

Kristof’s most celebrated columns carry echoes of Rokia. They focus on one victim’s compelling story, letting her narrative soar over the complicated political, environmental, and cultural contexts of her suffering. The columns dangle the possibility of a solution to her strife. (Americans respond to a tale where “Rokia is hungry, and you feed her, and she lives happily ever after,” Kristof said.) And they often feature what he calls a “bridge character,” an American humanitarian hero who swoops in, armed with Rokia’s rations. “Local organizations are the ones that have the most local knowledge, and they tend to be the most cost-effective. We’d get more bang for our buck if we gave aid to local organizations,” Kristof acknowledged to the Columbia students. He’ll give those activists shoutouts, sure. But typically, “my protagonist will be some American … who’s off in the middle of nowhere. The reason is that it's an awful lot easier to get readers to read about a New Yorker who is off in Haiti than a Haitian who’s doing good work in Haiti.”

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Working on the Times’ swift twice-weekly column deadline, Kristof finds his Rokia, builds his bridge, and sets out getting readers to spill their coffee. When a savior does not appear, Kristof occasionally steps in to play the role himself. In 2004, he found two underage prostitutes languishing in Cambodian brothels—one a “lovely, giggle wisp of a teenager,” the other “young and pitiable”—and in a four-column cliffhanger, paid $353 for their release and delivered them home to their families.* (“Probably the first time a New York Times reporter had bought two human beings,” he told the Columbia students.)

Kristof’s tactics have earned him backhanded compliments like “white knight” and “white male savior.” But there is also an authentic selflessness to his work. Few American columnists are as committed as Kristof to telling stories of people in the developing world (even if he sometimes uncomfortably inserts himself into them). And his frank interviews reveal that he’s no wide-eyed American, fueled by his own cultural ignorance. He has the reporting chops to parse complicated geopolitical dynamics; he just often makes the strategic choice to bury them in the background and deliver one voice to the American breakfast table, in the hopes that readers will actually listen. Sometimes, they even open their wallets. In 2004, Kristof told the story of Mukhtaran Bibi, a Pakistani woman who was sentenced to be gang raped by her village's tribal council in an attempt to discredit her brother. Afterward, instead of committing suicide in shame as her attackers expected, she testified against them and went on to open two schools in the village. The next year, Kristof revealed that readers of the column had sent in $133,000 to assist her, and published her charity's full address in his column to help direct future donations.

When asked if his columns risk promoting short-term fixes, Kristof said he’s “become more sympathetic to Band-Aids over the years.” Big, overarching solutions tend to dead-end in “symbolic conferences” or legislation that fails to produce action, he said. When he bought those girls from their brothels, critics charged that he had reduced a complicated and persistent local problem to a white man’s burden, and may be bolstering the market for female bodies by paying up. Kristof is sensitive to that critique. But the criticism “bothered me much less than the alternative of leaving them in the brothel to get AIDS and die,” he said. The girls, too, were more concerned with getting out than being “fitted into a stereotype.” And when he was criticized for publishing the name and photograph of a child rape victim in 2010, he insisted that “if we leave out names and faces, then there’s no outrage, and the rapes go on and on.”

Besides, the numbers are clear. “I’ve written scores of articles about human trafficking over the years, with and without bridge characters, and the difference is stark,” he divulged in a 2010 column. “If a column consists entirely of Cambodians or Indians or Pakistanis, no one usually pays attention. In contrast, the trafficking articles that everyone remembers are the ones from 2004 in which I describe buying two teenage girls and returning them to their families.”

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Stories like that helped jump his columns onto the Times’ most-emailed list, and now they have coalesced into a movement. In 2009, he and WuDunn teamed up to publish Half the Sky, a book of women’s stories from around the world that became a best-seller. They followed up with a PBS special that featured Mam, George Clooney, Gloria Steinem, and Eva Mendes; a website that directed readers to “support smart girls” by donating to organizations like the Malala Fund and the Somaly Mam Foundation; and a Facebook game that whisked kids into the shoes of an animated impoverished person. Kristof started an annual Win a Trip With Nick contest to pay for one lucky student to tag along on a tour of the developing world. And he’s proposed a Teach for the World program that could enlist young Americans to teach abroad for one-year stints, which would be easier to fit between college and career than a 27-month Peace Corps commitment, and could create a new class of lifelong donors to developing countries. “A lot of young people have, after reading the book, [opted to] give their parents gray hairs and go off to Somaliland,” Kristof said of Half the Sky’s impact.

In short, stories have the power to change the world. “One risk,” he told the Columbia students, “is that I’ll prove wrong—which I do, periodically.” Kristof understands that not every sad story is true. “I’ve learned when to be more suspicious of people,” Kristof said in Reporter, a documentary on his work. “I think there’s a tendency to believe victims, for example. And I think that’s wrong—that in fact victims can lie as much as other people.” That was in 2009.

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In 2011, one of Kristof’s bridges collapsed. Greg Mortenson is an American former mountain climber who built schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan; helped found the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting literacy among girls in the region; and published the best-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea. Kristof first wrote about Mortenson in 2008. He told his harrowing backstory, called him a local “legend,” and asserted that “a lone Montanan staying at the cheapest guest houses has done more to advance U.S. interests in the region than the entire military and foreign policy apparatus of the Bush administration.” The next year, Mortenson blurbed Kristof’s book, deeming it “brilliant and inspirational.” They became fast friends.

Greg Mortenson in Boston, Mass., in September 2008.
Greg Mortenson in Boston in 2008.

Courtesy of Derek Yu/Flickr

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But when investigative journalist, fellow climber, and onetime CAI supporter Jon Krakauer got around to reading Mortenson’s memoir, his “internal bullshit detector redlined,” he said. In a 2011 22,000-word Byliner exposé published concurrently with a 60 Minutes segment, Krakauer reported out Mortenson’s anecdotes and dug into CAI’s finances. “It’s a beautiful story, and a lie,” said Krakauer, who donated $75,000 to CAI before withdrawing his support over concerns the nonprofit was mismanaged. He discovered later that the grand origin story of Mortenson’s first school—he said that he stumbled into the village of Korphe after he got lost on his descent from K2, was nursed back to health by its kindly residents, and pledged to build them a school in return—had been fabricated. Another tale Mortenson likes to tell—that he was once kidnapped by the Taliban and held for eight days in Waziristan—was also false. A photograph published in Three Cups of Tea that purports to show Mortenson being held captive by his abductors actually shows men he enlisted to protect him on his tourist jaunt around the region. Mansur Khan Mahsud, a research coordinator for an Islamabad think tank who accompanied Mortenson on the trip, speculates that Mortenson framed him and his family members as terrorists in an attempt “to sell books.”

“One of the people I’ve enormously admired in recent years is Greg Mortenson,” is how Kristof started his column in response to the allegations. “In person, Greg is modest, passionate and utterly disorganized,” he continued. “Once he showed up half-an-hour late for a speech, clumping along with just one shoe—and then kept his audience spellbound with his tale of building peace through schools.” In other words, Mortenson had a great story, and he told it well. “Greg, by nature, is more of a founding visionary than the disciplined C.E.O. necessary to run a $20 million-a-year charity,” Kristof conceded. But while the story had crumbled, Kristof wasn’t willing to give up on Mortenson’s cause. “Greg’s books may or may not have been fictionalized, but there’s nothing imaginary about the way some of his American donors and Afghan villagers were able to put aside their differences and prejudices and cooperate to build schools—and a better world,” he wrote. “As we sift the truth of these allegations, let’s not allow this uproar to obscure that larger message of the possibility of change.” (After the exposé sparked an investigation into the nonprofit’s finances by the Montana attorney general, Mortenson struck a deal to pay back $1 million to the charity that he had set aside for personal use.)

The cycle repeated itself again last month. Somaly Mam—the woman Kristof had called a “heroine from the brothels” in 2008—was revealed to have fabricated her own narrative, telling tales of an abusive grandfather that her family members dispute, and claiming her daughter was kidnapped and raped by human traffickers when others say she had run away to hang out with her boyfriend. Mam is standing by her story, but has resigned from the Somaly Mam Foundation.

This time, Kristof admitted that he and other journalists who had bought Mam’s story “tend to be more suspicious of biographical claims that portray someone in a good light, such as university degrees or military service. We’re less suspicious if someone claims something stigmatizing, like being trafficked into a brothel.” But again, Kristof urged readers to focus on the bigger picture. “Surely it’s also significant that 21 million people worldwide are subjected to forced labor, including forced prostitution,” he wrote, citing the International Labor Organization. “Whatever the situation with Somaly, there’s no uncertainty about the larger issue of human trafficking in Cambodia,” he said. “Let’s remember that this is about more than one woman.”

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* * *

Mam’s charge, Long Pross, had also lied. When Kristof told Pross’ graphic tale, complete with her videotaped testimony, in 2009, he said it ought to quiet the concerns of “skeptical readers doubting that conditions are truly so abusive” or that horrific accounts of sex trafficking constitute “hyperbole.” (After Kristof highlighted her story in his column, Oprah invited her to retell it on her show.) Kristof believes that the possibility of progress in the developing world hinges on the story of just one victimized girl, one courageous woman, or one heroic man. But he is not the only one who understands this. Even if you are in the business of aiding suffering children, nothing sells like an explosive backstory. And when we fall for the wrong ones, it’s not just Kristof’s reputation that takes a hit.

“A large number of organizations get sucked into using children to raise funds: making them talk about the abuse they survived in front of a camera, having their picture in a pitiful situation published for everyone to see,” Sébastien Marot, the executive director of child aid organization Friends-International, wrote in a note published on his group’s website after Mam’s deceptions came to light. “In worst cases, the truth is distorted or the stories invented to attract more compassion and money. The impact on the lives of these children is terrible: If they come from an abusive situation, such a process re-traumatizes them and in any case it stigmatizes them forever.”

New York Times journalist Nick Kristof.
Nicholas Kristof moderates a panel in 2013.

Courtesy of Marisol Grandon/Department for International Development/Flickr

Kristof sees his Rokia stories as a tactic for opening up American interest in the developing world, but Westerners aren’t the only ones impacted by these tales. “In communities that are affected by conflict, the international narrative about them sets in very quickly,” says Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College and a longtime Kristof watchdog. That means that local and international resources get redirected to the day’s sexiest topic, and that can cause “incentives” for victims to attest to a particular form of suffering to get help. But it also means that the most effective mechanisms for improving the conditions in these countries are overlooked in favor of those proffered by boot-strapping Western heroes. “The idea that comes across is that nobody is advocating for these people before the bridge character comes along, and that really diminishes the work of people on the ground,” Seay told me. “There’s a limited amount of political capital that can be spent. And if you spend it on the wrong thing, you don’t always get another chance.”

Kristof got a taste of this after launching a crusade against Village Voice Media for its ownership of Backpage.com, a classified ad site that Kristof said hosted ads for trafficked underage women. When VVM and Backpage split, at least in part due to Kristof’s pressure, his Band-Aid solution didn’t feel like a win. “I'm afraid there'll be less leverage to target Backpage to get out of this business,” Kristof wrote in a 2012 Reddit AMA, acknowledging that while a big media company made a great target, and a great story, winning here did nothing to actually stop the sale of underage women.

Still, Kristof shows no signs of laying off the victim tales. In February, he ceded his column space to Dylan Farrow (daughter of his friend Mia) to reaccuse her father, Woody Allen, of molesting her as a child. When a reader wrote in, concerned “about the wisdom and propriety of these ad hominem columns, which assail particular individuals and champion others,” Times public editor Margaret Sullivan agreed. In May, Kristof wrote a column about a 20-year-old Vietnamese college student who told him she starved herself and worked tirelessly in a factory to afford college tuition against the wishes of her parents, who burned her schoolbooks and told her they hoped she’d fail. Kristof called her “one of the mightiest people I’ve met,” and anointed her “the world’s college graduate of the year.” And last week, Kristof bought into an already thoroughly debunked study that claimed that hurricanes named after women are more deadly than those named after men, because people in disaster areas don’t “respect” women enough to run for cover. Wrote Kristof: “We often assume that racism or sexism is primarily about in-your-face bigots or misogynists, but research in the last couple of decades—capped by this hurricane study—shows that the larger problem is unconscious bias even among well-meaning, enlightened people who embrace principles of equality.”

On Kristof’s Half the Sky website—which still features Mam’s photo, with a link to give to her foundation—you can play a game that transports you from your Facebook page and into a colorful, animated Indian landscape. “This is the story of Radhika, a simple woman from India who wants to make things better,” the game says, introducing a pretty cartoon character with big, blinking eyes that turn wet and sad when her life becomes challenging. Players can complete quests to harvest Radhika’s mangoes, sell them at the market, take a taxi across town, and secure medical care for her daughter, who’s suffering from pneumonia. Every stage of the game gives players opportunities to key in their credit card information and donate real-world money to charities like the Fistula Foundation and Heifer International. “Radhika’s story is a work of fiction,” the game’s fine print reads. “Reality is much harsher, and issues are never so easy to fix.”

Correction, June 20, 2014: This article originally misstated the number of years Nicholas Kristof was at the New York Times before he became a columnist. He was a reporter for 17 years, not two decades. It also incorrectly stated that he learned all of the languages he speaks while traveling abroad. He learned some of them at home. The article also misstated the location of the brothel from which Kristof paid for the release of two underage prostitutes. It was Cambodia, not Vietnam.