Sunday, July 11, 2010

NYT Columnist Nicholas Kristof Admits: "I Tend To Focus" On The 'White Foreigner As Savior, Black African As Victim' Narrative.

In an unusually frank discussion of his approach, NYT columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has acknowledged that a key component of his narrative strategy is to emphasize the role of white foreigner as the savior of poor black Africans in need of help.

"Very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work," Kristof conceded Friday in a video posted on his blog, "and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there."

Kristof -- a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning op-ed columnist who focuses much of his attention on Third World problems including rape, prostitution, hunger and lack of education - has been praised by presidents and world leaders for his compassionate and determined effort to help the destitute.

But to some of his readers, Kristof has demonstrated, at times, a condescending superiority over those he wants to help -- portraying himself, and other Americans working on these issues, as seemingly necessary to the process of bringing about change.

Those feelings bubbled over into public discussion late Friday afternoon, as Kristof answered questions from readers via YouTube. The columnist found himself on the defensive from a reader who rightly observed a pattern in his standard narrative -- one that often focused on the foreign, typically American "savior" helping the poor Africans in need, to the exclusion of efforts of black Africans themselves to bring about change on the ground.

Indeed, Kristof's answer -- while defensive in citing some specific examples of columns that cited the work of Africans doing good -- acknowledged that he has purposefully chosen this narrative thrust for his columns, simply to ensure that his columns are better read by those inclined to flip past stories about Africa, poverty and other painful topics.

Here's the full text of Kristof's reply, as transcribed by The NYTPicker:

One reader says, "Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors." This is a really important issue for a journalist. And it's one I've thought a lot about.

I should, first of all, from my defensive crouch, say that I think you're a little bit exxagerating the way I have reported. Indeed, recently, for example, among the Africans who I have emphasized, the people who are doing fantastic work are the extraordinary Dr. Dennis Muquege in the Congo, Edna Adan in Somaliland, Valentino Deng in Sudan, Manute Bol in Sudan, and there are a lot of others.

But I do take your point. That very 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.

And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.

But in fact, Kristof has barely mentioned -- if at all -- the people he cites as examples of "Africans who I have emphasized, people who are doing extraordinary work."

-- Dr. Denis Mukwege Mukengere --
a doctor at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where he treats victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo -- came up towards the end of a Kristof column on February 17, 2010, for a few paragraphs.

-- Edna Adan, who runs an obstetrics clinic in Somaliland, has been mentioned only once in a Kristof column, at the tail end of a February 25, 2007 piece about Catherine Hamlin -- a white, Australian gynecologist who Kristof describes as the "Mother Teresa of our age."

-- Valentino Deng, a former refugee and, more recently, the builder of a school in the Sudan, first appeared as the subject of a Kristof column on December 17, 2009 -- three years after the writer Dave Eggers made Deng famous via the bestselling book, "What Is The What?"

-- Manute Bol only turned up in a Kristof column on June 24, 2010, three days after his death had already attracted worldwide attention to the former basketball star's efforts to help the downtrodden in Sudan.

This isn't to say, of course, that Kristof hasn't done wonders for those in need all around the world. His passion for those less fortunate deserves our praise and our attention.

But the unnamed reader raises a reasonable point -- that the perception of Kristof as a "white man savior," fair or not, is served by his ongoing attention to the efforts of outsiders to help those who seemingly cannot help themselves. It's a narrative that, intentionally or not, plays into the notion of Kristof as a saintly figure. Enhancing that perception was Kristof's willingness to appear as the central character in "Reporter." the recent HBO documentary that followed the columnist on an expedition through central Africa, the camera usually focused on him.

It's an easy attack on Kristof to suggest that he's condescending when he writes about the problems of Africans -- though it pops up frequently on the web, most recently in reference to a column about how some African men spend more money on alcohol than on family necessities.

"[Kristof] manages to condescend to the people he purports to 'understand' by stereotyping every poor man on the continent as a lazy drunk," wrote Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, on her blog.

Harsh words, and we don't necessarily agree. It's easy to attack Kristof for generalizing about problems and solutions, but there's no denying the courage it takes to address uncomfortable racial issues head-on. He 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.


wjdecker said...

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.

But would the New York Times publish it?

Unknown said...

and would any of you write blogs about it?

i strongly recommend reading _the zanzibar chest_ by aidan hartley, the reuters reporter who came up with the term "somali warlord" and rode into rwanda with paul kagame's victorious troops. he describes many episodes where journalists in poor countries do what seem to be condescending or heartless things (a BBC producer asks a village headman to round up starving ethiopians during the famine, then says they're "not thin enough"). he blames readers in the west squarely for this - as he writes, he's happy if he can get someone to pause over their coffee before turning the page to a sports story, if he can get someone to cry about others' misery.

texasinafrica said...

Thanks for posting this and for the link to my blog. I'm the one who asked that question on Kristof's blog when he opened it to questions awhile back, and I think that while you're right that I'm probably too hard on him, this is a consistent pattern in Kristof's writing that belies his explanations. For example, in a column that came out around the same time as the alocholism one, he talked about the valuable role the Catholic Church plays in providing social services in difficult places. Great topic. But when he went to Sudan to talk to Catholics, he didn't quote any Sudanese Catholics - they were ALL European and American priests and nuns.

I hope he will stretch beyond what's become a comfortable narrative, because it's easy for most of us to relate to anyone who's doing good. And there are some remarkable people in places like the Eastern Congo, southern Sudan, and Somalia who make it work, even in the worst of circumstances. Their stories deserve to be told.

Anonymous said...

Not up to The NYTPicker's usual level of humor, but a good post nonetheless.

Victoria Luckie said...

Completely agree with Texas in Africa last post.

Rishab, Zanzibar Chest is also a good book,and Aidan Hartley is a very bright, funny and unflinching journalist.

How we report Africa in the international news is a deep and important issue, Fergal Keane wrote a very intelligent piece for Nieman labs on this:

There are the clich├ęs that develop through the interaction with aid agencies and other agendas. Matt Green's Wizard of the Nile, and the Hard Homecomings report, and recently Rob Crilly's Saving Darfur have all addressed these issues.

At the end of the day in a faster news, lower budget environment with more reliance on User Generated Content and NGO journalists and embeds it is a problem that will crop up a lot.

But as Krisof touched on, there is the deeper issue of how the editors and the consumer perceive the news from the continent, and at the heart of the issue is something far more difficult to stomach. International society's perceptions of Africa and Africans.

Anonymous said...

Gosh. How could you overlook that he also focuses on a females-are-always-victims narrative as well?

Onchita said...

I call it media orientalism. These journalists are celebrated only because they reinforce Americanisation of the world. Of course, the Anglo centric media prefer to close their eyes to the achievement of the "other".

Anonymous said...

At least he's not citing the wisdom of an anonymous Congolese cabbie, so it's a huge improvement over the usual Times fare about capitalist heroes from "strange" cultures.

Anonymous said...

The old joke goes that if the apocalypse really does appear, the NYT will run the headline, "World to end tomorrow. Women and minorities hardest hit."

It's not just Kristof, it's all of the politically correct newspapers.

(And the deliberately incorrect outlets have their own ruts too....)

Amanda said...

Given the level of household-name recognition Kristof has achieved, in part due to the success of Half the Sky and especially amount NYT readers, I wonder why he doesn't seem to feel has the flexibility and freedom to move away from the strategy of using a "strong white protagonist" to engage people in the West. As Caucasians (myself included) move towards becoming the minority in the US, perhaps it would serve him well to select heroes of other ethnic origins in his stories.

Kami Rice said...

Really glad to read this post and the accompanying comments. I'm a freelance writer who's spent time covering stories in Haiti and in various countries in Africa. This issue troubles me exceedingly: the narrative that continues to be told from countries like these to audiences in the West.

As you've all been noting here, this narrative almost always focuses on poverty, on what people don't have, on neediness. The stories are usually true but are told without accompanying and non-condescending stories about the real work being done in such countries by people to help their own countrymen. Without these companion stories, too, the resulting picture that's painted is almost untrue.

Though I'm eager to tell a fuller story than the one that's usually told, it's challenging to find a sustainable means for doing that, from outlets for the stories to funding for being able to cover them. Frustrating. I'm pretty tired of the unimaginative journalism that resorts to cliche and stereotype again and again, not taking the time to find a story that hasn't been told ad nauseum.

Anonymous said...

The doctrinal notion of categorical superiority is a major mechanism for social control.

Beware of trolls stoking rants to reduce clear-headed arguments to a shouting game.

MN said...

So.... you have no answer for the question "How do we get people to care about Africans?"

Roberto said...

"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."

For years I've found Kristof mostly unreadable (respite his excellent writing ability and the worthiness of his "causes"), thanks to his sanctimony and editorializing. He's an aid worker masquerading as a journalist.

But who cares what I think? The real issue is the one I've quoted above, that Kristof seems to think readers (mostly American, but far broader than that, he should know) need an American 'hero'. If Kristof really thinks that, he's in the wrong business.

He names Valentino Deng as a local who is doing good work. I assume Kristof learned of Deng's work the same way the rest of us did, via Dave Eggers's superb telling of Deng's story. As I remember it, Eggers didn't introduce a white 'hero' into the story, nor did the story need it. Deng's story stands on its own merits, told by a good storyteller.

The Kristof philosophy resembles that of Hollywood, which believes American moviegoers (their primary market, though the bulk of their revenues come from overseas) require American protagonists. There are plenty of examples, but the one that pops into my mind first is "U-571", the story of the capture of an Enigma coding machine from a German U-boat. By the British, of course, but let's not let that get in the way of a good story. In the movie, it was "our boys" who saved the world.

Ken Cady said...

I think this is really off base. Kristof is one of the few people writing about these issues at all, yet you and the unnamed reader nitpick him. Everyone is open to improvement, and if you had approached this with the idea of constructive criticism rather than a gotcha item I'd have appreciated it more.

Anonymous said...

Two things:

1. I think it was Aaron MacGruder in The Boondocks (but probably someone else, earlier) who points out that pretty much ALL the narratives in America have blacks achieving only with a white "savior" stepping in to help.

2. How often does this whole series of steps occur?

a. reader makes concise, valid observation.
b. reporter makes response in his own defense.
c. original or new participant points out significant flaw in "b"
d. reporter never follows up with second response.

End result? Readers get clear message that they can do all the observation they want and the reporters will simply ignore them once it becomes too uncomfortable.

I would like to think Kristof will followup, but if he does, I will be surprised.

Anonymous said...

2. How often does this whole series of steps occur?

a. reader makes concise, valid observation.
b. standard press refuses to print it.
d. readers don't think about the truth, because that which exists has been left out.

Don't hold your breath for for than 4 min.

Anonymous said...

"b. reporter makes response in his own defense."

To be fair to reporters, how often has the response been:
Caved in to peer pressure
Don't want to hop on the hobo wagon to Portland
Don't want to sleep under a bridge
Give us a break
Shut up
We don't want your money

......would love to hear how Kristof profiles a racist.

Anonymous said...

It’s true, outside the few who write about Africa at all, are the many whose idea of news is grinding to a still in a stall. the registry’s worst are those who take a position and come off as debatably admitting that they just stick with it for money (which is ultimately always sourced to some pedophilic lynch-mate or his creditors) and that it’s all bs. But they do it cause you can fool some people some of the time in the terrific name of self-preservation... Now, adjure these nobel ranks to tell the truth for money, and, they either shriek into shocked disbelief or turn overtly bigoted extremists!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanx to the masses of women and blacks and yellow, upon whom a Mr. McMister can always feel good shitting and look even better stirring it up into a bundle of chix and niggers and gooks and rats or other deranged and stupid labels. Until he and the next squatter on remote ctrl owe big bucks after all and then snap! Holy mean sprayed cows runnin’ for that soothing wind like there’s no returnin’ tomorrow!!
Get comfortable! Like the dictum goes, hit reset (if you got off to a bad start and find yourself outweighed).

Josh said...

I don't think it is far-fetched to think that a lot of people read Kristof's articles because of the narrative rather than the issue. In an economist poll back in April about what to cut out of the budget, 71% of respondents chose foreign aid. Among Kristof readers, that number is much lower. But how many of those Kristof readers are converts won over by his storytelling, as opposed to people who are attracted to his articles out of a genuine interest in developing world issues. It is true that he spins a narrative that doesn't tell the whole story, but I would bet that he is right that it increases his leadership.

Robert MacMillan said...

On a side note, it's exaggerate, not exxagerate.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this column; it's about the most engaging thing by or about Kristof I have ever read. And having now discovered this weblog, I hope to return frequently; the core idea of the blog is a great idea and the blog seems to be well-executed, if sometimes a bit micro in its critique (which, on the whole, is probably just fine, since we're dealing with a daily here).

For a while now I have been trying to do something similar with a Chinese paper (known as the Global Times/Huanqiu Shibao) and I think the model you set up here, particularly the collective authorship thing, is solid.