Kristof Becomes Own Worst Enemy

Responding to an unhappy reader, Nick Kristof lets his fangs show.

Nick Kristof is frustrated. One need only read his column (warning: TimesSelect) in yesterday’s New York Times to know that. He devotes the entire piece to shaming a woman he identifies as Marguerite H., who had the temerity to suggest that Kristof stop writing so much about Darfur and use his considerable influence to draw attention to, and promote action on, the many problems we have here at home. I happen to disagree with Marguerite. I have always been grateful that Kristof uses his powerful platform to travel the world and produce ground-level, reported columns on issues that he cares about — and that he thinks we should care about, too. There aren’t many columnists who have the desire or the chops for that, to say nothing of the editorial and financial mandate.

But there are plenty of people in this country who feel as Marguerite does, that as bad as things are in Sudan and elsewhere there are some pretty horrific and obstinate problems here in the U.S. Whether or not Kristof should be writing about these problems, it is not an outrageous or illegitimate notion.

My problem with Kristof, though, is not what he’s writing about, but rather the occasionally shrill and self-righteous tone of that writing. It’s understandable, perhaps, when you consider that for several years now Kristof has been crusading (my term, not his) in print against a number of things, including sex trafficking in Asia and, of course, the genocide in Darfur. These crusades have earned him the admiration of many, as well as a Pulitzer. They have also raised eyebrows for what some considered his crossing the Rubicon from journalism to advocacy , such as when he bought two young women their freedom from a brothel in Cambodia. But he has not, however, convinced the rest of the world — or even the rest of America — to set aside its various priorities and adopt his, which is sometimes what Kristof sounds like he wants, or expects.

His contempt in Sunday’s column for Marguerite H. — a stand-in, really, for everyone who doesn’t see things Kristof’s way — is palpable. The weapon of choice is familiar to Kristof’s readers: the stomach-turning story of Halima, a young African woman who is repeatedly raped and menaced by janjaweed militias. “So, Marguerite,” Kristof writes, “look Halima in the eye [a photo of her sits atop the column], and decide if you’re willing to turn away as she is slaughtered, or how many more times you’re willing to allow her to be raped.”

Powerful stuff. Nasty stuff. Especially when you consider that whatever else she is, Marguerite H. is a reader of his column (or at least she was) — not something he can say about the majority of Americans. She was listening, at least.

Whether or not Kristof feels as morally superior as he sounds in this column, I can’t say. He has said that he “feels like a fraud” in the opinion writing business, that he tends to “react adversely to claims of absolute truth.” He is an important voice for some difficult issues that need the world’s attention, but he would do well to remember his first love — journalism — and make his case, on Darfur and whatever else, with facts and reason and storytelling. Leave the humiliation to reality TV.

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Brent Cunningham is CJR’s managing editor.