"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


the kristof strikes again

From a Q&A at Columbia Journalism School on Monday night:
Question: Peace Corps and Foreign Service are two most common pathways for foreign service. What is your take on those?

Answer: My advice would be to take your time abroad... get out of capitals, get out of comfort zone. Embed yourself in some project somewhere. For that, the State Dept. isn't good. You tend to be in capital or restricted areas...

...Main problem with Peace Corps is that it's a long committement [sic] 27 months, etc. doesn't fit into graduate programs.... people sign up for TFA because they have time between college and the next thing... I wish there were a program that invited people to do something similar to Peace Corps, just for one year--- the great beneficiaries would be Americans, but it would be great for those individuals and for American foreign policy as a whole....
Right. Because it's all about us.

But, wait. It gets worse:
Question: How much of the year are you traveling? Don't you get compassion fatigue?

Answer: ...Embarrased [sic] how clinical I can become.... I'm leaving to go to Sudan... try to find most compelling story I can within limited time. Somebody will tell me a story about some heart-rending story about 30-year-old man, and frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote... if I want to get middle-age man in my lead [sic], readers will turn out...

maybe it's going to be a 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes - some story that will get readers into the column.... I'm sometimes kind of embarrassed that I have to say - it's terrible that you were shot in the leg, but I will go off and find someone that was shot in both legs... I really want to find the most compelling anecdote to get readers into the story....
I don't believe any further commentary is necessary.

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Blogger Nick said...

I think you're being unfair. It sounds like Kristof is just being honest. He knows he's got one chance to pull readers into his story, so why wouldn't he find the most compelling character he can? Any other journalist working in Africa _ or the United States, for that matter _ would do the exact same thing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010 6:15:00 AM

Anonymous Graham said...

Tend to agree with Nick above. Kristof is working within the strictures of old media. This is how it works.

Even if it comes across as tacky, cheap, calculated, prescribed, of questionable journalistic value and more in line with infotainment to the rest of us.

He's just doing his job. At least he's honest about it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010 8:13:00 AM

Blogger Shona said...

Why shouldn't he write about the most compelling character he can?

Because he should be writing about people not characters.

Having lived in Eastern Congo for 3 years, I read Kristov's anecdotes about people there, and cringe because they are exactly what you say, characters and not people. When a journalist decides to cover a complex conflict through the stories of individual people,I hope he is choosing the people he features based on more than whether they got shot in one leg or two.

Kristov appears to choose his subjects solely based on the one who will make the most dramatic and emotional first impression. Yet he should be acting as a journalist, not as a tv advertiser creating a 15 second commercial. Indeed he rarely seems to go beyond first impressions in his articles. The Congolese people have amazing, comlicated, and thought-provoking life-experiences, and have complex views on the current conflict. This is true of all Congolese people, not just the ones who have been shot in both legs or who are 9 years old.

Kristov appears to go to Eastern Congo and look for that image of a person who best fits his understanding of what it means to suffer and be victimized, and who can reflect that image in a short paragraph description.

This approach will do little to truly report on the situation or to aid our understanding of it. But it does get a large audience to tune in,and listen to Kristov's personal views about the conflict, and I guess that is what he is aiming for.

Thursday, April 15, 2010 8:29:00 AM

Blogger mwikali said...

Having been a PCV in Africa, and having now spent a total of 6 years in long term projects in Eastern Africa, I'd have to say that 1 year really isn't long enough to do anything worthwhile *beyond* yourself. It takes 6 months to just sort-of figure out what is going on and then another 6 months to get anything going. You need that extra year if any projects are to be completed and to see where things didn't work out as anticipated. A series of 1 year projects will just increase both donor fatigue and cement the cursory, shallow understandings between Americans and the rest of the world.

Nor do I think that extra year makes a huge difference in graduate programs (even it if is still all about ourselves). Heaven forbid graduate school committees have to handle independent students who care about the world and can work on their own.

In our 75-80 year lifespan, is the year difference really all that much to offer towards understanding?

Thursday, April 15, 2010 3:12:00 PM

Blogger Ron Rollins said...

As far as the State Department people go, he's correct.

Thursday, April 15, 2010 4:33:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a pretty shitty PCV, to be honest. Drank a lot. Wanted to hang with my fellow Americans more than I wanted to go farm. I was 22, and I didn't really know what was going on. I didn't know how to work. It was all about me. I think it was shameful. Makes me blush, now.

But you know, I learned a hell of a lot even then. Maybe it was too much? But now it's not about me as much anymore... you have to start somewhere, right? I would never be where I am now if it hadn't been for the experience. I have a kick-ass perspective. Is that so wrong, to be selfish for awhile? I think you might lose a lot of good folks if you write them off on their selfishness. It being "about them." Not exploitation so much as excitement, newness, outside of that "zone" The Kristof talks about.

Thursday, April 15, 2010 4:36:00 PM

Blogger Carla said...

Perhaps it's difficult to criticize Kristof because there's no one else to compare him to. What other editorial writer has a beat like his? By default, Kristof is 'right.' I'm a journalist and while I'm glad someone's doing this work, I tend to disagree with Kristof's approach. There is another way to write about these issues that is both accessible to the reader but doesn't diminish or simplify your subjects.

Thursday, April 15, 2010 10:12:00 PM

Anonymous Katie said...

I get it, it's not all about "us", but what's wrong with trying to develop a program that would allow more American students to go abroad? Sure, ideally everyone would have the means to devote 2 or more years to volunteering abroad, but that is not the reality we live in. So what's wrong with Kristof's idea?

Thursday, April 15, 2010 10:29:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

I don't have a problem with American students going abroad, but I have a huge issue with the "Teach for the World" idea Kristof has been promoting, and to which this comment alludes. He's proposed we send eighteen-year-old Americans into poor communities worldwide to teach. Short summary of the issues: 1) Would you want an inexperienced, unqualified foreigner teaching your children? 2) Is it about giving American young people exciting experiences or is it about helping those who need it? 3) Sending Americans to do jobs locals can do takes away jobs and further screws up poor economies 4) The PCV model works because it accounts for the fact that getting used to the area and figuring out how to accomplish things takes a long time. Long story short, I think if American young adults want to go abroad, they should finance it themselves, and not pretend to be "helping" when they aren't qualified to do so.

Friday, April 16, 2010 8:37:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm playing devils advocate a bit... but who cares? No, I mean who cares about poor people in Africa, really? Do American people really care? And if they don't, does it matter?

Being a PCV was an adventure first, and being "helpful" second... though not a distant second. But now it's reversed itself. Without the adventure, without learning how to care, people just don't... To care about something is to be close to something and want to help it. If you don't know it, you can't give a shit for anything but what Kristof writes for you. See how i've come full circle?

Why do you "help" so much, TIA? What hooked you?

Friday, April 16, 2010 10:37:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Anon, I think I feel a moral obligation. The gang rape of a child, unnecessary death from preventable causes, abject poverty - these things violate my sense of how the universe is supposed to work and what it means to be human. I was also raised with a kind of noblesse oblige ethic - to whom much is given, much is required. I've been given so much in terms of opportunity and smarts, and I couldn't live with myself if I only used those privileges for myself.

Not a very helpful answer, I know. But it's the truth.

Saturday, April 17, 2010 9:50:00 AM


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