the white man's burden
Back in May, @viewfromthecave tweeted that The Kristof was taking questions from readers to be answered via YouTube. This is the question I asked:
Your columns about Africa almost always feature black Africans as victims, and white foreigners as their saviors.There was more to it than that, but I can't find the original post. At any rate, the gist of the question was, "Why not feature more of the work that Africans are doing to solve their countries' problems?"
And, lo and behold, Kristof answered. NYT Picker thankfully has the transcript for those of us on dial-up connections:
This is a really important issue for a journalist. And it's one I've thought a lot about.As NYT Picker aptly notes, the persons to whom Kristof refers have either not been mentioned in his print columns or are typically only mentioned briefly.
I should, first of all, from my defensive crouch, say that I think you're a little bit exaggerating 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 Mukwege 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.
Two things: first, I appreciate that Kristof has some self-awareness on this issue. It's a welcome acknowledgement of a clear and consistent pattern in his writing.
Second, I'm not satisfied with the answer. I'm really hard on Kristof, but it's not without reason. Does he really believe that New York Times readers are only interested in good work being done by their fellow Americans? That we can't relate to people on the other side of the world? Because to me, that seems insulting to the readership. Maybe I'm insulated from the need for a "bridge character" because of what I study this for a living. I feel a kinship and a desire to support people who are doing good things no matter what their background. Don't you?
In the end, this answer is just another variant of the "good intentions are enough" mindset. It excuses stereotyping in the name of awareness, while assuming that Americans are too parochial to be able to recognize, relate to, and applaud the work of people whose names sound different from ours. It reveals much about Kristof's approach to the people he profiles; as we've discussed here many times before, they're more often characters than people.
Mr. Kristof, I think you can do better.