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


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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous Mona said...

I would really like to know what evidence Kristof has that readers are more likely to read his columns featuring an American "savior" over those featuring an African one. It should be easy enough, considering the NY Times readily tracks hits and how often articles are emailed. But sadly, I don't think there is a large enough sample size of Kristof columns featuring African protagonists to make a true judgment.

Monday, July 12, 2010 4:19:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cynic in me feels that Kristof is probably right, at least now.
Part of a larger discussion I've had many times with people.


Monday, July 12, 2010 8:01:00 AM

Blogger Emily said...

I think the answer is somewhere in between. Often, because I am surrounded by like-minded people most of the time, I think Kristof isn't giving his readers enough credit. But then I'll leave my little bubble of worldly journalists and realize that even within my own extended family, some people are truly unable to empathize with someone they perceive as Other.

That being said, the NYT's readership tends to skew more on the "aware" side of things. So even if there's a need for the white benefactor=awareness stories sometimes, there's really no excuse for the lopsided work he's been doing.

Monday, July 12, 2010 8:57:00 AM

Blogger Kami Rice said...

I'm really glad to have stumbled onto this conversation (both here and at nytpick.com), as it's something I'm pretty concerned about. I'm a freelance journalist who's covered stories in Haiti and in several countries in Africa and am really frustrated by the familiar refrain that dominates most news from countries in Africa and from developing countries elsewhere.

I agree with you, Emily, about being reminded every now and then that the people I hang out with most aren't representative of mass American culture in terms of their interest in people abroad, so I have to be careful not to assume a level of public interest that isn't accurate.

However, I think story is one of the best ways to break through to those who aren't naturally interested. Good writers who can tell a good story can often gain an audience just by the quality of their story, even if the audience isn't normally interested in the type of characters that populate the story. I think it's lazy journalism that takes the cop-out route.

Monday, July 12, 2010 10:02:00 AM

Blogger Rachel said...

Kristof seems to hold his readership in disturbingly low esteem. How patronizing. It's just more of his savior complex at work -- not only does he have to save Africans from themselves, he has to save Americans from their lack of empathy/imagination/intelligence, as well.

Monday, July 12, 2010 10:11:00 AM

Blogger David Aronson said...

I think Kristof misjudges what sort of story is more likely to motivate Americans to become concerned about Africa's problems. Stories about Western do-gooders reinforce the notion that Africa is a hopeless case. Stories about Africans helping each other out--as peacemakers, doctors, educators, anti-corruption and human rights advocates--often in spite of very real dangers and the most minimal of resources, are much more inspiring and likely to arouse our compassion.

Monday, July 12, 2010 2:32:00 PM

Blogger Chris said...

I think it's important to remember that Kristof is an employee doing what his employer is asking of him. I don't know how the whole process works, but I tend to think that he's simply giving the NYT what they want him to give them. I doubt he's going to change; he's been too successful being the guy you despise. Your only hope is for other journalists to compete with his audience till he becomes irrelevant, like an evening anchor man.

Perhaps instead of fighting the journalist who is not going to change, why not attack the whole traditional approach to foreign journalism. For example, is it too far fetched to think that instead of sending someone to Africa, the NYT could just hire journalists who actually live or come from the area they are reporting on? Why do we need a trusted white, American, male voice in Africa anyway? Isn't this just an old way of thinking?

Bottom line, the only way Kristof will ever change is if his popularity is challenged. Till then, I hope and pray for some sort of quasi celebrity death match between the two of you.

Monday, July 12, 2010 4:59:00 PM

Anonymous Brendan said...

Dear Texas in Africa,
Sorry this is off the subject but I wanted to let you know about this recent blog post on the "Cry For Freedom in Rwanda" blog.


the post is about Rwandan refugees in Uganda fearing forced repatriation to Rwanda, and there is a link to an excellent paper by Lisa Horvil from IRRI-Int. Refugee Rights Initiative along with several other authors about the issue. I just thought you would be interested in this post/paper...

Monday, July 12, 2010 9:24:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

just a quick question- if you are interested in representing in words the part of Africa you know best--eastern Congo--why do you title your blog 'Texas in Africa'? I've never seen a post about Senegal or Cape Verde or Egypt or Djibouti or Namibia....

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 5:11:00 PM

Anonymous 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 readership and raises awareness among more people than he might otherwise.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 2:15:00 AM

Blogger linda said...

Of course, Mr. Kristof can do better; most of us in this world can, and really should. That said, totally rejecting what he says about "bridge characters" would be a mistake. (Perhaps as much of a mistake as being stuck in the thinking that a foreign outsider is a savior.) I know I've "taught" friends/family in the U.S. about some of the obscure places I've been (Cuba, Tajikistan) by going there and writing about those places. It's relatable, because they know me. Also? You write this blog, and we read it. You are in fact a bridge character, even including the title of your blog, so maybe you can view Kristof through that prism a little bit.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 9:49:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

My beef with Kristof has to do with the fact that he often presents and inaccurate and incomplete view of situations. Bad facts lead to bad policies, so, no, I don't think it's okay that he simply raises awareness. As an important journalist with a huge platform, he has a responsibility to get it right. And raising awareness in an incomplete way can lead directly to really stupid policy ideas, wasted funds, and programs that ultimately don't help anybody.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:18:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so happy to have stumbled across this blog! There was one column that Kristoff did in Cambodia where he goes to a brothel and buys the freedom of a prostitute. He writes a little bit about what happens to her after that (she went back to the brothel). To me, as an American-educated foreigner, this is the kind of thinking (on a small-scale) that leads to large-scale interventions in places like Iraq. Also, I used to work as a stringer for the WSJ etc. in Asia, and I hated how these organizations would hire young Americans fresh out of the Ivies but with ZERO knowledge of the history or culture of the countries they were reporting on . Show us some respect, you know(at least send us s.o. with an Asian studies major). I'm assuming that these same papers wouldn't put their tech correspondents on, say, their arts & culture beat (wouldn't want to look like philistines, would they?)--but somehow it's OK to do this for developing countries? It comes down to a question I suppose of what you place value on: real knowledge of arts & culture= valuable, but real knowledge, as opposed to idiotic cliches, of LDCs=who cares?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:54:00 AM

Anonymous Bella said...

I'm not sure if you're genuinely looking for honest answers, but - no.

No, I don't really care about tragedies happening across the ocean in countries with unfamiliar geography to groups of people so culturally different from me. I think, oh, that's so sad, the way I look at a snow globe and think oh, that's so pretty. It's distant, and removed from me, and while I say it's sad and tragic and awful, it doesn't make my heart break.

For someone like me, reading from the perspective of a westerner that I can identify with does make the story seem more real, it places a connection between the culture I'm reading about and my own.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010 5:37:00 PM

Anonymous Rob Crilly said...

Two things. First, Kristof's response is self-serving nonsense. His "solutions" often centre on US policy or external interventions, suggesting that indeed his reliance on American or foreign aid workers is indicative of his overall view of Africa and Africans as being helpless victims. It is not merely a narrative device.

Second, I'd be more forgiving if he reduced his reliance on one particular (well groomed) American.

Thursday, July 15, 2010 3:12:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

ahhh hahahahhaha PRENDERGAST. NYT, stop giving this guy a platform. his angelina jolie-lovin' self is SO 2004.

Thursday, July 15, 2010 9:06:00 AM

Anonymous Savina said...

@bella: how sad that human beings and their tragedies should be classified according to the familiarity of the geographical setting and their nearness to "us" (whatever that means), your comment made my heart break...

Saturday, July 17, 2010 10:02:00 AM

Blogger The pale observer said...

I would agree that it's human nature to care about things the more you can relate to them.

Hence when an American reads a story about an American doing some good in a far off country, he is more likely to imagine that he 'knows where that person is coming from' and therefore will be interested in the experience the person has had.

When that same person reads about an African helping in their own country, worlds away, the reader tends to feel they have no common ground, no reference point, no understanding of helped or helper...

This translates to less interest in the subject.

It is not necessarily a positive thing, but a truth nevertheless.

Thursday, September 02, 2010 5:45:00 AM


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