Driving Global Issues Home

March 6, 2013
Katie Koch, Harvard Gazette

In an ever-more-crowded media landscape, journalists and academics alike must think creatively about how to bring overlooked human rights issues to Americans’ attention, journalist Nicholas D. Kristof ’81 told a packed audience at the Harvard Kennedy School Tuesday.

Perhaps no one has tackled the problem so enthusiastically — or with as big a megaphone — as Kristof, a New York Times columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, who was on hand at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to accept the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

Kristof, who is a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, was a natural choice for the honor, said Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center. After all, he said, the Kennedy School prides itself on attracting students and thinkers with idealistic ambitions to change the world, and, “I would say that the journalist in our time who has done more to change the world than anyone is Nicholas Kristof.”

In nearly three decades at the Times, Kristof has made a career of detailing how the world’s other half lives, bringing to light public health crises, systemic violence against women, and other global issues while reporting from locations as far-flung as Rwanda and China.

But as Kristof made clear in his talk, even a star columnist with a major platform can see that getting Americans to care about, say, childhood nutrition in the developing world or warfare in the Congo is a tall order. Americans’ trust in their media has declined in recent decades, and their interest in other countries’ problems has waned as the United States faces challenges of its own.

“The U.S. is trying to retreat a little bit from the rest of the world,” he said. Sept. 11 made the nation “unusually bold,” and it since has retreated toward its more isolationist roots. “We were attacked by foreign powers, and that made us look globally,” he said. “Now I think a combination of the economic downturn and just a weariness with [the wars in] Iraq and Afghanistan is leading us a little more inward.”

Since the mainstream media’s business model “seems to be evaporating,” he said, major news organizations are less likely to sponsor international reporting. ABC News, for example, received $1.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to cover issues of global health and nutrition, but even the financial backing was not incentive enough, Kristof said. ABC declined to renew the deal, he said, because it thought viewers were not interested in such stories.

“That’s a huge challenge for our industry,” Kristof said. “If any of us was executive producer of a show, you would know you could send a crew a long way away at great expense and your ratings will go down, or you could put a Democrat and a Republican in the studio together and have them yell at each other, and your ratings will go up. That is, I’m afraid, going to be our landscape ahead.”

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Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof won the 2013 Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

Photos by Martha Stewart

Patricia Callahan, Alex Jones, Sam Roe, and Michael Hawthorne

Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe, and Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune received the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for “Playing With Fire,” a series that exposed a deceptive campaign by the chemical and tobacco industries to put toxic flame retardants into a number of home goods, despite the fact that the chemicals did not work as promised. Pictured here with Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center.