Being Nick Kristof

the obsession method

CHASING HOPE: A Reporter’s Life, by Nicholas D. Kristof

There aren’t many journalists who can claim to have had more of an impact on the world than Nicholas D. Kristof. In 1997, one of his dispatches for The New York Times, about routine ailments killing children in India and elsewhere, inspired Bill and Melinda Gates to focus their philanthropy on global health; billions of dollars later, that article hangs in the lobby of the Gates Foundation. In the 2000s, according to the former head of the International Rescue Committee, Kristof’s coverage of the genocide in Darfur saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

And then, of course, there is the editorial Kristof wrote for The Carlton-Yamhill Review while in grade school, successfully challenging a rule against girls’ wearing bluejeans. His goals, he explains in his memoir, “Chasing Hope,” were to “impress girls” and to “overthrow the patriarchy.”

Stories like these, and many more, fill up Kristof’s book, which charts a charmed and committed journalistic life. Kristof has spent four decades at The Times, and won two Pulitzer Prizes — he shared the first with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1990 — but his career began all the way back when he was a boy in rural Oregon battling the powers that be and dreaming of becoming a foreign correspondent. It didn’t take him long to get there.

“I was the youngest national correspondent at the paper,” Kristof writes after describing his arrival at The Times in 1984; he was 25 years old and promoted quickly. A few pages later, he’s off to Hong Kong “to become the youngest foreign correspondent” at the paper. (A trigger warning for other journalists: His annual expenses in 1980s Hong Kong came out to more than $500,000 in today’s dollars.)

“Chasing Hope” is devoted in large part to stories about how Kristof got the story and to documenting his swift rise through the journalistic ranks at The Times. But it begins on a descent, in 1997, with Kristof aboard a small airplane that is crash-landing in the Congolese jungle amid a civil war. Before the crash, he begs a soldier to sign a handmade receipt for a $100 bribe, which Kristof had paid him so the plane could refuel.

From there, we follow Kristof to Cairo in the ’80s, where he deals with the fact that “Nick,” in Arabic, translates to a word not to be published here. Then, it’s on to Cambodia, where he reports on the country’s sex trade and does not immediately disabuse a brothel owner of the idea that he might be a customer. “If I purchased a girl from her brothel and freed her, was I breaking any American law?” Kristof later wonders.

In Indonesia in the late ’90s, he sees a group of men on motorcycles driving by with a head on a pike. “I have a routine for approaching people who may kill me,” Kristof writes. “My theory is that it’s harder to murder someone you’ve just shaken hands with.”

“Chasing Hope” suggests that Kristof has shaken hands with plenty of killers, and should by now have a pretty grim worldview. After reading Thomas Hobbes in college, Kristof at first dismissed the philosopher’s bleak assessment of human existence. “Then I became a reporter,” Kristof writes. At one point in the book, he describes a young woman who had been enslaved and raped by janjaweed fighters in Darfur talking to an American aid worker who wants to help. “There’s nothing you can do for us,” the woman says. “We just want to die.”

And yet Kristof says he remains “a perpetual optimist,” with a belief from the very beginning of his career — see the bluejeans campaign — that journalism is a means to better the world. (Kristof credits his do-goodism to his mother and father, the only parents in his conservative hometown to let the school principal know that they didn’t want their child to be paddled.)

There’s also a surprising cheeriness to much of the book — Kristof loves an exclamation point — and he makes the case that there’s plenty to be hopeful about, from positive trends in global health to all the hard-working bighearted types Kristof has met along the way. But I often wanted to know more about some of the people in dire circumstance whom Kristof mentions only briefly before moving on to continue his story. I wondered if they shared his sense of optimism.

Chasing Hope” will satisfy Kristof superfans eager to know more about every era of his life — there are back-to-back chapters titled “I Become an Editor” and “I Begin My Column” — but the book suffers for its insistence on being completist. Kristof has traveled to 170 countries, and, by my count, this book manages to mention his visits to about half of them. One thorny border crossing eventually blurs into the next.

Like most journalists, Kristof has also always been more illuminating about others than about himself. Several chapters devoted to his failed run for governor of Oregon in 2022 offered a chance for introspection and a bit of digging into what went wrong — the State Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Kristof didn’t meet the residency requirement — but we don’t learn much beyond a few stray details like his strategic decision to connect with the common Oregonian by not carrying around his shoulder bag from Davos.

Still, there is reason for hope here, too. The life Kristof has lived really is a testament to the power of telling other people’s stories. Now that he has shared his own, he can get back to doing just that.

CHASING HOPE: A Reporter’s Life | By Nicholas D. Kristof | Knopf | 460 pp. | $32

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