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Pulitzer winner Nicholas Kristof has hope despite assault on truth

Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, will discuss “Moment of Truth: Journalism and Democracy in an Age of Misinformation” at Gonzaga University on Monday night. (Courtesy)

Since 1984, Nicholas Kristof’s byline has appeared in the New York Times. He’s written extensively about Asia, having served as the paper’s bureau chief in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beijing, where he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, covered the Tiananmen Square democracy movement – work that won them the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

Kristof, who was raised in Yamhill, Oregon, has written from Africa and Europe, too, written and covered the 2000 presidential election, concentrating on the campaign of George W. Bush. Since 2001, he’s been an op-ed columnist for the Times, covering politics, international affairs, health, human rights and women’s rights. He won his second Pulitzer, for commentary in 2006, for his deeply reported columns about the genocide in Darfur.

He and WuDunn have written several books, including “Half the Sky,” which centered on the oppression of women and girls in the developing world, and “A Path Appears,” which looks at solutions and strategies for solving the world’s great problems, such as poverty, sex trafficking and violence.

On Monday, the night before one of the most hotly contested midterm elections in recent U.S. history, Kristof will be at Gonzaga University in Spokane talking about the state of American journalism in the era of “fake news” and President Donald Trump’s assertion that journalists are enemies of the people. His talk, presented by Humanities Washington and the Gonzaga University Center for Public Humanities, will center on the relationship between the humanities, journalism and democracy.

In advance of his trip to Spokane, Kristof took a few minutes to answer questions, via email, about the state of journalism today and challenges ahead for media and democracy.

Q. Your talk at Gonzaga University on Monday night is on “Moment of Truth: Journalism and Democracy in an Age of Misinformation.” Where do you find the state of American journalism?

A. This is very challenging time for journalism. The traditional business model collapsed, so there are basic questions about how we pay for news coverage. And public distrust runs deep, plus growing polarization means that there aren’t a lot of shared facts across the political spectrum.

Q. Social media. The 24-hour news cycle. The Internet. All have been blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the crisis in our democracy today. What can be done to right the ship?

A. I do believe that social media platforms must do a better job helping people distinguish real news reporting from Macedonian websites that are simply concocting stories to get clicks and make money, or from Russian cyber intrusions. I think news organizations can do more to earn public trust. And I do think part of the blame lies with the very human tendency to pursue information that isn’t necessarily reliable but that confirms our prejudices. It may be that the education system should offer more news literacy instruction to help young people understand selection bias and appreciate what is reliable and what is fantasy.

Q. What are the biggest challenges facing journalists today?

A. I’d say the biggest single challenge is that much of journalism doesn’t have a reliable business model. That’s particularly true of local newspapers around the country, and I’m not sure that will change. If we can’t figure out how to pay for journalism, we won’t get journalism. Part of the answer may be philanthropy at the local level.

Q. We’ve just come off a week of shocking violence – the murder of two people, Maurice Stallard and Vickie Jones, at a Kentucky grocery store by an avowed white supremacist, pipe bombs were sent to the offices of CNN and a host of prominent Democratic critics of President Trump, and the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue by an anti-Semite. The president responds to all of this by doubling down on his rhetoric that the media is to blame for the diverseness and violence. How can journalists respond?

A. I like the saying that when others go to war, we go to work. In other words, I think we should be careful not to be pushed into a role where news reporters are the opposition; we should be bullied neither into submission nor into aggression. We should just do our work without fear or favor. Of course, I find it dispiriting that an American president should call journalists enemies of the people, and I do fear that that may lead to more violence against journalists.

Q. I understand you knew Jamal Khashoggi. His shocking murder shook a lot of people in the United States, yet the country still remains an ally of Saudi Arabia. Do you have any hope that will change at some point?

A. My best guess is that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. will cover up the responsibility for the murder and try to sustain the relationship. But I do believe it has been badly damaged, and that Congress may be moved to suspend weapons sales. The next president may also take a tougher stance.

Q. Speaking of hope, what gives you hope on some of these tough news days?

A. I really have seen enormous progress over the decades I’ve been a reporter, and that reassures me. Especially in the battle against global poverty, hundreds of millions more kids are going to school, millions fewer are dying of basic diseases, and so on. In the U.S., we have our struggles, but globally there has been genuine progress against poverty, war, illiteracy – the three greatest enemies of humanity.

Q. In your reporting career, your focus has frequently been on international affairs. Does the election in Brazil worry you?

A. Yes, I find the election deeply troubling. It’s clear that the factors that led to President Trump’s election in the U.S. are also present abroad, from Brexit in Britain to the strong far-right showings in Europe to the latest Brazilian election. All this makes it more difficult to work multilaterally to attack common threats like climate change.

Q. What is the thing you hope people come away from your talk feeling and thinking?

A. Strangely enough, I’d like to leave people feeling empowered and with a measure of hope. We face enormous challenges, but we also know how to make progress if we have the political will. I’m still hopeful, after all I report on, and I want to share a measure of that with folks in Spokane.