Transforming Journalism by Moving and Mobilizing Readers
by Krista Tippett, host
I wasn’t always a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s columns in The New York Times. I’d found them at times simplistic — seeming to reduce the dramas of entire nations to individual stories of despair and/or hope. But I’ve discovered that there is an art and science to this approach. It was fascinating — and quite inspiring — to sit down and get inside his head on all of this.
Nicholas Kristof has lived on four, and reported on six, continents, including spending formative years based in China and Japan, before he took his place on the Op-Ed pages of the Times in the cathartic year of 2001. And as he tells us in the audio above, he soon realized that opining, however brilliantly, left him preaching to the choir. People who already shared his perspective would cheer him on; those who didn’t would not take in what he had to say. The true power of his editorial platform, he realized, was its capacity to bring lesser-publicized events and ideas into the light.
He is credited, most famously perhaps, for bringing the unfolding genocide in Darfur to the world’s attention. But even that “success,” which brought him a second Pulitzer Prize, left Nicholas Kristof wondering and wanting. The world’s reaction to Darfur, in his mind, did not match the tragedy at hand or the moral responsibility it should have engendered. He wanted to understand the fact — as I’ve pondered with many guests on Being across the years — that horrific images and facts are as likely to paralyze and overwhelm as to mobilize us.
And so he started reading research on brain science and the biological basis for compassion, to explore what makes the difference between moral paralysis and compassionate mobilization. We are hard-wired as humans, it seems, to respond powerfully to a single individual’s story and face. But add a second face, and that response diminishes. Add facts, and multiply that story by hundreds or millions, and empathy withers altogether.
Nicholas Kristof reframed his journalistic approach accordingly. It is fascinating to hear him talk about this, and about his own enduring worries about its manipulative connotations. He works to balance the riveting story with the big picture. An empathetic response to a single human story, he’s also learned by way of science and his own experience, can become a portal to a larger awareness. Facts and context can then begin to play a meaningful supporting role.
In the early 2000s, I felt that Nicholas Kristof was simplistic about religion too. Granted, most Western journalists were on a new kind of learning curve with regard to religion. Over the years, I have been deeply impressed by his unusual willingness to learn in public — to admit that he did not understand something, to publish his surprise and self-reversals. He’s gained a very complex and contradictory view of religion as a force in the world — capable of nurturing the worst of violence and the best of care.
He also offers a penetrating view of the self-defeating liberal-conservative/secular-religious divide on global issues as in our domestic political life. He is one of the voices waking up the world to the global scourge of sex trafficking. He believes that this will ultimately galvanize the moral consciousness of this century as slavery galvanized the 19th century. But he is watching with dismay as, for now, the two most effective activists on this issue — liberal feminists and conservative Christians — cannot agree on a shared vocabulary for describing the problem, much less join their energies.
We spend a lot of words these days on the way journalism is changing — usually with an eye to the technological and financial pressures that are changing it. Nicholas Kristof embodies deep cultural shifts that are also transforming journalism as we have known it. His journalism is a new paradigm, I think, one I’m now grateful for. I’ll call it journalism as a humanitarian art. And I look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.
Writing as Compassion
Kate Moos, managing producer
William Maxwell treats his personal material as if it were history. It is one part memory, one part research and one part hearsay but one hundred percent compassion. Compassion in my mind is an admixture of feeling and sustained attention with regard to others. Compassion is the absence of cruelty. Compassion is steady and relaxed—allowing patience where we may not have any for ourselves. Compassion is acceptance of what you didn’t realize or can’t understand. Compassion is not attainable without process—going through the various methods of drafting. Each one provides you with another perspective, another point of focus. Each method provides more ingredients to the approach that helps the content to stand on its own so that the writer can leave it behind them.
Most Wednesday nights I’m at the kitchen table staring into my laptop screen at a living room full of women. It’s my writing group, which is presided over by Nancy Beckett, an incredible playwright and writing teacher in Chicago. My admiration for her insight, depth, and crazy, mordant Irish wit never evaporates.
Everyone else assembles in her apartment for our three-hour sessions; I Skype in from St. Paul.
This week we read an excerpt from the great editor and writer William Maxwell’s creative nonfiction, and, as is the drill each week, Nancy gave us her deeply insightful lesson, a portion of which I cite above.
What I love about this work is that it goes past how to string sentences together, though there is that. It reminds me why I write. As Nancy would say, “People write because they can’t help themselves.” I write in order to know. I write in order to be changed.
(photo above: Tina, one of the group members, reads from her novel-in-progress.)
Countdown to Compassion
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Last time we put out our program with Karen Armstrong, one of our producers wrote about Karen Armstrong’s call to build an international "Charter for Compassion." In her speech, Armstrong states that “I think it’s time that we moved beyond the idea of toleration, and moved toward appreciation of the other.”
Now, we are once again replaying "The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong" one week before the Charter for Compassion itself is unveiled. In some ways, the charter’s mission is surprisingly simple — it’s essentially a call for everyone around the world to follow the Golden Rule. Less than a month ago, Armstrong articulated this mission in a letter co-signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
"It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time. In addition to participating in one of the many launch events, we invite each individual to adopt the charter as their own, to make a lifelong commitment to live with compassion."
It seems a little serendipitous to me that the charter is being released on November 12, the same day we’re releasing our program with Buddhist thinker Matthieu Ricard to podcasters. Ricard is another person very interested in the idea of compassion. In his conversation with Krista, he offers the idea that compassion is a skill that we develop with practice: “You don’t learn to play the piano by playing 20 seconds a week,” he says, and much like we exercise to keep our bodies fit, we should also be practicing compassionate thinking to remain spiritually fit.
While the charter’s mission is to tell the world why we should be compassionate, Ricard is teaching how we can be compassionate.
I’m interested to see what happens after the charter is officially revealed. How will it be received? On what terms will it put forth its mission? Will anyone notice?
One Man Standing
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
On the social matrix of the Web, one meets all types of interesting people and finds interesting stories through these happenstance relationships. Take, for instance, Sinan İpek. In a random checkup on the status of SOF videos, I found this Turkish filmmaker had commented on two SOF videos with themes of women’s rights: one about Kenyan women striving for a more verdant future and another about Diana Matar’s exploration of women and the veil in Egypt.
This documentary is too long for me to consider it a video snack, but it’s a compelling 25 minutes of narrative that grips you from a tender, darkly lit opening scene. İpek could have told the story of a paralyzed son and his mother’s love in an exotic land and made it feel foreign to this Midwestern American’s eyes. Instead I felt united in their fight for decency — as a journalist, as a father, as a compassionate bystander, as a citizen of the world, as a kid who used to throw snowballs at my neighbors never noticing the person behind the glass watching with eagerness.
Watch it over your lunch break, in the wee hours of the morning or in the still of night. You won’t regret it.