Part 4—Self-anointed, racially-nagging light unto the world: Where do you start with a journalistic problem like Nicholas Kristof?
If memory serves, the problem started in earnest for us with his pimping of the latest feel-good tale about the achievement gap.
Here he was in 2007, stating his newest true belief. Upper-end scribes gain wisdom like this from attendance at too many TED Talks:
KRISTOF (5/1/07): The reality is that paper credentials can't predict who will be an effective teacher...Over the past fifty years, we’ve learned to think poorly of people who toss off bromides like this—bromides which make it sound like it would be oh so easy to erase the achievement gap.
Yet teachers still vary tremendously in their effectiveness, as the Hamilton Project study found when it examined results in Los Angeles schools. It looked at the 25 percent of teachers who raised their students' test scores the most, and the 25 percent who raised students' scores the least. A student assigned to a class with a teacher in the top 25 percent could expect—after just one year—to be 10 percentile points higher than a similar student with a bottom-tier teacher.
''Moving up (or down) 10 percentile points in one year is a massive impact,'' the authors wrote. ''For some perspective, the black-white achievement gap nationally is roughly 34 percentile points. Therefore, if the effects were to accumulate, having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row would be enough to close the black-white test score gap.''
(Typically, these simple-minded stories have blamed the nation’s teachers. At one time, it was because the teachers were racist. Today, it’s because the teachers are selfish and lazy—though no one is lazier than the “journalists” who “analyze” schools in this way.)
Certain types of people never stop with these simple-sounding solutions. We have learned to think of these people as secret haters of children.
In this case, Kristof seemed to have no earthly idea of the many apparent problems with the happy talk he was selling. It just sounded so good!
Back in those days, Michelle Rhee was about to become the rage; Kristof would pimp her greatness. In truth, he didn’t seem to know what the heck he was talking about. But her story just sounded so good!
As of today, Kristof seems to be changing some of his stripes. He may even be sincere in his flips, though we never advise you to bet. Just last week, he said he has changed his mind about labor unions—at least about private labor unions—now that he has learned, at age 55, that corporate tycoons can sometimes be greedy too.
Even as he typed that ludicrous claim, he couldn’t stop bashing the teacher unions. But then, he seems to have little shame and few brains, a fact he made abundantly clear in last Sunday’s column.
Our advice: Whenever you feel inclined to assume that Kristof just has to be sharp, remember the way he got clowned by the latest meme on the web. In that exciting new tale, we were told that college students are inclined to describe their female professors as “bossy.”
It was a clown show of the highest order, but Kristof typed it right up. He presented this latest tribal bullroar under a typical headline:
“Straight Talk for White Men”
We’ll return to that race-nagging headline. But in this instance, our own Dimmesdale’s “straight talk” started with the latest piece of manifest world-class bullshit.
Try to keep that display in mind when your limbic brain starts insisting that Kristof, a former Rhodes scholar, simply has to be sharp. In fact, has anyone ever been conned more often than Kristof has?
He got conned by Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea). He got conned by Somaly Mam.
In the wake of 9/11, someone conned him into writing a series of columns which suggested that Stephen Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax mailings which had the nation upset. Later, he devoted a column to his apology for this rather large error.
(Thanks to an indulgent judge, the Times got dismissed from the lawsuit.)
You could even say that Kristof got conned by Joseph Wilson—that he failed to see that Wilson’s findings on his trip to Niger didn’t refute the “sixteen words” President Bush had actually said. It sometimes can seem that Kristof gets conned a lot, although such things are hard to measure.
Last June, Slate’s Amanda Hess wrote a fascinating analysis piece concerning Kristof’s errors and the method which seems to produce them. We strongly recommend Hess’ piece. For a sensible-seeming response by Kristof, you can just click here.
Does Kristof bungle more often than others? We can’t exactly tell you. But in the past year, his error-strewn work has come to feature a racially-hectoring style. In our view, this politically stupid racial nagging takes his frequently bungled work all the way over the top.
That race-baiting often appears in the headlines which sit atop Kristof’s columns. For one example, consider this headline, which sat atop yesterday’s column about Israeli settlements:
“When Jews Just Don’t Get It”
Tell the truth. What good can come from a race-baiting headline like that?
Full disclosure—no such headline appeared atop yesterday’s column! The sure-footed Kristof would never create such an unfortunate banner.
But other columns repeatedly carry similar race-baiting headlines. Again, this is the headline which sat atop last Sunday’s embarrassing mess:
“Straight Talk for White Men”
On what meat does this egomaniac feed that he keeps churning headlines like that? What fuel drives our own Reverend Dimmesdale, who longs to lecture entire racial groups?
“Straight Talk for White Men,” our Dimmesdale proclaimed, thus anointing himself the great white father to a whole class of people. He borrowed the “straight talk” hook from McCain—and he’s often equally dumb.
Kristof’s performance as race scold has been underway for some time. A few months ago, he did five separate columns which bore this headline:
“When White People Just Don’t Get It”
What a headline! It involves the sanctimony and condescension which are guaranteed to thrill true believers and drive wedges everywhere else.
It’s very, very hard to believe that this represents a winning brand of politics. It does let our liberal tribe swell with pride as we offend and annoy everyone else, often through our own manifest dumbness.
Is Kristof the light unto the world? We’d have to say no, he is not.
His recent work has often been appallingly dumb. In closing, let’s return to the lack of feeling he seems able to muster for the children of the world.
A few weeks ago, Kristof wrote one the strangest columns we’ve ever seen in print. In this highly peculiar column, two highly unattractive traits staged a vivid duel.
On the one hand, Kristof displayed a stunning lack of feeling for two children who were abandoned by their father, one of his high school friends.
Kristof seemed unable to see the tragedy in the way these children had been abandoned. At the same time, he displayed an instant desire to scold wide segments of American society for being less morally fine than he, Nick Kristof, is.
Our own Dimmesdale was scolding conservatives hard, even as his own lack of feeling seemed to be on vivid display. Shortly thereafter, we came upon his puzzling conduct in Haiti as he filmed his infomercial-like PBS series, A Path Appears.
Here too, Kristof was confronted with a real child—and didn’t seem able to feel.
As it turned out, the story he told on the PBS show was a journalistic confection. But as we saw him drag a lovely child all over the Haitian countryside—as we saw him reduce her to piteous weeping—this great, race-nagging moral scold couldn’t even bring himself to tell us why this child was being subjected to all this apparently unneeded pain.
Our moral god didn’t seem to know that other people would wonder about the unexplained conduct they were observing! Put another way, he didn’t seem to know how to care, just as he hadn’t seemed to care about the abandoned sons of his wonderful high school friend.
Kristof works well on leafy terraces, swilling drinks with his movie star friends. Aside from that, we increasingly regard him as a bit of a fallen soul—as a person inclined to scold, distort, mislead and misstate, and to pretend to feel.
Should he possibly stay on those terraces with all those stars and leave the world’s children alone? We’re just asking the question!
Dimmesdale was a fallen person, although he may not have started that way.
Is Nicholas Kristof our own Reverend Dimmesdale? The other night, we had a dream in which college kids described him as “fake,” even as “a bit of a fraud.”
We don’t know what to make of that dream. It hasn’t quite gone away.
Strongly recommended: We strongly recommend Hess’ piece about Kristof’s reporting method. Early on, she quotes him telling some college kids about the way he works in the field:
HESS (6/18/14): [T]he forum’s moderator, Filipina investigative journalist Sheila Coronel, asked Kristof if he ever got depressed at the prospect of flying halfway around the world to hunt down another sad story.That’s a dangerous way to work. When a fellow starts out that way, he might end up making a Haitian girl weep for his PBS cameras, then doctoring the real events of her life to give us a better story.
“I’m sometimes embarrassed by how clinical I can become when I’m out reporting,” Kristof replied. When he arrived in Sudan that weekend, he said, “I’ll be out to find the most compelling story that I can within a limited time.” He predicted that he’d hear “some heartrending story about some 30-year-old man. And, frankly, I will know that I can do better as an anecdote. I want to get American readers to care about my story, and if I have some middle-aged man in my lede, they’re going to tune out.” Instead, Kristof would hold out for a more compelling subject, like “some 9-year-old girl with soulful eyes.”
Kristof feels lousy when he has to “cut somebody off and say, ‘It's terrible that you were shot in the leg,’ ” he said. “Meanwhile, I will go off and find someone who was shot in both legs.” But he does it because he knows that if he finds a compelling story abroad, Americans back home will line up to help. “I want to make people spill their coffee when they read the column,” he said. “I do want them to go and donate, volunteer, whatever it may be, to help chip away at some of these problems.”
He might even type a sanctimonious headline, “Straight Talk for White Men.” Beneath it, he might hand his readers a pile of pure perfect world-class piddle.
Is this what our Dimmesdale has become? We’re not sure what to tell you.