Interlude—Kristof does Port-au-Prince: We’ve been happy to spread the good news in our recent reports:
Despite what Nicholas Kristof wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times, college kids almost never describe their female professors as “bossy!” The term appears in their reviews of female professors less than once for every million words of text.
Kristof’s column was grossly misleading concerning ascriptions of “bossy!” On the brighter side, his slippery writing made us liberals feel tribally good. Increasingly, it seems like that’s what the nation’s pseudo-journalism is all about.
For the record, Kristof was actually right in one of the claims in that column. College students do use the word “genius” disproportionately in reviews of their male professors. By a ratio of almost four-to-one, they use that flattering term more often in reviews of the men.
That said, the same is true of the word “jerk,” a fact Kristof failed to mention. For the record, the disproportion is much higher in the use of that unflattering term—a term which college kids almost never apply to female professors.
Whatever! Once again, Kristof jumped on the latest tribal bandwagon in his latest bungled column. Misusing a tricky new research tool, he spread the latest false and/or misleading claims around.
With that in mind, what words should college kids possibly use in their descriptions of Kristof? Based on his frequently horrible columns, they won’t likely go with “genius.”
Should college kids possibly go with “creepy?” Increasingly, the unflattering term pops into our heads when we see Kristof touring the world with his female movie star friends, helping us learn to admire his vast moral goodness.
Should they possibly go with “slippery?” Should they go with “international spokesman for a big industry which can be problematic?” We’ll explain that last point below.
How about a counterintuitive word? Should college kids consider describing Kristof as “unfeeling?”
For us, the unflattering word came to mind as we watched the exalted Timesman doing Port-au-Prince. The same word had popped into our heads when we read this recent column by Kristof, one of the strangest columns we have ever encountered.
At this point, does Nicholas Kristof understand the look and the feel of his interactions with the world’s children? To answer that question, we must review a column which is now fourteen months old.
The column was called “A Girl’s Escape.” It appeared on January 2, 2014—fourteen months ago.
Early in that column, Kristof introduced a 13-year-old Haitian girl named Marilaine. As he did, he defined a new term, “restavek:”
KRISTOF (1/2/14): Marilaine was one of 200,000 or more Haitian children called restaveks, typically serving as unpaid maids in strangers' homes, working for room and board. It is a vast system of child trafficking that is often characterized as a modern form of slavery. I followed Marilaine for a week in Haiti as she tried to flee, find her parents and start life over—and this is her story.“[T]he restavek system isn't always slavery,” Kristof wrote. “Sometimes the child gets more food and education than would have been the case in her own family.”
Marilaine grew up in a remote village where no family planning or public schooling is available, one of 12 children to impoverished parents who later separated. As Marilaine tells the story, one day when she was 10 years old, she walked to her father's house to ask him to help pay her school fees. Instead, he dispatched her here to the capital to work as a restavek, a Creole term used to describe child laborers, without even telling her mother.
''My father didn't want to spend money on my school fees,'' Marilaine explained.
As is common for restaveks, Marilaine slept on the floor and woke up at 5 each morning to clean the house, fetch water and wash dishes. She says she was beaten daily with electrical cords.
In this case, “Marilaine says that she was fed properly and that she was also allowed to attend a free afternoon school,” Kristof wrote. But because she was being beaten, she tried to run away at one point.
Eventually, an international agency intervened. In this passage, Kristof told the rest of Marilaine’s story:
KRISTOF: An aid group called the Restavek Freedom Foundation helped Marilaine escape her home and find refuge in a safe house for restaveks. The mood was festive in the beautiful home as the dozen girls living there cheered Marilaine's arrival and hugged her.Because Marilaine is an important person, this is an important story. Fourteen months ago, that’s the way Kristof told it.
A few days later, I drove for several hours with the police and the Restavek Freedom Foundation to Marilaine's village. When Marilaine stepped out of the car, family members and neighbors were stunned. They had assumed that she had died years ago.
Yet the reunion was a letdown. Marilaine's mom didn't seem at all thrilled to see her daughter again, and Marilaine quickly made it clear that she wanted to return to the safe house in the capital so that she could attend a good school. The police told Marilaine that she would have to stay in the village with her family, and she burst into tears.
The authorities will probably eventually let Marilaine return to the Restavek Freedom Foundation safe house, but the episode was a reminder that helping people is a complex, uphill task—and that the underlying problem behind human trafficking is poverty.
When Kristof’s column appeared, Marilaine was back in her deeply impoverished rural village, a place without public schools. She hoped to return to Port-au-Prince “so that she could attend a good school.”
That’s the way the story was told in Kristof’s column, fourteen months ago. Earlier this month, these same events formed the basis for a thirty-minute segment in a three-part PBS series, A Path Appears.
The PBS series was hosted and narrated by Kristof; he starred in all its events. If you watched this PBS series, you saw the footage from the events he had described in that column.
Kristof is present in all the footage, accompanied by one of his endless posse of female movie star friends.
The PBS series showed you the footage from the events Kristof discussed in that column. But if you watched the PBS series, you saw a story which was quite different from the story he told in that piece.
On a purely journalistic basis, we’re surprised that PBS can get away with this sort of thing, or that it’s even willing to do so. How had the original story been changed?
In his column, Kristof said that Marilaine burst into tears when she was told, by the police, that she had to remain in her village. On the PBS show, you thought you saw Marilaine weeping because her mother had said that she couldn’t afford to keep her—in effect, because she couldn’t stay in the village.
In the column, we were told that Marilaine was forced to stay in the village. On the PBS show, you thought you saw Marilaine get into the Restavek Freedom Foundation’s big van and drive straight back to Port-au-Prince.
In the column, we were told that Marilaine had been cheered and hugged by a dozen girls on the night that she was freed from her abusive adoptive family.
On the PBS show, you saw her being welcomed and cheered as described. But you saw her being cheered that way after she'd been rejected by her mother—after the van ride back to Port-au-Prince, the van ride which didn’t occur.
According to Kristof’s original column, the story he showed us on PBS isn’t the story which actually happened. We’re surprised to think that PBS is willing to play it that way.
On a purely journalistic basis, we’re surprised that PBS is willing to do that. If Kristof’s original column was accurate, his PBS broadcast resembled “reality TV,” with basic events and chronologies changed to tell a better story.
PBS could almost sell the rejiggered footage to Bravo for airing as “Real Restaveks of Port-au-Prince!” But our problems with Kristof’s role on that PBS program go a bit deeper than that.
The presence of the movie stars is one “creepy” part of the problem. In the eight or nine segments on the three-part series, Kristof is accompanied by a different female star in each and every segment.
No male movie stars allowed! That said, Ronan Farrow was allowed to tag along with mom in Mia Farrow’s guest segment.
Should college kids call PBS “cynical” as they watch this unfold? Rather plainly, we’re being told that PBS viewers won’t watch a show about Haitian kids unless a female star is present on-screen to help them choke it down.
There is one “repulsive” scene in the Haiti segment where Kristof sits on a leafy terrace high above Port-au-Prince. He’s enjoying drinks with Alfre Woodward as they gaze, just a bit grandly, on the city below.
(Should college kids be wondering what the plane fare must have been to jet the two stars in? Should they wonder if the same amount of cash could perhaps have opened a school in that forgotten village?)
The presence of the movie stars is a somewhat “creepy” element. That said, we were actively troubled by other aspects of the Haiti segment, at least until we learned that the segment didn’t show us what actually happened.
In the segment on the PBS show, we see tears streaming down Marilaine’s face after she has been taken back to her village. We think she’s crying because her mother has told her she isn’t wanted.
According to Kristof’s column, that isn’t why Marilaine was crying. But as we watched the show, we were appalled, for these reasons:
Why in the world had this lovely child been exposed to this torment? Why hadn’t adults from the foundation gone to the village without Marilaine to determine whether her family was willing and able to take her back?
Kristof never explained. Instead, the camera kept playing on his face so viewers in PBS land could see how concerned he was.
We had another question. Were Kristof and the foundation really planning to take Marilaine back to the western world’s worst rural poverty and just leave her there?
On TV, we got to enjoy a happy ending! Marilaine returns to Port-au-Prince, where she is greeted by those cheering girls.
That said, we were puzzled as we watched the show. Had Kristof really planned to take Marilaine back to that village and leave her? Despite the happy ending we got, we were puzzled, left a bit sickened, by the whole presentation.
On the PBS program, Kristof seemed to be too “unfeeling” to explain the puzzling events we saw unfolding. And by the way:
What had the legal basis been for the events we saw unfolding? At no point did Kristof, or his move star friend, explain this basic matter. Instead, we got lots of footage designed to make us appreciate Kristof’s greatness, intercut with the movie star shots which set our hearts at ease.
Only when we read the earlier column did we realize that these events had not occurred in the manner shown on PBS. Beyond that, the column suggests that Haitian law and Haitian legal authorities were involved in these events, a matter that went unexplained on Kristof’s reality show.
Increasingly, we don’t think much of Kristof. Rather, we wonder if college kids should think that something may have gone a tiny bit “wrong” in his head.
As his PBS program aired and re-aired, we watched the Haiti segment several times, trying to figure out what we were seeing. When we stumbled upon his earlier column, we realized that we had seen a rejiggered reality show which reshaped basic events.
We wondered what kind of person could have produced that segment without seeing that the events, as shown, would be puzzling and upsetting to decent viewers. It reminded us of the “unfeeling” column Kristof had written a few weeks before, in which he couldn’t seem to understand the horror of a story he told about the abandoned children of one of his high school friends.
Is Nicholas Kristof “unfeeling?” We've heard that it can happen to people with too many movie star friends! This brings us to the overall framework for his PBS series.
Forgive us, but the series almost seemed like an advertisement for a major industry—an industy you might describe as the philanthropic industrial complex. It wasn't just the female stars who accompanied Kristof in every segment. At the very start of the series, George Clooney and other stars appeared, assuring us of the general greatness and worth of what we were going to see.
Forgive us for saying what follows, but we see a problem with that.
We will assume, until we’re shown different, that the Restavek Freedom Foundation is run by good decent people (in Cincinnati) who are doing good work in Haiti. That said, there is an ongoing question about the value of various programs run by various such entities—programs in which a lot of money (from PBS viewers, for instance) may be changing hands.
In his somewhat self-serving PBS show, Kristof almost struck us as a bit of a tool for his rich and famous and powerful friends. The program seemed a bit like an infomercial for a set of organizations which may also need the services of normal journalistic scrutiny.
Watching a rather “creepy” man sipping drinks with his movie star friend—watching the PBS cameras instruct us in his obvious moral greatness—we thought back to the very strange column he wrote about the children his high school friend had failed or refused to support.
In that peculiar column, Kristof seemed unable to empathize with the abandoned children of his high school friend, who he praised to the skies. He didn't seem able to understand the tragedy of those children.
On his PBS show, he seemed to display the same problem. We thought we heard college kids call him “lacking in empathy” as he dragged Marilaine all around the countryside with his latest movie star friend.
Increasingly, we’re wary of Kristof’s heavily-pimped moral greatness. Tomorrow, we’ll return to his recent columns.
We’ll explain why you should possibly be just a bit skeptical too.
Tomorrow: “When Israeli Jews Just Don’t Get It”