Nicholas Kristof: How a New York Times columnist rewrote opinion journalism

November 29, 2011

Nicholas Kristof is one of seven recipients of the 2011 Top American Leaders awards, bestowed by The Washington Post’s On Leadership section and the Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership. This year’s recipients were chosen by a selection committee convened by the Center for Public Leadership, and will be honored at Ford’s Theatre on December 5, 2011.

Visit On Leadership to see all of the winners’ profiles.

Nicholas Kristof began his career at the New York Times in 1984. He was not yet an op-ed columnist working to expose injustices of global health, poverty and human trafficking. Rather, Kristof covered economics as a news reporter.

Fast forward 27 years and two Pulitzer Prizes. Kristof now writes a twice-weekly column for the Times, focusing on issues of international human-rights violations. Yet, Kristof’s most significant work as an American leader is the way in which his writing has reshaped the field of opinion journalism, a testament to the importance of reporting and the written word.

“What changed me onto the trajectory that I ended up on is that I went out and was assigned abroad, lived a good chunk of my life abroad, and just encountered poverty, and that was just life-transforming,” Kristof told American Public Radio in 2010. “That once these issues become real and you see these things, you know, you can't forget the people you meet and you want to try to make a difference in some way.”

After joining the Times as an economics reporter, Kristof worked as a Los Angeles-based business correspondent, Hong Kong bureau chief, Beijing bureau chief and Tokyo bureau chief. His work in the region paid off. In 1990, Kristof and his wife, former Times correspondent Sheryl WuDunn, won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the Chinese democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

In an interview with Tikkun Magazine in 2005, Kristof called this reporting “his most formative journalistic experience.”

“Earlier in my career I attempted to remain objective in my reporting, but this story forced me to take sides,” Kristof said. “How could I not stand with the students in the face of government troops that were murdering these young people simply for expressing their opinions?”

At the Times, Kristof found the freedom to express his own opinions. He became a columnist in 2001 and, five years later, won a second Pulitzer Prize for his “graphic, deeply reported” columns detailing the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

According to the Pulitzer Prize Board, Kristof’s columns “focused attention on genocide in Darfur and … gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world.”

“Nick’s been a real pioneer in going to the darkest corners of the world,” Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist and member of the Pulitzer Prize Board, said in a phone interview. “Nick goes to the most unpleasant place and shines a spotlight on it.”

Kristof’s voice has proven to be a powerful one, leading American readers to become more active in issues of international human-rights violations. Most recently, Kristof and WuDunn co-authored the book Half the Sky, which focuses on major abuses of women’s rights, including sex trafficking, gender-based violence and maternal mortality.

“In truth, I sometimes feel like a fraud in the opinion business because I am not a strongly opinionated person,” Kristof said in the Tikkun Magazine interview. “I tend to live in the gray. … As you can imagine, this often makes my writing process somewhat difficult. Nonetheless, there are certain situations that require direct, unequivocal responses.”

The Top American Leaders awards will be presented at Ford’s Theatre on December 5th.

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