You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you realize that someone who is involved in genuinely important, ‘selfless’ work, is beginning to use that work as a stepping stone for their own self-promotion (major offender: John Prendergast)? Well I’ve had that feeling about New York Times op-ed column writer and journalist Nicholas Kristof, for quite a while. At first, it was little things, like excessive name dropping and complimenting himself all the time:
People always compliment me on being a great crusader, and I always wince at that. (On the Ground Blog, NYT, April 28, 2006, in reference to choosing not to speak at a rally for Darfur in Washington DC). For serious? Apparently it didn’t make you wince enough to keep from repeating it in your column.
Or is it, as Muhammad Yunus once told me, that the models in Africa sometimes haven’t been quite right, but that when they are introduced properly they work as well in Africa as in South Asia? (On the Ground Blog, NYT, June 1, 2009, referencing microfinance and Grameen Bank founder).
A couple of anecdotes probably don’t sound like much, but if you read Kristof’s On The Ground Blog on a regular basis, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Things really took off though, when Kristof and his wife, journalist Sheryl WuDunn, published a book called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Kristof made sure that the word was out about his book well in advance of publishing, and the New York Times was only too happy to assist in promoting it, with an entire special magazine issue entitled, “Saving the World’s Women.” In the weeks leading up to the book’s arrival in stores, the promotion grew frantic:
The nightly news piece is reported by Ann Curry and dates from a trip we made together to Pakistan in July, and it will also be used to promote a piece Ann is doing on Sunday night for Dateline about Half the Sky, the book about the world’s women that my wife, Sheryl, and I have just finished. That should be a very moving piece, with great footage. (September 3, 2009) Actually, it wasn’t a moving piece. It was really f’ed up. Once again, I wanted to stomp on journalists for displaying insensitivity towards rape survivors.
A number of folks have complained that the Sept. 15 Times Talk with my wife, about our new book, “Half the Sky,” has been sold out. Sorry about that — although not, in all honesty, very sorry. (September 8, 2009) I think this speaks for itself.
Bill Gates Sr. has an interesting review on Huffington Post of “Half the Sky,”in which he calls the book “stunning” but mostly ruminates on the strong women around him all his life. (September 14, 2009)
I haven’t contributed much to this blog lately because I’ve been taking vacation time to promote my new book, co-written with my wife Sheryl WuDunn, “Half the Sky.” (September 30, 2009)
Good God! And these excerpts are only from his blog. The point when I finally began to crack, was when I noticed that he was holding a “Half the Sky Competition,” and that the prize was A SIGNED COPY OF HIS BOOK. Oh the hubris.
Plus, I read the book when it came out (thankfully I borrowed it from the library), and it does not live up to the hype. First of all, probably about 80% (at least) of it has already been published in some form on Kristof’s blog. Secondly, to me it read like a bunch of hyperbolic anecdotes that always seemed to conveniently place Nick at the center of the story (and by hyperbolic, I mean that Mr. Kristof’s writing was often ridiculous and overwrought, not that the women’s stories weren’t legitimately tragic). People would be much better off to read a less trumped-up but thoroughly researched book by someone who has actually worked on the front lines of development, such as “The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World,” by Jacqueline Novogratz.
Also, here are a few choice gems from Kristof’s Twitter feed and Facebook page:
Knopf ordered a 16th printing of Half the Sky today, almost 200,000 in print! Thanks to all for spreading the word. (December 15, 2009 Twitter)
My essay in Outside Mag about how to get people to care abt humanitarian crises is generating much debate (December 9, 2009 Twitter)
For those interested in Half the Sky, Amazon is for some reason now offering a full 50 percent discount. I assume they’re losing money on each one at that price, but making it up in volume. (no, no, that’s a joke: it’s presumable a loss-leader). (December 19, 2009 Facebook)
NPR’S “On the Media” exposes me as an advocacy journalist. I flinch at being called an advocacy journalist; should I? (December 15, 2009 Facebook) Yes, they exposed you as a do-gooder. How dramatic!
I guess what it comes down to, is that Nick Kristof has been in the process of building a cult of personality, which in many ways overshadows much of the decent or at least generally good intentioned work that he has done and continues to do. I would hate to see him become a running joke in the development and aid community, but he needs to check himself before he wrecks himself.
*”Women hold up half the sky,” is a Chinese proverb, and the origin of the title of Kristof and WuDunn’s book.