Winter 2019 Bulletin

An Evening with Nicholas Kristof

On November 26, 2018, Nicholas Kristof (a columnist for The New York Times) spoke at a gathering of Academy Members and guests in New York City about journalists in the age of Trump. He also shared a preview of his forthcoming book on dysfunction in America after fifty years of wrong policy turns. The program, which served as the Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture and 2075th Stated Meeting, featured welcoming remarks from Jonathan F. Fanton (President of the Academy). The following is an edited transcript of Mr. Kristof’s presentation.

Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2017.

The New York Times is a venerable institution but compared to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, it is a new-born baby, still in swaddling clothes. I appreciate everybody turning out on a dismal evening. I want to thank Jonathan Fanton for his forbearance and patience. We had scheduled this program ages ago and sent out the invitations. And then there is a place that I have been trying to get to for years that is extremely difficult for journalists to visit. I finally found a way to get there, but it involved leaving today. I thought I would have to cancel speaking this evening. But I will be flying out tonight, immediately after the program, to this place that I can’t disclose to you for security reasons. This is the mysterious world of journalism, but I’m excited about the trip – and delighted I could still be here. So please stay tuned. [The destination was rebel-held parts of Yemen.]

I would like to share some provocations with you, some of the topics that many of us in the journalism world are having conversations about. The first one concerns how we cover someone like President Trump. We started asking this question during the 2016 presidential race. The view traditionally held by the media has been that we advance fairness and we also advance truth. If we quote someone who is more or less on one side of an issue, then we quote someone on the other side. And we largely leave it to the public to figure out who wins in this marketplace of ideas. But it seemed to me that, as the 2016 campaign evolved, this really wasn’t working terribly well. There was a tension between advancing fairness, the way we customarily pursued it, and advancing truth. I was struck that in opinion polls in 2016, voters seemed to think that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were both dissembling at similar rates. And, in fact, anybody who was covering the campaign could see that Hillary Clinton was about average in dissembling and spin, while Donald Trump was simply off the charts. And I thought that we were not conveying what we know. We perhaps were fair, but we weren’t conveying the truth.

The next topic tended to revolve around the question, do we use the word “lie”? To lie suggests intention, that you know that what you are saying is false. There was some debate about whether Donald Trump knew he was lying or simply was indifferent to truth in policy. In any case, it seemed to me that we – meaning the media – dropped the ball in 2016. To me one of the lessons is that our paramount responsibility, even more than fairness, is to convey truth.

I think cable television in particular really blew it, and one of the reasons is that our business model in journalism is in pretty rough shape. We have been searching for an emerging business model. It is a little clearer in some parts of the news world, where a lot revolves around eyeballs and audience. Cable television in particular discovered that as long as the camera was on Donald Trump, whether as candidate or as president, then eyeballs followed. He was very good for the business model. In contrast, fact-checking was costly and did not attract eyeballs at the same rate.

After fumbling badly in 2016, then we had a really good 2017 and 2018, for the most part. But I was deeply troubled in the fall of 2018 by the coverage of the caravan. The White House engaged in deceptive fear-mongering. And I thought that we, the media, allowed ourselves to be a channel for that misleading fear-mongering that demonized immigrants. It was clear to just about everybody covering the story that the caravan was not a meaningful threat to the United States, but we, by giving credence to that coverage, let some viewers and people in our audience think that it was. We let the president use us to manipulate the voters. We knew we were being manipulated. And we let it happen.

The solutions are often more complicated than we acknowledge. People say, just don’t cover the president’s statements. I don’t think that is a realistic option. When a president says something, even something bigoted, that is news and it should be covered. At this point, there are so many gatekeepers out there that I don’t think the media still function as a true gatekeeper. Maybe twenty years ago it was effective if the media didn’t cover something. It is not anymore.

There is also some troubling research in social psychology that suggests that when you cover an argument, even if you are trying to disprove something, the cognitive effect on people is actually the same as saying that it happened. Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford, notes that the statements that “six million illegal votes were cast in 2016” and that “President Trump falsely claims that six million illegal votes were cast in 2016” are quite different. The latter one is true and the former false. But the cognitive effect of those two statements is the same, he says. Likewise, Facebook found that when it flagged certain content as “untrustworthy” it increased the traffic to those postings. That is really troubling for those of us who believe in an objective reality and in trying to hold politicians accountable for it.

It does seem that fact-checking is more effective if it comes from somebody who shares your own ideology. For instance, it is much more effective when Republicans fact-check President Trump than when a liberal New York Times columnist does so.

Still, if there’s a tussle between fairness and truth in journalism today, this isn’t a new problem and we can find help in how our predecessors handled similar challenges. For example, McCarthyism is a classic case in which being fair, so to speak, in the traditional way, of quoting each side, didn’t work. It conveyed to our audiences that the State Department was full of communists, which we all knew was untrue.

Edward R. Murrow famously challenged that claim, as did other journalists, and we essentially put truth over fairness. Something similar happened with the civil rights struggle. It didn’t work to quote Bull Connor or George Wallace on one side, and Martin Luther King on the other and not come out and say what was actually happening on the streets of Birmingham and elsewhere. And so, over time, journalism migrated toward the truth, perhaps at the expense of fairness. Vietnam, I think, is a third example, in which we did the same thing. We had reporters based in Saigon, and it became increasingly clear that just covering the five o’clock follies and the press conferences was not conveying the truth. People began to put the accent on truth rather than on fairness. I think that should be a prism through which we look at challenges today. If we could do it with McCarthyism, with the civil rights struggle, and with Vietnam, then we can do it again. But it is going to take more work and more effort when we quote an official, whether that person is President Trump or somebody else, to resist letting him set the agenda. The fact-checking has to be an essential thread of the reporting, not just a postscript.

There is another related but somewhat different challenge that we in the media face. And that is that President Trump sucks the oxygen out of every issue we face. I’m about to make this trip to a place that cannot be named. When I finally get there, after having spent a lot of the Times’ money and encountering some risk, my readership will plunge. Now I’m okay with that because I’m at a stage in my career where if my mom is the only person who reads my column, then that’s fine. But if I were a younger reporter, it would make no sense to cover some of these global humanitarian crises. Television in particular has found that you can send a camera crew out to Congo to cover what may be the most lethal conflict since World War II. Or to South Sudan, where four hundred thousand people have died in civil war over the last few years. And if you send a camera crew out to cover these stories, your audience will drop compared to a rival network that puts a Democrat and a Republican in a studio together and they yell at each other. That is the larger challenge that we face.

There was a debate in the international development community a few years ago. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave ABC News a grant to cover global poverty issues. This was very controversial within the development community because why should the Gates Foundation use money that could develop vaccines and instead give it to tv executives to do their jobs? But, in fact, ABC did some really fine reporting about maternal mortality, micronutrients, and malnutrition. It was excellent journalism that brought more attention to these issues, so the Gates Foundation went back to ABC News after a year and said that it wanted to renew the grant. But ABC declined to take the money. It had found that when it aired these important pieces of great journalism, viewers switched the channel. That is really dispiriting. If you care about these issues, it is really challenging to figure out how we can cover them. I think part of the answer may be philanthropy. As the news business becomes more difficult, everyone is paying more attention to audience and it is hard to make the argument internally that news organizations should cover these issues that will lose audience. The Times, fortunately, is somewhat different. Our business model allows us to cover global issues. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s true of cable television’s business model.

The final provocation I want to toss out relates to this issue of undercovered stories, right here in America. It grows out of a book that my wife and I have been working on this year, which will come out within the next 30 or 40 years! I took a book leave from the Times, and the book leave unfortunately ended before the book did. The book looks at the struggles of working-class Americans. It is essentially about the disintegration of working-class communities in the United States, which is a classic undercovered news issue. The story is told partly through the prism of my hometown in rural Oregon, a town called Yamhill, where originally the economy was dependent on a combination of agriculture, timber, and light manufacturing. The biggest local employer was a glove factory. In common with many such places, the economy improved over the span of about fifty years from the 1920s to the 1970s. There were a lot of people whose lives improved dramatically, partly because of government investments: the Homestead Act, Rural Electrification, and the G.I. Bill of Rights.

Yet in the 1980s, the jobs went away, and this community that I deeply love just took a body blow. I figured out that about a quarter of the kids who rode the school bus with me are now dead: from suicide, alcohol, drugs, reckless car accidents, hepatitis. One family we write about lived near us: five kids on the bus with me, and four of them are now dead. I look at these kids and it just seems to me they didn’t have a chance.

I think there is perhaps an analogy to be made with the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the view from the Kremlin was that there was a real problem with alcoholism. They thought if we close the alcohol shops, we can solve this and it isn’t going to affect the greatness of the Soviet Union. And in fact, alcoholism in the Soviet Union was a symptom of a much deeper malaise. I think that what is unfolding in the United States now is likewise a symptom of a much bigger problem, of an unraveling of the social fabric. One lesson to me is the significance not just of redistribution and of social programs, but also the paramount significance of jobs – and as I say that, I realize that we hear plenty of warnings that tens of millions of jobs may be destroyed in the coming decades because of artificial intelligence and automation. The policy lessons are complicated and uncertain, but on balance I think we haven’t paid enough attention to early childhood, to jobs, and to family. Lots more to say – so stay tuned for the book in 2019! Thanks so much for joining me on this dismal evening, and memories of this conversation will warm me up on my journey to the place that cannot be named! 

© 2019 by Nicholas Kristof

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