Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Finest Work A Journalist Can Do: Kristof Does It. Times Columnist Shames Fox's Blowhard Bill O'Reilly

Nicholas D. Kristof, the New York Times columnist, is the real deal.

Bill O'Reilly, blowhard of Fox News, is a real deal too.

Good . . . and Evil.

Here on the left: A champion, activist journalist, who turns readers' attention away from our hollow, consumerist addictions to focus, for just a few moments, on things that really matter.

In the other corner: A powerful force for inanity, in an increasingly brain-dead culture (...whose view of blogs as a threat suggests we're doing something right here.)

Today's column by Kristof repeats his suggestion that O'Reilly go to Darfur and try to make himself useful for a change. It is like a stroke of jujitsu, the art of self-defense that channels an opponent's strength and weight to work against him. In this, the column is not just poking fun: O'Reilly the Ranter, whose "O'Reilly Factor" show commands a viewership in the millions, is goaded for good reason: when he reacts, which he has, his own idiotic bluster effectively has been used to help put a spotlight on the genocide unfolding every day in Darfur.

{Since Times Op-Ed columns are now subscription-based online, no longer free, Kristof's piece is copied for Cyberpols readers
in the second comment below this posting, along with the earlier columns by Kristof that first got the O'Reilly-riling roiling.}

For any unfamiliar with the columnist, it's important to know his work is typically far above this kind of partisan wrestling. He regularly offers high-quality reporting on serious issues. His columns combine important factual information with calls to action, which often turn out to have had tangible impact; he is a reporter who revisits his interviewees. The tone, even while sometimes describing terrible suffering, is still one of optimism and hope. He is a writer who can convey the personal stories of survivors of tragedy - and leave his readers inspired.

His gift is the ability to mix shame and hope, two of humankind's most powerful motivators. He belongs to a shrinking minority of genuine reporters, who still rent jeeps, hire interpreters and go

[Continued in 1st comment...]

12 Thoughts:

Blogger Bspot said...

who still rent jeeps, hire interpreters and go to outside the capitals of poor countries to interview women and children who are scared … or already scarred. In contrast, most of the American reporters who even venture to the developing world get their "news" from U.S. consulates and the biased press releases of local governments. Even their numbers are dwindling now, as mergers and acquisitions in the industry, along with the inexorable rise of infotainment (like O’Reilly), force news media to cut back on overseas bureaus. With the vast majority of U.S. reporters never, in their lives, actually working beyond our shores, foreign news coverage by even the heavyweight companies is often left to a few correspondents who report “from the region,” e.g. all of Africa, by shacking up at a Hilton in Johannesburg.

Kristof, a columnist rather than a reporter, could simply stay home and pontificate. Instead he leaves behind the TV talking heads, leaves behind his fellow armchair columnists, goes straight to Thailand, India or Darfur, interviews Thai girls who were forced into prostitution, Indian women who were gang raped with their neighbors' approval, children in Darfur whose families were beheaded by janjaweed militia – and he sends back personal reports. He sends them into our living rooms and breakfast nooks, wherever the Times is read, articles filled not just with words and facts but with the personal stories of survivors; survivors with names and faces.

The idea of course is to shock and shame American readers into writing letters, making calls to their representatives, talking to their neighbors. And to shame the American government and those of other powerful nations into taking action.

By itself, this method would mainly generate shame and cynicism without much positive effect. It doesn't work as a constructive strategy without a complementary element: hope.

What separates Kristof from the pompous gripers at The Nation and the self-indulgent whiners at The New Republic - aside from the fact that he gets up from his chair now and then - is that his columns seem to be infused with a tone of optimism, conveying the sense that there is still time to make a difference. In effect, to prod citizens and politicians to action, he uses both the stick of shame and the carrot of palpable hope, hope not just for the world’s vulnerable overseas but also for ourselves.

There is something in the way Kristof presents these stories that has the opposite impact one might think it would have on jaded First Worlders. He sets out the simple steps our leaders could take to roll back suffering and atrocity - and revives our feeling, too often hidden and latent somewhere within, that we as individuals can cast off our cynicism and engage; that a barrage of letters, phone calls and networking could change the outcome; that we might even explore the networking resources on Kristof's own site, and others.

It's not just the tone that makes these columns inspirational, however. It's the prize you get from all that investment in jeeps and interpreters: the personal stories of survivors. Whether their relatives were killed or they themselves were abused, they have survived. It does nothing to erase the tragedy, and there can be no illusion that being interviewed by an American reporter is going to change their lives. But we know, as readers, that their story has traveled thousands of miles. Their isolation has been broken on some level, and we feel a link, however faint or inconsequential it may be. It is a feeling of connection that has been created by personal reporting. If these survivors of tragedy have shown incredible strength and courage, Kristof tells us. Usually they have. It makes you want to make a phone call, if not to Darfur, then at least to Washington.

That's a typical column.

But in today's column, and its prequel in mid-December, Kristof aspires to use a larger-sized bull-horn than the NYT Op-Ed page: the horn blown by O'Blowhard himself.

Rather than shaming only us tax-payers and voters into taking more action, hopefully along with our political representatives, here is a chance to shame fraudulent “journalists.”

He challenges O'Reilly, whose TV audiences number in the millions (between two and three, according to the most recent figures I could find online) to travel to Darfur and do something useful with his career. It's funny. Read it, below, in the next comment. Further below are the earlier columns that started it off in December.

The point is not just to hurt Bill O’Reilly’s feelings, though some may consider that a side benefit. Putting O'Reilly to shame, for treating his huge audience, day in and day out, to pseudo-logical, ultra-partisan drivel, rather than publicizing really important issues, such as the crisis in Darfur, serves two larger purposes. For one, it brings Darfur into the consciousness of O'Reilly's listening masses. People who listen to his crap are not all bad people who have no care for others. Some might not even be as gullible as he seems to think they are. But they just don't know much about the world outside America. Already, O'Reilly has felt compelled at times to respond to questions about Kristof’s well-publicized suggestion. On some occasions in the course of his response, he may actually mention Africa, or even Darfur, while on the air.

Second, shaming O'Reilly may make some other journalists think twice about the true role of their own work. Does that sound unrealistic? I don't think so. Why? I use myself as an example, as a blogger and former reporter myself.

As bloggers, which I am and you are, we have to consider whether there are really differences between the way O'Reilly provokes opponents and the way Kristof is now provoking O'Reilly. Yes, there are differences, and they may help us challenge ourselves when it comes to evaluating our own blog. Is Cyberpols no more than a venting ground? No, it’s more than that. But is some of our energy wasted on self-indulgent preaching to the choir, just like O'Reilly? Yes, of course.

Sometimes there’s only a subtle difference between a blog or column that’s productive and one that isn’t. It can have to do with the degree of effort put into using a tone that's palatable to readers of opposing views. It can depend on whether an author demonstrates some respect for the logic, beliefs and intentions of others, even while disagreeing with them.

Plenty of my own writing on this blog is self-indulgent prattle, not so different from O'Reilly's. It has its venting value. Just writing it can be reaffirming for the author; maybe reading it is, also, for some readers. But our better pieces are different. Some help spread important information from other parts of the web. Others have value as debates on policy, in which kernels of truth and common ground can be uncovered in the course of arguing. Kristof's columns as a rule are respectful in tone. When he stoops down into a sarcastic attack leveled at O'Reilly, it is a rare occasion, and it is on a matter of real substance, desperately calling out for more publicity. It is a matter on which Kristof has done extensive, serious reporting "on the ground."

The second reason I think Kristof's columns can make journalists reevaluate their own work I that this is the effect it’s had on me: not just regarding my blogging today, but also regarding my former work as a reporter. Having aspired, once, to do work of the sort that Kristof does, instead I quit. I left the field, fed up with the avalanche of crap that was passing for journalism all around -- including pointless stories I sometimes had to write and edit for my employer. Although I had previously been a freelance reporter overseas, and could have made a leap and returned to that harder but potentially more rewarding work, I didn't. At that turning point, I lacked some of the inspiration I'd had before.

Kristof was not yet a New York Times columnist then. If I'd seen his work then, it’s safe to say it would have been an inspiration, as it is now.

I hope young journalists still embarking on their careers today are reading Kristof’s columns. I'm sure the good ones are.

" H E L P I N G B I L L O' R E I L L Y "
By Nicholas D. Kristof
February 7, 2006

[1st of 3 columns listed here.]

Please, readers, help Bill O'Reilly!

After Mr. O'Reilly denounced me in December as a "left-wing ideologue" (a charge that alarmed me, given his expertise on ideologues), I challenged him to defend traditional values by joining me on a trip to Darfur. I wrote: "You'll have to leave your studio, Bill. You'll encounter pure evil. If you're like me, you'll be scared ... and you'll finally be using your talents for an important cause."

A few days ago, I finally got my answer. Mr. O'Reilly declared in his column: "I do three hours of daily news analysis on TV and radio. There's no way I can go to Africa."

No need to give up so easily, Bill. With a satellite phone, you can do your show from anywhere.

But maybe Mr. O'Reilly's concern is cost, so I thought my readers might want to give him a hand. You can help sponsor a trip by Mr. O'Reilly to Darfur, where he can use his television savvy to thunder against something actually meriting his blustery rage.

If you want to help, send e-mail to sponsorbill@gmail.com or snail mail to me at The Times, and tell me how much you're willing to pay for Mr. O'Reilly's expenses in Darfur. Offers will be anonymous, except maybe to the N.S.A. Don't send money; all I'm looking for is pledges. I'll post updates at nytimes.com/ontheground.

(Note: pledges cannot be earmarked. It is not possible to underwrite only Mr. O'Reilly's outgoing ticket to Darfur without bringing him home as well.)

Sure, this is a desperate measure. But with several hundred thousand people already murdered in Darfur and two million homeless and living in shantytowns, the best hope for those still alive is a strong dose of American outrage.

Worse, all the horrors that we've already seen in Darfur may be remembered only as the prelude. Security in the region is deteriorating, African Union peacekeepers are becoming targets, and the U.N. has warned that if humanitarian agencies are forced out, the death toll may rise to 100,000 per month.

Just as dangerous, the government-supported janjaweed — the brutal militia responsible for the slaughter — is now making regular raids across the border into Chad. There is a growing risk that Chad will collapse into war as well, hugely increasing the death toll and spreading chaos across a much larger region.

Last week, the United Nations agreed to plan for an international force. It will be nice if the force materializes — but even that half-step is probably almost a year away. The solution isn't American ground forces, but a starting point would be American resolve to put genocide at the top of the international agenda. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush barely lets the word "Darfur" past his lips.

The best way for President Bush to honor Coretta Scott King isn't simply to recite platitudes at her funeral today, but to push loudly and forcefully to stop genocide. Was the essential message of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about the need to be seen at funerals? Or about standing up to injustice, like a genocide in which infants are grabbed from their mothers' arms and tossed onto bonfires?

The reality is that the only way the White House will move on Darfur is if it is flooded with calls from the public — and that will happen only when the genocide is brought home to living rooms around America.

According to the Tyndall Report, which analyzes the content of the evening newscasts of the broadcast networks, their coverage of Darfur actually declined last year. The total for all three networks was 26 minutes in 2004. That wasn't much — but it dropped to just 18 minutes during all of 2005.

ABC's evening news program had 11 minutes about Darfur over the year, NBC's had 5 minutes, and CBS's found genocide worth only 2 minutes of airtime during the course of 2005.

In contrast, the networks gave the Michael Jackson trial in 2005 a total of 84 minutes of coverage. There aren't comparable figures for cable networks like Fox, but Mr. O'Reilly and other cable newscasters pretty much ignored the Darfur catastrophe.

Mr. O'Reilly has a big audience and a knack for stirring outrage. Lately, he (quite properly) galvanized an outcry over a ridiculously light sentence for a sexual predator in Vermont. The upshot was that the sentence was increased. Good stuff!

So imagine the furor Mr. O'Reilly could stir up if he publicized the hundreds of thousands of rapes, murders and mutilations in Darfur. He could save lives on a grand scale.

Join the pledge drive! I'm starting with my own $1,000 pledge to sponsor Mr. O'Reilly's trip. Please help.


R E P L Y I N G T O O ' R E I L L Y

Feb. 6, 2006
By Nicholas Kristof

[2nd of 3 columns listed here.]

Those of you who watch Bill O’Reilly or read his column in the New York Post or elsewhere know that he took a swipe at me the other day. In refusing my challenge to go with him to Darfur (he says he can’t do his radio and TV shows from Africa), he highlighted a Vermont case where a judge initially sentenced a man convicted of sexually abusing a child over a four year period to only 60 days in prison (later raised to three years). He wrote:

“Because Kristof had referenced teenage rape in his criticism of me, I fully expected to see him and The New York Times all over the Vermont story. After all, this human-rights violation happened just a few hundred miles north of New York City

“But the Times didn’t cover the Vermont story – didn’t even mention it. And there was not a word from my pal Nicholas Kristof, the human rights guy.

“So what’s going on here? Aren’t liberal press advocates champions of the downtrodden? Maybe Nicholas Kristof can write another column explaining to me why the Vermont child doesn’t matter to him or his newspaper.”

First, let me say that I can’t speak for the newspaper. The Times has a wall between its news side and opinion side, to protect news coverage from opinionated people like myself. So I’m not involved in coverage decisions in any way. But I can explain why I didn’t write about the case.

The basic reason is that I try to use my column to cover continuing trends and threats – such as the hundreds of thousands of people killed in Darfur – rather than individual legal cases, particularly those that are over. At the time of Mr. O’Reilly’s focus on that case, for example, I was in India reporting on the 10 million children stuck in brothels around the world.

From what I’ve read, I think O’Reilly was right to denounce the sentence as ridiculously lenient, and I’m glad it was subsequently lengthened. But if I have to pick my topics, it seems reasonable to focus on the rapes of 10 million children in brothels, rather than on the sentence given to one rapist. Or on genocide, for that matter.

By the way, I’ve wondered how to write about the criminal justice system. I’ve never reported it closely, but my sense is that it is full of inexplicable decisions – some strangely short sentences, as in the case O’Reilly highlights, and others bizarrely long. And then there are undoubtedly plenty of innocent people who get convicted: Death penalty cases tend to get scrutiny, but not others. But because each has its own circumstances, the issues tend not to get a lot of coverage, except when related to capital punishment. I think there is great fodder there for path-breaking journalism.


"A C H A L L E N G E F O R B I L L O ' R E I L L Y"

By Nicholas D. Kristof
December 18, 2005

[3rd of 3 columns listed here.]

Let us all pray for Bill O'Reilly.

Let us pray that Mr. O'Reilly will understand that the Christmas spirit isn't about hectoring people to say "Merry Christmas," rather than "Happy Holidays," but about helping the needy.

Let us pray that Mr. O'Reilly will use his huge audience and considerable media savvy to save lives and fight genocide, instead of to vilify those he disagrees with. Let him find inspiration in Jesus, rather than in the Assyrians.

Finally, let's pray that Mr. O'Reilly and other money-changers in the temple will donate the funds they raise exploiting Christmas - covering the nonexistent "War on Christmas" rakes in viewers and advertising - to feed the hungry and house the homeless.


Alas, not all prayers can be answered. Fox News Channel's crusade against infidels who prefer generic expressions like "Happy Holidays" included 58 separate segments in just a five-day period.

After I suggested in last Sunday's column that a better way to honor the season might be to stand up to genocide in Darfur (a calamity that Mr. O'Reilly has ignored), Mr. O'Reilly denounced me on his show as a "left-wing ideologue." Bless you, Mr. O'Reilly, and Merry Christmas to you, too!

Later in the show, Mr. O'Reilly described us print journalists in general as "a bunch of vicious S.O.B.'s." Bless you again, Mr. O'Reilly; I'll pray harder for the Christmas spirit to soften your pugnacious soul.

Look, I put up a "Christmas tree," rather than a "holiday tree," and I'm sure Mr. O'Reilly is right that political correctness leads to absurd contortions this time of year. But when you've seen what real war does, you don't lightly use the word to describe disagreements about Christmas greetings. And does it really make sense to offer 58 segments on political correctness and zero on genocide?

Perhaps I'm particularly sensitive to religious hypocrites because I've spent a chunk of time abroad watching Muslim versions of Mr. O'Reilly - demagogic table-thumpers who exploit public religiosity as a cynical ploy to gain attention and money. And I always tell moderate Muslims that they need to stand up to blustery blowhards - so today, I'm taking my own advice.

Like the fundamentalist Islamic preachers, Mr. O'Reilly is a talented showman, and my sense is that his ranting is a calculated performance. The couple of times I've been on his show, he was mild mannered and amiable until the camera light went on - and then he burst into aggrieved indignation, because he knew it made good theater.

If Mr. O'Reilly wants to find a Christmas cause, he should invite guests from Catholic Relief Services, World Vision or the National Association of Evangelicals - among the many faith-based organizations that are doing heroic work battling everything from river blindness to sex trafficking. Indeed, the real victims of Mr. O'Reilly are the authentic religious conservatives, because some viewers falsely assume that ill-informed bombast characterizes the entire religious right.

(I'm tempted to think that Mr. O'Reilly is actually a liberal plant, meant to discredit conservatives. Think about it. Who would be a better plant than a self-righteous bully in the style of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy? What better way to caricature the right than by having Mr. O'Reilly urge on air that the staff of Air America be imprisoned: "Dissent, fine; undermining, you're a traitor. Got it? So, all those clowns over at the liberal radio network, we could incarcerate them immediately. Will you have that done, please? Send over the F.B.I. and just put them in chains, because they, you know, they're undermining everything.")

Some authentic religious conservatives are embarrassed by television phonies. Cal Thomas, the conservative Christian columnist, warned: "The effort by some cable TV hosts and ministers to force commercial establishments into wishing everyone a 'Merry Christmas' might be more objectionable to the One who is the reason for the season than the 'Happy Holidays' mantra required by some store managers."

So I have a challenge for Mr. O'Reilly: If you really want to defend traditional values, then come with me on a trip to Darfur. I'll introduce you to mothers who have had their babies clubbed to death in front of them, to teenage girls who have been gang-raped and then mutilated - and to the government-armed thugs who do these things.

You'll have to leave your studio, Bill. You'll encounter pure evil. If you're like me, you'll be scared. If you try to bully some of the goons in Darfur, they'll just hack your head off. But you'll also meet some genuine conservative Christians - aid workers who live the Gospel instead of sputtering about it - and you'll finally be using your talents for an important cause.

So, Bill, what'll it be? Will you dare travel to a real war against Christmas values, in which the victims aren't offended shoppers but terrified children thrown on bonfires? I'm waiting to hear.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 9:39:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Look out Red Team. The Blues are adapting and competing, gaining mad skills, like Napoleon Dynamite. The Reds can't understand the nature of the Blues' sourceless power because it is absorbed from the field (horizontal) so they fret and moan that its all the latest vertical boogeyman. They misunderstand because fundamentally, THEY CAN'T SEE STRAIGHT.

Meanwhile The blue power field (grass roots) is being integrated by each Blue Team Member and used to create poles of energy from which their power springs. As they teach each other new methods of attack, the Red edifice feels threatened. And like a Red Giant, it threatens to explode.

This attack on O'Reilley is just the latest gas tank on the Death Star to get knocked out.

Go Blue Go!!!!!!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

The Stick of Shame - Which direction is it pointed, bspot? Are you sure its leveled at them or do the Reds perceive it as pointing straight up? And that carrot, do they see it as really wobbling to entice or is it being offered straight out, at arms length, in fear?

Red and Blue - utterly separated political genders. Libs are from Venus, Cons are from Mars. Dig it.

Eros. Thanatos. Synthesis.

Palmer I know you're out there.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Actually I rescind my earlier statement regarding Eros -> Thanatos --> Synthesis. Its wrong.

In fact, the entire political culture is erotic. Eventually the fighting (martial) between Red and Blue will become dancing (venusian). Then you'll see some synthesis baby. Get ready.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 10:08:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

What Kristof really needs to do is give little Bill the reach around. Now that would show him.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 3:46:00 PM  
Blogger Demotiki said...

Among Japanophiles, Kristof is well known, if widely hated. His coverage of Japan was nothing short of racist and often completely out-to-lunch. That's not to say he can't be a hero for other reasons, but he's full of shit when talking about Japan.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 5:51:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Tell us more about the Japan thing, Demotiki, why was he full of shit?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006 6:00:00 PM  
Blogger Demotiki said...

He was the Japan corespondant for the Times for a while. I guess he cut his teeth on the Tiananmen Square story and his wife is Korean I think. He then went to Japan but didn't know shit about Japanese culture. I don't think he or his wife speak Japanese. I was taking Japanese Anthropology at Columbia and my professor simply dispised him. Later I had a chance to read some of his articles about the Japanese people and their cultural traditions. Many were shallow, stupid and openly racist. That's all I know about the guy. Maybe he's great otherwise.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006 12:16:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Racist how?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006 6:17:00 AM  
Blogger Bspot said...

He emailed to say "wow, thanks, what a nice posting. keep up the blogging ..."

Thursday, February 09, 2006 1:14:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Wow, cool!

Thursday, February 09, 2006 7:15:00 AM  
Blogger Palmer said...

good stuff, pawl. will catch up more later.

pithy pithy pithy and confyoosh!!!

Thursday, February 09, 2006 6:07:00 PM  

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