Nicholas D. Krystof, Leana S. Wen, Will Okun, Naka Nathaniel
Regular airtime: Thursday, 9pm ET
US: 18 Feb 2010
Why should we pay attention to the rest of the world?
—Stephen Colbert, 12 March 2007
“I’ve learned some tricks about what will get people or will resonate,” says Nick Kristof. He’s been trying to “get people,” for years. He writes to make a difference, he says, to make readers aware of suffering and violence and injustice that’s going on across the world, pain inflicted on whole populations. He writes about genocide in Darfur, mass rape in Liberia, autocannibalism in Congo, sex trafficking in Cambodia, and recently, the nightmares of the U.S. health care system. He travels to places far away, speaks with people whose experiences don’t attract much attention, people who are impoverished, struggling, and violated. And he reports.
Kristof’s work is harrowing and crucial. Writing an op-ed column for the New York Times since 2001, he has made it his business to reveal trauma and to hold people responsible. He reports and exhorts. As demonstrated in Reporter, premiering 18 February on HBO, his work wins Pulitzer prizes (two, so far) and inspires action (Mia Farrow says her own ongoing efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur were prompted by reading Kristof). His work can be exhausting and sometimes deadening, he says, and so he has developed “a certain amount of professional distance.” That is, he says, “I’m really not proud of it, I’m even a little embarrassed about it, [but] I can listen pretty dispassionately to the most inhuman stories and they most of the time don’t really bother me.”
Eric Daniel Metzgar’s film submits that such a response is predictable, and even has a name, “psychic numbing.” It’s the response that Kristof presumes in his readers, that large numbers undermine sympathy and compassion. And so he frames his stories, again and again, as stories of individuals: a woman who has been sold into sexual slavery, a child soldier trying to go home, a mother who has lost her children to gangsters. Metzgar narrates that today we face “a terrible paradox: modern technology allows us to witness remote large scale suffering, but our minds simply lack the capability to comprehend it.” Appropriately, the film frames its own story in a similar way—the story of the individual Nick Kristof urges action on the part of viewers. It makes visible and specific the daunting, continuing, and frankly depressing saga of global injustices.
Reporter introduces this story as a heroic one, with kudos voiced by colleagues in the fight against global oppressions. His editor Andy Rosenthal extols his dedication and independence (“He says, ‘I want to go to Congo or Rwanda or North Korea’ and off he goes: we try to keep track of him because the places he goes are dangerous”). Gail Collins commends his decisions to cover “obscure” stories (“The part of journalism that matters, that we can’t afford to lose, is the part that goes out into the world and looks at things and tells you about things that nobody else is telling you about”). And Samantha Power admires his persistence, noting, “He is prepared to do the thing that is hardest for writers. He is prepared to be predictable, he is prepared to be repetitive.”
As Power insists, a story’s “newsworthiness is dictated by its severity, not by whether it is, strictly speaking, new.” Reporter takes up this argument, following Kristof and two young associates—medical student Leana Wen and English teacher Will Okun—as they travel to eastern Congo in 2007. Their journey is revelatory but also typical, an investigation of Tutsi refugees from the genocide in Rwanda, still living in fear of some 21 militias vying for control of “territory, resources, and ethnic hatred.” As Kristof describes it, “It’s just a mess, and in this part of the country, a pretty dangerous mess.”
The journey is part instruction (for the Wen and Okun, our proxies) and part adventure. Kristof explains that he must work his way through testimonies and interviews, feeling out who speaks truth and who needs what. “Victims lie as much as other people,” he instructs, moved by “a natural tendency to exaggerate” and desires for help and retribution. The reporters, warned repeatedly not to travel at night, make arrangements to visit with a notorious warlord, Laurent Nkunda (Kristof seeks to tell stories for victims and perpetrators, he says, as they are hopelessly entangled). Waiting for their appointment, somewhat apprehensively, they visit with victims of Congolese lawlessness, displaced people and a rape survivor who is starving to death. The Americans explain to her family that Yohanita Nyiahabimama will die unless she is moved to a hospital, and learn why this is not a forgone conclusion: someone must go with her to the hospital, to provide food and basic care, but tradition forbids men (including her father) from accompanying her; the family has no money (“We can help with that,” Kristof says briefly); and transportation is difficult—the roads are treacherous, a point made visible in the film, through repeated images of men with guns.
Metzgar confesses that he has now come to feel…
deeply suspicious of Nick’s method of seeking out the worst suffering in order tell a story. But my misgivings kept crashing into the same hard logic, that the saddest stories exist whether or not Nick finds them and if those stories have the greatest capacity to inspire action then Nick’s strategy makes sense functionally. Regardless, this kind of dismal illumination doesn’t feel very good.
None of it feels good. Neither the manipulations of readers (including readers with some means to power, readers who work in the White House, for instance), nor the interview with Nkunda, during which Kristof is solicitous even when asking “difficult questions” (“People call you a ‘warlord’: is that an accurate description?”). Nkunda denies all wrongdoing, Kristof takes notes, Wen marvels at the new church, a rudimentary room with desks, where Nkunda’s Pentacostal Christian followers pray with him. Like the film, it’s a show, and it’s a means to an end.