One of the principles of journalism is you don't lie. You never lie.
Nicholas Donabet Kristof was born in Yamhill, Oregon. His father, Ladis Kristof, was an ethnic Armenian from the Carpathian region of Europe, born in a district that changed hands from Austria-Hungary to Romania to the Soviet Union and Ukraine over the course of the 20th century. In the United States, Ladis Kristof became a professor of political science, specializing in Eastern Europe; Nicholas Kristof’s mother was a professor of art history. The Kristofs owned a small cherry farm outside Yamhill, and Nicholas Kristof worked the farm with his parents. Although his parents set high standards for academic achievement, by his own account, the local schools Nicholas Kristof attended were less than demanding.
Young Kristof discovered his love for journalism editing his junior high school newspaper. In high school, he began working for a local paper, the McMinnville News-Register, and impressed the older reporters with his professionalism and precocious writing ability. After graduating from high school, he took a year off to serve as a state officer of the Future Farmers of America before entering Harvard.
At Harvard, Kristof was a major force in the daily newspaper The Crimson. Between terms, he completed an internship at The Washington Post. Despite his journalistic activities, he graduated in only three years, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors, and won a Rhodes Scholarship to study law at Oxford University. Kristof earned first class honors at Oxford, but he was increasingly eager to see the world and pursue a journalistic career. On his first vacation, he headed to Poland. When the communist government of Poland declared martial law to suppress the Solidarity labor movement, Kristof contacted The Washington Post and began filing stories. On another vacation, he backpacked across Africa, writing articles to support his travels. After completing his law degree at Oxford, he considered returning to the United States to continue his legal studies, but instead decided to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Returning to the United States, he joined The New York Times as an economics correspondent in 1984, reporting from Los Angeles, and then Tokyo.
In Los Angeles, he had dated a young Wall Street Journal reporter, Sheryl WuDunn. When they were both assigned to Hong Kong, the relationship became more serious and they were soon married. Not long after, Ms. WuDunn was also hired by The New York Times, and the couple moved to Beijing, where they covered the burgeoning democracy movement, exemplified by massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. When the Chinese government sent in the army to disperse the demonstrators, Kristof rushed to the center of the action. The couple’s reporting on the violent suppression of the dissidents earned them the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. They are the first married couple ever to share this prize. They recounted their experience of China at length in their 1994 book, China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power.
Having served as The New York Times bureau chief in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo, Kristof and WuDunn published a second book of reflections on their observations, Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia (2000).
In 2000, after covering the presidential campaign of Texas Governor George W. Bush, Kristof took the post of associate managing editor of the Times, responsible for the paper’s popular and voluminous Sunday edition. In 2001, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he was given his own opinion column, which appears twice weekly, on the “Op-Ed” page, facing the paper’s editorial page.
Kristof has used his column to illuminate international issues of human rights, global health, poverty and gender inequality, crisscrossing the globe to investigate these situations firsthand. To date, he has lived on four continents and visited 140 countries, all 50 states of the Union, every province in China, and every island in Japan. He has also been at least twice to every country on President Bush’s “axis of evil” list: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
In 2003, Kristof ignited a national scandal by discrediting the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein’s government had tried to buy uranium in Africa. A later column disclosed that the administration had rebuffed overtures from Iran to normalize relations and give up nuclear weapons development.
Kristof has written dozens of columns about the ongoing genocide in Darfur and visited the area numerous times. In 2006, Kristof won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary “for his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world.” He has received every other honor in American journalism, including the George Polk Award and the award of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Since 2006, The New York Times has held the “Win a Trip With Nick Kristof” essay contest, offering college students and high school teachers the opportunity to join Kristof on assignment in Africa. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have written four acclaimed books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Their “vibrant portraits of ordinary citizens who are motivated to effect real and dramatic change present a rallying call to action and a voice for the power of volunteerism.”
In October 2021, after 37 years at The New York Times as a reporter, a high-level editor, and an opinion columnist, Nicholas Kristof announced his departure from the newspaper to run for governor of Oregon. In Kristof’s farewell to readers in The Times, he wrote, “I hope to convince some of you that public service in government can be a path to show responsibility for communities we love, for a country that can do better. Even if that means leaving a job I love.” In January 2022, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said that Kristof did not qualify to run for the office because he failed to meet the state’s three-year residency requirement. Kristof said that he planned to challenge the decision in court and that he was confident he would prevail.
Twice a week, millions of readers of The New York Times turn to Nicholas Kristof’s column for firsthand insights into breaking news from around the world. His travels as a reporter have taken him to 140 countries, including multiple visits to hot spots such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In the course of his travels he has survived wars, plane crashes, malaria, and in Indonesia, a mob carrying human heads on pikes.
He first joined the Times as an economics correspondent and has since served as the paper’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing and as managing editor of the Sunday Times. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, shared the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in China.
Week after week, Kristof uses his column to illuminate issues of poverty, global health, and human rights violations. He believes in doing more than writing about the abuses he uncovers, personally intervening to buy the freedom of two enslaved women in Cambodia. The Pulitzer committee cited his eyewitness coverage of the ongoing genocide in Darfur in awarding him a second prize, for Distinguished Commentary, in 2006.
You and your wife, Sheryl, won the Pulitzer Prize for your coverage of the democracy movement in China, and the government’s violent reaction at Tiananmen Square. What was it like to be in China at that time?
Nicholas Kristof: We had done a lot of interviews with Chinese, and the period before Tiananmen was just an unbelievable time to be a journalist in China, because it was becoming more open. We were able to develop very good friendships with quite senior people. I remember at one point, in fact, interviewing a high-level advisor, and his next appointment — after we had lunch — his next appointment was in Zhongnanhai, which is the compound for the leaders. He didn’t have a vehicle, so I said, “Do you want me to take you?” And what do you know, I was able actually to drive him right in the compound, right into Zhongnanhai, with me as a driver, me with a foreign car. We look back on the period of openness, when we had a lot of friends. They were typically Communist party reformers or in the Communist party apparatus, and that became very, very useful then, a few months later, when the crackdown came and we had channels to find out what was going on.
Can you describe the crackdown?
Nicholas Kristof: When the demonstrations began, there was a lot of giddy expectation in the West that if you’ve got a million students in the streets that the people will prevail. “The people united will never be defeated” kind of thing. And in fact, I think any student of Chinese history knew that the people united are often defeated, and that courage and integrity are no match for AK-47s. And so we didn’t share (that) entirely. We hoped for the best, we hoped for a peaceful outcome, but we also were prepared for a bloody dénouement, and indeed our sources had told us that was what was going to happen.
Nicholas Kristof: Yes. Martial law had been declared on the night of May 19, 1989, and that was two weeks before the crackdown, but already at that point, a lot of people were telling us that it was going to end with bloodshed. I remember meeting with one man who had been a senior official, and we met secretly, and he told me, “I’m going to go to jail. All of my friends and colleagues are going to go to jail, and the streets will be red with blood.”
Why would he go to jail?
Nicholas Kristof: Because he had supported the wrong person, and partly because he was speaking with me. He said that the reformers would be jailed, and he was right. So on June 4, 1989, the troops moved in, slaughtered people, and indeed, a lot of the reformers, including that man, were imprisoned.
So we were expecting bloodshed, or at least thought it was a strong possibility, and then I remember the night of June 3rd, there had been particularly ominous rumblings that day that things were afoot. And at about ten p.m., suddenly a bunch of people started calling that troops are moving in and they’re opening fire. And so there were a bunch of roadblocks on the roads, set up by the protesters so tanks — soldiers — could not just come in. I couldn’t drive there, so I took my bicycle and bicycled like mad to Tiananmen Square and parked my bike there, under the Mao portrait, under the Chairman Mao portrait. And it was just about when the soldiers were arriving from the other direction, and they opened fire on the crowd that I was in. So I was pushed back, left my bike there, and next time, weeks later when the square was opened up, there was a tank sitting right where my bike had been. I stayed with the crowd for several hours. We were being pushed back. The crowd would be pushed back, and they’d get very angry, and they’d start to go forward a little bit, and kids would start throwing stones, and the troops would open fire again. And then there’d be a lull, and then they would go forward. I remember trying always to stay back from the very front of the crowd so that there’d be other people that would absorb the bullets, but also then realizing at one point that I was a few inches taller than the average Chinese in front of me, so that a crucial part of me was actually exposed in it. After that I kept lower.
I was taking notes, and I had a notebook, and it’s still stained with sweat, mostly sweat of fear. It was very scary being out on the square that night and watching. The thing that I maybe remember most…
There had been a big discussion, and there still is, about the propriety of democracy in a developing country. Are people ready for it? If they’re illiterate, then can they really make the decisions necessary in a democracy? And it’s obviously a valid question to think about, but that night, the real heroes of it weren’t the university students, the teachers. They were the uneducated, often illiterate peasants who were the rickshaw drivers. Whenever the troops opened fire, and we would all run back and run away, then these rickshaw drivers would, with incredible courage, go out and pedal their little bicycle rickshaws out toward the soldiers, into this no-man’s land. Pick up the bodies of the kids who’d been killed or injured, put them on the back of their rickshaws, and then drive back toward the hospitals. It was an unbelievable display of courage, and if you’d asked them what is democracy, they certainly couldn’t have given you an elegant definition of it, but they were risking their lives for it. And I’ve never forgotten that display of courage, and I think there’s a lot for us all to learn from that the next time we sort of paternalistically say that, “Well, people may not quite be ready for democracy.”
Where was your wife in all this?
Nicholas Kristof: My wife was at home that evening, filing her story. It was actually kind of agonizing for her and for my editors, because it was a Saturday night, when we have early deadlines. In the course of being shot at, I’d quite forgotten that it was Saturday night and that the deadlines were early. After I’d stayed for quite a while in this crowd, being shot at, of course I couldn’t get back to my bike. We’d been driven well away from that. But I ran to the hospital and interviewed some doctors there and then I ran back home. It was quite a bit later than I should have been back, and so they’d been quite worried about it.
You failed to file when they expected you to file?
Nicholas Kristof: Yes. I was at least an hour late coming back. I hadn’t appreciated, since it was a Saturday night, early deadlines, so they thought that maybe the reason that I wasn’t coming back was that I’d been shot, as opposed to just having a very bad sense of the time.
Did your wife know what was going on? It wasn’t covered on Chinese TV, was it?
Nicholas Kristof: No, but they knew what was going on. There were guns going off, and she was on the phone with New York, who was wondering, where’s Nick? So she knew exactly what was going on.
It must have been harrowing for her.
Nicholas Kristof: It was. I haven’t given her gray hairs, because she doesn’t have any gray hairs, but it can be a difficult thing to be a partner of somebody who is a journalist in this kind of situation.
Did the fear factor remain after that one day?
Nicholas Kristof: There was a period for about the next week when the soldiers were doing a fair amount of shooting. I think the moment that I was really sobered was less that first night when I was in the crowd of people, because it was a big crowd. There were a lot of people being shot, but that was in a crowd of more than a thousand. Maybe that gave me a false confidence.
The next day we sneaked into the hospital. The soldiers had ringed the hospital, but some friendly doctors smuggled me in through an underground tunnel from a nearby building, and not only were all the beds filled, but the aisles were full of kids who’d been shot. I talked to them, and it was clear that some of them were people who had taken a great risk. They had been in the front of the crowd. But there were an awful lot of them who had taken a very minor risk. I mean, they were taking risks comparable to those I had taken, or even lesser risks, but their luck had run out, and that was scary, to talk to people who had done exactly what I’d done and their number had come up. Being in that hospital corridor, stained with blood, in general it was a difficult time, and then also, a lot of our friends were imprisoned, were fleeing the country.
Our own most difficult crisis came when we had — there was a young man called Liu Xiang, who had helped us cover Tsinghua University. He was a student, and he had once registered us in the more open time to get into Tsinghua. And afterward, there he was, in this crackdown that got him into trouble. He was interrogated regularly about it. Finally he thought he was about to be arrested, and he fled. He ended up being imprisoned and he escaped from prison and came back to Beijing and asked for our help. Sheryl and I just agonized over that. One thing that is pretty clear in journalistic ethics is that you don’t help an escaped felon leave the country. And if we did that, we would be not only breaking Chinese law, we’d be also risking the closure of the New York Times bureau. We knew we couldn’t ask our editors for advice, because: a) the phone lines were tapped, but b), they could never endorse us risking the closure of the New York Times bureau. On the other hand, here’s a 19-year-old kid who was in trouble because he had helped us and the New York Times readers. If we didn’t help him, he was going to be caught at some point, and who knows what would happen to him. We just agonized over our moral responsibilities there. It was also a little bit complicated, because we worried that this might be an effort to set us up. It was a time when the government didn’t like my reporting and appeared to be trying to kick us out of the country, and it occurred to us that they might have let him out of prison so that he would then compromise us, catch us breaking the law, and then kick us out of the country. It was an immensely difficult decision, but we finally decided we just had to help him. We helped him, in a way with as few fingerprints as we possibly could. He was able to escape to Hong Kong, and I flew down the next day and helped him get to the States. He is now in the U.S. It was enormously unprofessional and yet absolutely the right thing to do.
Once you left China, how did you get back in? They let you back?
Nicholas Kristof: They let me back in. I did have a multiple-entry visa, but the foreign ministry and the state security ministry were debating whether to expel me from China.
That was a hard-won Pulitzer Prize.
Nicholas Kristof: It was, but it also made us feel kind of guilty. Sheryl and I were delighted that we’d won it, of course, but we’d had an awful lot of help from a tremendous number of Chinese. We had won this great glory, but a lot of Chinese were in prison. They certainly weren’t getting any of the credit. And that was kind of difficult. Things became better in subsequent years when more people were released and were able to help some people in some ways. It’s an incredibly difficult situation, to try to figure out what your ethical responsibilities are in a dictatorial regime where you do have some obligation to follow the law, and yet you also have an obligation to other human beings to be decent to them and to help them where you can — navigating that, figuring out to what degree to put Chinese friends at risk.
I remember there was a man who contacted me; he was involved in the defense establishment. And one of the stories that I covered very aggressively was Chinese military sales, missile sales. He had photos and copies of contracts and other data showing sales by China of certain long-range missiles to Pakistan, which China had denied were taking place. He had all the goods on it, and he wanted money for these materials. One of the principles of journalism is you don’t pay for material. So we met many times, and I was trying to convince him to give me the material free, and he was trying to convince me to pay for it. But one of the things you do as a journalist, you try to build a rapport with people, so I would talk about his kids and my kids. He had a wife and a son, a small son. He had a wife and a small son, and he was doing this so that his son would have a little more money and have better toys and have a better future. And it really nagged at me. Finally, I remember at our last meeting, I wasn’t trying to get these materials out of him any more, because I knew that if I published my story that there was a real risk that somehow the source would be tracked down and that he’d be executed. That’s just how it would end. So I was telling him, “Just go home. Go back. Forget about this. Don’t try to sell it to the U.S. Embassy or anybody else. Just go home and forget about it.” It was a very non-journalistic thing to do, but I really didn’t — having made that bond with him for my own benefit — I didn’t want to think about that kid growing up without a father.
In journalism classes, you’re told to be objective and not put yourself into it. Clearly you found that you couldn’t stay completely out of the story.
Nicholas Kristof: Journalistic ethics often don’t work in the real world. They’re important principles, but there are times when principles just don’t work. For example, you should obey the law, but not if that is going to lead to the execution of somebody who’s helped you. One of the principles of journalism is you don’t lie. You never lie. You’re in the truth business. In the Congo, I was once caught by a Tutsi leader who was busy massacring Hutu. I shouldn’t have been there. I was very worried about my own safety, and I lied through my teeth to this guy.I told him that his commander, General Kabila, had authorized me to be there and sent his greetings. Well, this commander didn’t believe a word of it. Why would the commander send me into an area where he’s busy exterminating one tribe? But he couldn’t reach his commander on the radio, and didn’t quite know what to do. So finally, after about 45 minutes or an hour, he let me go. Well, it was at some level utterly inappropriate to lie. On the other hand, if you’re trying to save your own life or somebody else’s, absolutely. Lie.