Griz Chat with Nicholas Kristof

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof will visit the University of Montana this month. Photo courtesy of Kristof

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof will visit the University of Montana this month as the University’s annual Mansfield Lecture. Free and open to the public, Kristof will present “Rebuilding America” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 10, at UM’s Dennison Theatre. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

His lecture will provide an in-depth look at how economic and social upheaval has prevented millions from achieving the American dream, as well as how people are working together to rebuild upward mobility.

 A journalist for The New York Times, Kristof has covered presidential politics and interviewed leaders like President Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 1990, Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Kristof won his second Pulitzer for his work documenting the genocide in Darfur.

Ahead of his lecture, Kristof shared his thoughts with the UM News Service about the value of a liberal arts education in the modern world, how journalism is changing and how interviewing warlords influence his world view.  

UM News: You speak several languages fluently, including Arabic and Chinese, in addition to possessing an Oxford law degree. How has your training in the liberal arts prepared you for the world stage? Why should UM students consider a liberal arts discipline?  

Kristof: People sometimes think that the useful disciplines are computer science or business, while those who study the liberal arts end up as dog-walkers. I don't think that's true. The liberal arts offer a toolbox − especially in communication and critical thinking − that is useful whatever you end up doing. So, we definitely need computer science majors, but we also need philosophy and English majors. And some of the most successful job-seekers will be those who have both quantitative and verbal skills, both hard and soft toolboxes.

UM News: You’ve covered some of the world’s most pressing problems, from human rights violations to foreign governments collapsing. Are there any particular experiences that have stuck with you over the years?

Kristof: My most unforgettable trip was covering the Congo civil war in 1997. It started when the plane I was in crashed, destroying the plane and killing one person. After that, I thought I'd drive out, so I hired a four-wheel drive vehicle and set off for Uganda. But I promptly ran into a warlord who was massacring people, and his troops ended up chasing my vehicle through the jungle for the next week. And in the course of that I caught the most lethal kind of malaria. Definitely not just a day in the office.

But if that trip was scary, I should say that there are so many other times I've been utterly inspired in Congo. A Polish nun awed me with her lifesaving work in eastern Congo. And a doctor named Denis Mukwege has won a Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic work fighting sexual violence. Such people give me faith in humanity.

UM News: You were one of the first bloggers for The New York Times, and you’ve thrived as a journalist in a rapidly changing field. As technology changes and new media platforms emerge, what are the founding principles of journalism that will remain the same?

Kristof: In some ways, journalism is rapidly changing. The New York Times has changed more in the last six years than in the previous 30 years. In another sense, though, storytelling is largely the same as it was in the time of Homer. Humans love stories, and the kinds of stories we enjoy are pretty much the same in the Iliad and on Facebook. I would only add that journalism should have somewhat higher standards for accuracy than either the Iliad or Facebook! 

UM News: Your most recent book “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” co-written with your wife, Sheryl WuDunn, details the systems and societal infrastructure that have kept people from upward mobility. What were some of the opportunities presented to you as a kid who grew up on a farm on Oregon that allowed you to achieve your own American Dream?

Krisotf: I won the lottery with my family. I was surrounded by books, my parents read to me, they loved me, they believed in me. The next house down the road had parents who were alcoholics and probably didn't have a single children's book in the house. The two boys in that house were my closest neighbors and daily companions, and one is homeless and the other is serving a life sentence in prison. I think all the time about the greater opportunities I had that set me apart, and, frankly, I sometimes feel a measure of survivor's guilt. 

UM News: In all of your diverse contributions to our global conversation, what have you found to be the common denominators that make us human?  

We all have loved ones who bring out the best in us. We all have dreams for our children. We all have a sense of humor. And almost all of us have a sense of empathy and right and wrong. I've sat down with terrorists, extremists and warlords, and I've usually found it is possible to talk to them and find some common ground even when they have committed horrendous crimes. We humans are capable of extraordinary greatness and extraordinary evil. 


Contact: Kyra Cronin, UM Mansfield Center program coordinator, 406-243-2988,