From a Journalist to a Governor?


Nicholas Kristof, one of America’s most prominent journalists, wishes to become governor of Oregon. Not all Democrats are enthusiastic.

The leftist writer Upton Sinclair attempted it, as did Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal: Looking back over America’s history, one finds no shortage of authors who pursued political power. But not all of them were successful. In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor of California; Mailer ran for mayor of New York in 1969, and Vidal made two unsuccessful attempts at seeking office in California’s congressional delegation — once in the 1960s and again in the 1980s.

Now Nicholas Kristof, author and, until recently, a New York Times columnist, wishes to become governor of Oregon. The 62-year-old is running as a Democrat. Experts believe his chances to be so-so, yet the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner is convinced that he can help people in the Northwest overcome a range of crises. In his last column for the Times, bearing the heading “A Farewell to Readers,” he appealed to readers to fight against indifference and poverty. For him, his experiences in Darfur, where he reported on genocide, and his economically underdeveloped hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, have demonstrated that cynicism is unhelpful and that one must actively fight against injustice. Everyone in Oregon should have a chance, according to his still rather empty campaign website “Nick for Oregon.” No concrete policy ideas can be found there, yet according to media reports, Kristof has already received more than $1 million in donations.

Kristof is leaving behind a successful career in order to focus on the election campaign. He was one of the first journalists to voice suspicion that George W. Bush’s government was lying about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war in Iraq. Kristof’s research was later used in the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

Getting Readers To Shake Off Their Indifference

In the last few years, Kristof has placed increased focus on his own home state. With his book about the life stories of his former classmates in Yamhill, he took a clear stand against the much-criticized phenomenon of “parachute journalism,” in which reporters fly into an area for only a few days.

Kristof has often stated that his mission as a journalist is to get readers to shake off their indifference. Critics have accused him of taking sides, rather than solely providing information about conflicts. However, for many people, their belief in the morality of this standpoint has been diminished by the years under Donald Trump. Kristof felt as if he had been vindicated in his view that journalists are also entitled to take a stand, as long as they make it clear that they are expressing their own opinion. In taking this view, he sees himself as part of a tradition of American journalists such as Ida B. Wells, who used her writings to fight against the injustice of lynching and racial segregation in the South.

Meanwhile, Kristof’s problem could be that his popularity is strongest outside of Oregon. Over half of the donations he has received up to this point have not come from there, but from celebrities such as actor Angelina Jolie, designer Diane von Furstenberg and philanthropist Melinda Gates. Actor and activist Mia Farrow has stated that she only started to concern herself with the Darfur genocide after reading Kristof’s columns. Former U.N. ambassador Samantha Power described his efforts as “tireless,” and former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called Kristof an “honorary African.”

Part of a ‘White Savior Industrial Complex’

But not everyone is a fan of the journalist. Several reactions to Kristof’s candidacy demonstrate that with his viewpoints, he has maneuvered himself right into the ideological arguments taking place on the left. Many think of him as a liberal who has progressive views on some issues, but would never do anything to harm the material interests of his donors. For the author Teju Cole, the journalist is even part of a “white savior industrial complex.” That is how Cole describes white people who, despite not possessing a great deal of prior knowledge, wish to solve social problems affecting people of color. Frequently, this has negative consequences, and many white people with such a complex are primarily concerned with their own image, Cole wrote in an article for The Atlantic magazine.

Kristof’s attempts to combat human trafficking were not well received by sex workers. As prostitution is illegal in all but a few places in the U.S., this title often encompasses adults who sell sex by choice. In an interview, Elle Stanger from the Oregon Sex Workers Committee said that she fears that if Kristof were governor, he would penalize prostitutes, overregulate the industry and destroy all of the progress that has been made toward legalization. A few years ago, Kristof’s reporting on Somaly Mam brought him criticism, as it later emerged that the Cambodian activist had fabricated her life story and coached other sex workers to lie about their history as victims of abuse.

Kristof’s work has been mainly focused on the exploitation of minors. It may be because of him that the site backpage.com was prevented from procuring people under 18 who had been forced into prostitution. Kristof had researched the platform, which was shut down in 2018, and dedicated several columns to it. In recent years, the journalist has turned his attention to the porn platform Pornhub, a site which, despite having some safety measures in place, has featured videos with women who did not consent to their publication. The magazine The New Republic subsequently accused Kristof of fighting a “holy war” against the site. His efforts for traumatized women fall “somewhere between beneficent voyeurism and journalistic malpractice,” commentator Melissa Gira Grant wrote. Pornhub is one of the most-visited websites ever. That is not the only reason why it is by no means clear whether Kristof’s popularity among celebrities will ultimately translate into votes.

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About Kirsty Low 73 Articles
I am a German to English translator from Scotland with a passion for all things related to language and translation. I have experience translating texts from diverse fields and enjoy taking on new challenges.

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