New York Times columnist speaks at UI


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The global issues of genocide and human trafficking may seem far away for some, but for a New York Times columnist who dropped into Iowa City Monday, the topics strike particularly close to home.

The reason? He’s experienced both.

Addressing a crowd of University of Iowa faculty, students, and staff, as well as Iowa City area residents in the IMU Main Lounge, Nicholas Kristof discussed gender inequity as a part of the annual University of Iowa Lecture Series.

Kristof, who began his career with the Times in 1984, went on to win his first Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the Tiananmen Square democratic movement in China in 1989. Today, his work hones in on international human-rights issues and he uses his platform as a journalist to give those affected by human-rights violations a voice. 

Kristof said he frequently visits a number of universities and enjoys the chance to connect with younger generations and bring about increased awareness human-rights issues.

“We [as members of the press] have a big spotlight,” Kristof said in a live interview on Monday at KRUI. “And when we shine that spotlight on something … that is the first step toward putting that on the public agenda. It’s important not to just stir up the soup but add things to it.”

Kristof is one of the leading people in the world adding things to this soup. He has traveled all around the world, visiting more than 150 countries and reporting on many different human-rights issues, such as education disparity and world hunger.

But that traveling, he said, has come with witnessing a number of tragedies.

At his lecture Monday night, Kristof said the genocide in Darfur stands as just one of those instances and served as a precursor to his winning a second Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

The near-fatal beating of a girl in Darfur who spoke with Kristof was instrumental in helping him realize he needed to get stories out about this and similar human-rights issues, he said.

“She said, ‘This is the only way I have to fight back,’” he said. “If somebody can use their stories … it provides some meaning to their suffering.”

Of the most important issues that is relevant today, he said, centers on one segment of gender issues.

“The … paramount moral challenge [today] is the profound gender inequity that is found in the world,” he said, noting that in much of the world, sex discrimination is lethal.

And although his primary role as a journalist traditionally calls him to be removed from the story, Kristof tries to take a more active role in human rights.

Rather than allowing further mistreatment or abuse, in a trip to Cambodia, he bought the freedom of two teenage girls from a brothel owner.

“When you get a written receipt for buying a human being, [you know that] something really is wrong,” he said.

As part of his interview with KRUI, he said one thing that makes it more difficult to spread the news about these atrocities is the state of media today.

“It has to be based on real reporting to start with, and unfortunately, that’s often not the case now,” he said. “It’s really important that we reach out to young people in all kinds of ways. I want to get people to care about issues that I care about.”

UI journalism Associate Professor Stephen Berry, who has won a Pilitzer himself, said he believes that Kristof has a unique and valuable perspective on these issues.

“Mr. Kristof brings a very solid and intelligent and rational voice to public affairs, and he brings a measure of reason,” Berry said. “He brings a very rational way of looking at issues.”

Two UI students who attended the presentation said they were affected by his deep caring.

“[It gave me] the reminder that I have the responsibility to play my small part in changing the world,” said UI graduate student Ryan Youtz.

UI Ph.D. candidate Shawn Harmsen, a follower of Kristof’s columns, said it is clear to him that the journalist takes an active approach to the issues.

“He’s a very interesting columnist,” Harmsen said. “This [is] a man who was not content to just observe.”

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