My Other Beef with Kristof

This past weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof caused an uproar among academic bloggers when he published an op-ed titled “Professors, We Need You!,” in which he decried a supposed generalized lack of public engagement among academics. The response from those academics who are on social media was “Just because you don’t read us doesn’t mean we’re not here.”

I don’t want to add to my publicly engaged colleagues’ outrage regarding this last Kristof crisis beyond the fact that in my job, my social media engagement (insofar as it relates to my research and teaching, of course) counts as “outreach,” which is a distinct portion of our annual review, so maybe Kristof should look to land grant institutions for solace: Just on my part of the University of Minnesota campus, my colleague Jonathan Foley finds time to be publicly engaged, even though I’m sure being director of the Institute on the Environment (on top of his own research, teaching, and other committee responsibilities) keeps him very busy.

I did want to comment, however, on how this should not have surprised anyone in light of past experience.

A few weeks ago, Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of actress Mia Farrow and film director Woody Allen, wrote an open letter in which she accused Woody Allen of sexually abusing her. You can read that letter here.

Besides how horrific what Woody Allen has allegedly done to Dylan Farrow is, does anything strike you about that letter?

What I found striking about it was that instead of having been published as a regular New York Times op-ed — and I’m sure Ms. Farrow could have gotten it published as such had she tried — this was published as… a post on Kristof’s blog!

In a short preface to Dylan Farrow’s letter, Kristof writes:

So why publish an account of an old case on my blog? Partly because the Golden Globe lifetime achievement award to Allen ignited a debate about the propriety of the award. Partly because the root issue here isn’t celebrity but sex abuse. And partly because countless people on all sides have written passionately about these events, but we haven’t fully heard from the young woman who was at the heart of them. I’ve written a column about this, but it’s time for the world to hear Dylan’s story in her own words.

The emphasis is mine. To me, this really reads more like “it’s time for the world to hear Dylan’s story in her own words–as curated by me, Nicholas Kristof!”

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What Ms. Farrow claims to have suffered at the hands of Woody Allen is horrible and, as such, I believe it needs no commentary. So for one to cast oneself front and center of that story is, in my view, very distasteful, and it reeks of attention seeking.

In July 2012, I wrote:

I am not a Kristof fanboi. In fact, I thought Kristof’s live-tweeting of a police raid on a Cambodian brothel he had been invited to join in on was in poor taste, and I find the “White Savior” persona — in Kristof or anyone else – off-putting. (UPDATE: I also thought his criticizing a poor Malawian for smoking, drinking, and visiting prostitutes in this column to be beyond patronizing.)

The live-tweeting of a police raid on a Cambodian brothel that employs children as prostitutes, the curating of Dylan Farrow’s letter, the ignorance of the academic blogosphere — all this, to me, points to a degree of self-centeredness that borders on the solipsistic, something that is best captured by Corey Robin in his response to Kristof (again, the emphasis is mine):

If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything. And Kristof doesn’t. He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker. He doesn’t see the many men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand.

But in my July 2012 post, I also wrote:

The New York Times is in the business of selling newspapers. Space in the New York Times‘ editorial pages comes at a premium. Don’t think for a second that the New York Times would publish Kristof’s columns in its editorial pages if they didn’t correspond exactly to what the New York Times‘ readership wants from a foreign correspondent.

Given the high degree of narcissism the baby boom generation exhibits and transmitted to its children and the resultant narcissism epidemic, is it any surprise that that what the so-called newspaper of record offers its readers are solipsistic, self-centered musings in which one casts himself front and center amid other people’s greatest tragedies? The New York Times is merely selling what its readers want to buy.

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One comment

  1. Gabriel Power

    If we define outreach and public engagement as the diffusion of research findings, perhaps with policy prescriptions, I would argue it is possible that researchers might do more harm than good. The reason is that the ideas that capture the public’s imagination are those research findings that shock or surprise, and these usually turn out to be wrong. (Scientific American ran an article about how most scientific ideas people believed were in fact wrong.)

    For instance, on the minimum wage, everyone quotes the surprising findings of Card & Krueger (1994, AER). Though well executed and seminal, this article is not representative of the broader literature.

    Outreach is great, but we should be cautious about disseminating novel findings with policy implications that could be proven wrong later on.