Nicholas Kristof, CHASING HOPE

Nicholas Kristof, CHASING HOPE

New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and bestselling author Nicholas D. Kristof joins Zibby to discuss his intimate and gripping new memoir, CHASING HOPE: A Reporter’s Life. Nick reveals how a brief stint in politics (running for governor of Oregon… and losing) unexpectedly gave him the gift of time, prompting this memoir. He shares anecdotes from his career in journalism, from editing the high school newspaper to reporting from conflict zones like Darfur. He discusses the challenges and rewards of the job, emphasizing the importance of fact-checking, humility, and compassion.


Zibby: Welcome, Nick. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time To Read Books. Discuss Chasing Hope a reporter's life. 

Nicholas: It's great to be with you. 

Zibby: I asked if I could call you Nick because you also have something in your book where you find out about why you're supposed to write, you know, Nicholas D.

Kristoff on the cover and not just Nick Kristoff and, uh, how important all those optics are when you're a reporter. 

Nicholas: Yeah, and also, the, when I was studying Arabic in Egypt, I discovered that, yeah, Nick was not a, if this were an Arabic language podcast, I would definitely be Nicholas. 

Zibby: Yes. 

Nicholas: Nick is not the greatest word in Arabic.

Zibby: We'll, stick to English for this. We'll see what happens, though. You never know. Okay, when did you decide to write a memoir about your life? When did the, how long has this been in the works? It's so comprehensive, it's so good. What was the backstory of it? 

Nicholas: So the backstory is simply, I had a 10 minute political career.

I ran for governor of, or I left the Times to run for governor of Oregon. That did last, it was very brief. The Secretary of State of Oregon then booted me off the ballot. But, all of a sudden I had Yeah, I had this, you know, this gift of, of time and wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do next. And so I reached out to my publisher and we talked about books and, uh, we decided to do the memoir.

And so I, in my acknowledgments, I really should thank that Secretary of State. 

Zibby: Yes, and the next version, the reprint. 

Nicholas: Yes. 

Zibby: And you talked about that election and the campaign here, and you said you were the only person who got like no votes against you, but also for you, or for you, but also against you. I think your wife is trying to make you feel better.

Nicholas: Yeah, my wife is trying to make me feel better and say, you know, that, uh, I'm the only politician on this side of Kim Jong un in North Korea who has never had a single person cast a ballot against him. 

Zibby: There you go. Totally popular. 

Nicholas: My wife is very sweet. 

Zibby: I also love how you share your sort of romance and you admit being a romantic and you talk about how you met and I loved that you were basically competing against a guy named Jack when you met Cheryl at a party and how he said he had like a car phone, which at the time was like such a big deal and you're like, well, I have a radio and nobody laughed.

I'm like, I love that.

Nicholas: I, yeah, I'm wondering if he's going to read the book and you know, see. How he was outmaneuvered. I got very lucky. I really did. 

Zibby: Oh, well, it sounds like it's a great, a great match. Um, so that's wonderful. You show us in the book, the whole backstory of how you started in your high school because somebody thought, somebody like assigned you the editor because they were like, you weren't here to say no, which is great.

I mean, how we all end up on the Patreon is just amazing. Just such a combination. The randomness of life. 

Nicholas: The randomness of life. 

Zibby: And how you got involved in Harvard with the Crimson and your Not for road scholarship and how you that like help propel you into the world and learning and reporting and your experience in China Tell me what the beginning of your life and how and your family history by the way Which is so fascinating and oh my gosh Tell me how all of these experiences early on sort of set you off on this on this path And even though you thought this might not be what you wanted to do.

This is what you did. 

Nicholas: So, I think I've, I've had a somewhat unusual career as a journalist and as a columnist. You know, I, I haven't done kind of the standard White House, Washington journalism. Uh, I've tried to report both domestically and abroad, you know, from the places that most need the attention. And I think that's in part because I did grow up in this, you know, this tiny little town in rural Oregon.

And it's a place that, you know, kind of has been neglected. Want to provide some focus on issues that I don't think get enough attention. There tends to be a bit of a herd mentality in journalism, and I tried to resist that. And I think another theme of my journalism career has been trying not always successfully to Find a moral purpose in what we cover and what we do and it's something that periodically gets me in trouble and Takes me very close to you know to red lines one of the things I talk about in the book is Helping a Chinese dissident escape from China.

You know, that is not something that a Correspondent should really be doing and yet it's something that That I'm quite proud of having done, and I think that that goes back to, in part, my family. My dad was a World War Two refugee and his life was saved by a diplomat who, you know, who really helped my dad when he really shouldn't have and went beyond what was appropriate, and I exist because of that French diplomat, and later some journalists helped my dad get a visa to the U.

  1. So, I'm A little more sympathetic than many others and maybe than I should be to, you know, to doing what we can to try to have an impact on the world at the margins, but it can be a dangerous game. And I'd be the first to admit that. 

Zibby: Well, and the book starts with you almost dying in this plane crash.

And by the way, it's so genius the way you wrote this because everyone like not everyone. Well, Anyone who shares this sort of anxious brain and all of this, not, not to say you're anxious, but anybody can share in the fear of what they're thinking in the last minutes. And you're like, okay, well, am I going to be cut apart?

Am I going to be burnt incinerated? Like, what is going to happen now? Should I try to take out life insurance at the last second? No. Should I try, you know, just like all the inner workings of your brain. So immediately you're like, oh, I like this guy. I, I am this guy in some way. Like, I know I can, I can relate to those thoughts.

And that's actually one thing you did so well is every single chapter starts with this attention getting opening. I'm like, well, this is what it means to be a good journalist. Look at this. Every chapter is like a new thing. Did you spend a lot of time or was this a choice like that, that the openings were particular?

Not that the rest wasn't strong, but just to make sure you have that punch at the beginning. 

Nicholas: So I think that goes back to a couple of things. I mean, it does go back to journalism and partly because I tend to write about. You know, a lot of difficult topics, genocide, women's rights, then, you know, I have to begin my articles with something really compelling that is going to draw people in and, and the other, uh, so I learned that, you know, that technique, um, over my journalistic career at the times, but the other thing that left a deep impression on me was my first year at the New York Times way back when, 1984, I was living on the Upper West Side, so I take the the IRT train down to Times Square, and everybody around me would be reading the physical New York Times back then.

And I'd be looking around at everybody and they'd get to the page where my article was, and I'd see their eye, you know, fall on the headline. And then maybe they'd read the first paragraph and then they'd move on to the next article. I'd want to grab him and say, I have an amazing 17th paragraph, but of course you don't get that chance unless you have a really compelling first paragraph and second paragraph.

So I sort of, I learned along the way, we've got you, you know, readers have other things they can do. You've got to stay compelling the whole way. 

Zibby: I was just at this keynote speech that Anna Quindlen gave at the Irma Bombeck conference, and she said the same thing, that she would sit there and watch people give up, and she wanted to grab them and be like, Why? What did I say? Why aren't you continuing? 

Nicholas: Well, Etta is an amazing writer. I don't think anybody could begin one of her pieces and not, you know, not keep on going. 

Zibby: Going back to what you said about your family in World War II, you tell a story about a Russian, uh, the mother of a Russian soldier taking in your father and giving him a place to sleep overnight.

And when he asks why she's willing to do that, she says, well, my son is fighting in the Russian army. And I just hope that if he's stranded somewhere, Someone out there is going to give him a place to sleep. I hope I didn't butcher the story. Something like that. That's right. Which I found so moving. Uh, tell me about that because I feel like one of the themes of this whole book is compassion and humanity and like the through line is just be nice.

We're all kind of same under it all. Like I feel like that's one of the takeaways is, you know, just this compassion for people in the world. 

Nicholas: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, that's certainly one of the things that I meant to convey and I, you know, that Was in part because of the tribulations of my family, my family was Armenian and growing up in Eastern Europe in a place where the flag kept changing and they were living in what was then Romania.

It's now southern Ukraine and the but the family had deep connections to Poland. And so, uh, Then when Romania joined the Axis powers, then my family spied on the Nazis and was part of a career network, carrying intelligence on the Nazis through Poland, Romania, and then broadcasting it to London and the family then moved on.

Got caught, got rounded up. Fortunately, Romania then switched sides in 1944 and that, that to some degree saved them for a while. You know, the, the family member who I always think about and that guy in that case was kind of the ringleader of this, uh, Of this spy network and at the end of the war on Romania's national day, the British, there was a big celebration and the British ambassador publicly thanked him and said, you know, it was because of his work sending intelligence on the Nazis.

It helped us win the war. And the next day, the Russians. Rounded him up and sent him off to Siberia where he died. So, you know, somebody had been imprisoned by the Nazis and by the communists and my family lost people to both the Nazis and to the communists. And, you know, if that if that doesn't nurture in one.

A sense of deep hostility toward oppression and a deep empathy for people suffering from oppression, then nothing will. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh. Wow. What a story. It's really hard to believe that it's not fiction. You know, the way you tell it. It would be a really good novel. 

Nicholas: I admire somebody like you who can write fiction because I've, you know, I try periodically and it's, I love to read fiction but somehow, non fiction is not fiction. Here's my metier, but I, I'm glad that it sounds like fiction. 

Zibby: Yeah. Well, you could collaborate. It could be like a joint thing, you know, I don't know. 

Nicholas: Absolutely. 

Zibby: You had a quote that I just love, so I like wrote it down. You said, security, it's like oxygen. You don't notice it until you don't have it.

Tell me a little bit about that because that is a beautiful quote. 

Nicholas: Yeah, that's an echo of something that, that Joe Nye, a Harvard professor, said about East Asia. And I, you know, I, I, I saw it in, in Africa. I mean, like in Central African Republic in complete chaos. And, I remember driving through and there was a clinic that had been built by a German aid organization and it said, you know, gift of the people of Germany, but it had been burned and looted and there was nothing left.

It was a shell. And when I've been covering civil wars and chaos, then. You know, just underscores your first need is, is actually order. So people can get food, they can plant, they can harvest, they can look after their kids, they can establish a school. And maybe for that reason, I'm somewhat at it. You know, look, I tend liberal in many ways, but I tend to be somewhat more sympathetic to military interventions than I think many other liberals are.

In part four, I would have been Rwanda, you know, I certainly would have been willing to use military force in some way for humanitarian ends. 

Zibby: Interesting. Well, speaking of what you would have done had you been in charge and your political aspirations, are you done now? Or, like, are you thinking of coming back?

Why are you not running for president? You know? I, I think I'm done. I keep being like, there must be other people out there. There must be people out there. You're the person. 

Nicholas: It was an amazing, it was an amazing experience to run for office. And I'd been politics adjacent for decades, but I'd never.

Suddenly being on the other side, you know, it was just so different. And I, my team thought that, okay, Christoph may not know campaign finance. He may not know this, but the one thing he's going to be good at is engaging with reporters. And it turned out that was the one thing I was like, most incompetent at orders questions.

And I was like, I was like, why? Why did you answer that question? And I think I started out thinking that politics was fairly dysfunctional And I ended up thinking boy, it's even more dysfunctional than I'd expected And you know, I mean, I think part of why I did this was i'm I think particularly on the west coast There has been a real struggle In the in the blue cities from san diego, los angeles, san francisco, portland, seattle to You To actually get results and accountability and there we have great values, but our outcomes don't match.

Our values and you see that in education K through 12 results. You see that in security and you see that in homelessness. You see that in people in mental health distress who, you know, cannot get help because of laws meant to protect them. I had a schoolmate who froze to death while homeless in the nearby town and it's hard for me to understand that we were helping.

Her by not being able to get her into some kind of an institution. So that was one of the things that propelled me. I was deeply frustrated by where we were in Oregon in ways that I think, you know, are similar in cities up and down the West Coast. I thought there was a weak field. And I thought that the state was so ready for change, that if a reformist governor were elected, that person would have a real mandate to, to try new approaches.

But the Secretary of State disagreed, so. And she, she then subsequently was forced to resign in a corruption scandal and is now under state and federal criminal investigation, so. 

Zibby: So there. 

Nicholas: I should, I really do owe her an acknowledgement in the book. 

Zibby: Oh my goodness. Was there anything you took out where you were like, Eh, I think this might offend somebody too much, or this might hurt this relationship?

Like, did you have to do that at all with the book, or did you edit it sort of as you went, and made sure not to write things? 

Nicholas: Not in terms of, uh, politics. Mm hmm. That I, you know, there were other things where I didn't. I left out some names. I didn't put in the last name of Jack, the guy who maneuvered for my, uh, in the first draft I had his last name.

Zibby: Who is this finance guy? Maybe I know him. 

Nicholas: You know, I, I had to negotiate with Cheryl, who's, uh, my wife, who's a quite private person about what would go in. So there were a couple of good stories that didn't make it in, but you know, Cheryl is the priority and she, she was pretty gracious about letting me, letting me tell some stories. So. 

Zibby: Wow. Well, the pictures are great too. So I hope those are the ones she approved. They were lovely. 

Nicholas: Yes. She, she, she approves everything. 

Zibby: And do you have any sort of process or superstitions when you're writing or is there anything that you do sort of noteworthy about, about that or how you wrote the book or how it differed from, you know, writing an opinion column or anything else?

Nicholas: So, really what was different from this book was all my previous books had been written with Cheryl. And so, you know, this in some ways was easier because it didn't involve that, you know, regular process of negotiation. When we write books together, we, we tend to eddy each other very heavily, and so invariably there is some bruised feelings.

But I must say that, you know, people always ask us, how do you write books together and stay married? And, you know, the truth is, we raise kids together. That's true. And stay married, a book is a piece of cake. You know, you put a manuscript down at night and it stays down. Um, a book doesn't play you off each other.

So a book is, uh, is a lot easier on a marriage than kids are. 

Zibby: Who knew? Who knew? That's so funny. Are you two gonna have any plans to write future books together? 

Nicholas: I hope so. You know, it's, I mean, I love journalism. I love writing my column for the times, but it is it's kind of nice to sit back and provide a larger context, provide a through narrative, you know, make an argument in depth.

And I, you know, it's, it's fun to have a project with one spouse where you are, you know, Both doing something like that together, right, right now, Cheryl and I are, and actually our kids, we've made this family project of trying to produce cider and wine on a family farm, and it's just so different from what we normally do, but it's a wonderful way of working together in this new space and getting the kids involved and arguing about this and that it's.

It's been a lot of fun. And also, you know, as a liberal columnist, I rarely meet a regulation I don't like, and all of a sudden, as this small business owner, I'm outraged at this or that regulation. 

Zibby: I have made cider, and it is hard. I mean, the cider press is hard. A lot of work, right? The, the, is that what it's even called?

Right? You have to like really throw your body into it. 

Nicholas: Our apples are pressed with a automatic press, so we don't have the physical challenge of, uh, pressing it. But, you know, but getting it just right is getting the taste just right is blending it. That is a challenge and it's, I don't do anything.

Artistic. I don't paint. I don't do music. So my artistic outlet is making great cider and wine. 

Zibby: One might argue that your writing is artistic. I mean, well... 

Nicholas: Thank you. 

Zibby: There you go. 

Nicholas: Thank you. 

Zibby: Speaking of, do you have any advice for aspiring authors? Or aspiring journalists in any way. 

Nicholas: I think that, I mean, writing books now is just really hard because basically publishers want to publish people who already have published books and there is this, you know, there is this loop that's very, very hard to break into.

And I, you know, often that involves just some accident where one happens to have some expertise and, uh, often earned the hard way and then, and then manages to, to break that cycle. But I say this about journalism. In some ways, it's a discouraging time because the business model of journalism is somewhat broken, and it's not quite clear how journalists are going to be paid, but I also think that it can be deeply, deeply satisfying.

It's a way of having an imprint on the world. And right now, opinion journalism is kind of the fashion. Everybody wants to shout out what they think. And I think You know, look, I'm an opinion journalist, but I fundamentally believe that what is important is not the opinions we toss out, but the, the facts, the information we bring to the discussion and you know, when I was writing about Darfur, which I think the genocide there, which I think is one of the most important things I did.

My argument wasn't interesting. It wasn't, you know, genocide is bad. That's not a particularly novel thing to say, but I think what made a difference, you know, Was going out talking to people getting the stories and likewise, I think on some of the other reporting that I've done. So I really encourage people not just to think of yourself as a journalist and shout at the world and tell it what to do, but to uncover things to go and report and that one really can bring about change by projecting issues onto the agenda.

Zibby: I love that. It's so funny. I have a friend who has a true crime book that's coming out soon, and he was like, well, what's coming next? Do they do the fact checking? And I was like, eh, I don't think they do fact checking on books anymore. They'll do fact checking on an article, right, on, you know, when you're reporting something, but a full length book, uh, I don't know.

See what your publisher says. 

Nicholas: Yeah, I must say that I, um, I really believe in, in fact checking and I had a graduate student who mercilessly fact checked me in a way that was really helpful. And you know what? I mean, I think that's another lesson from journalism when I try to convey in the book is just the need for, you know, A little more intellectual humility on the part of all of us, maybe particularly in a very polarized time that when we get on our high horse and, you know, really confident about everything, that's the moment to be really careful and to listen to other people who may disagree and recognize that, you know, we all have history of.

Periodically being wrong and one that doesn't mean one doesn't take a moral stance, but it means one has to do so carefully with some knowledge that, hey, it's possible when actually will be wrong. I think that the that older liberals I write this, you know, benefited a little bit because the left was profoundly wrong about communism in the Cold War period.

Well, and even before that, there were a lot of people on the left who were soft on Russian communism, then soft on Maoism, and it was kind of healthy to recognize that. I think it's important to recognize that we had been many people on the left had been wrong about one of the really important issues of the 20th century.

And, you know, maybe that restrained just for a while. And then, you know, from my point of view, Trump is so wrong that he tends to read this. It's overconfidence on the left, disassuredness, and maybe we don't always have enough humility about the possibility that we might actually be wrong about this or that.

Zibby: You wrote about that also in the book, about that whole thing, fact checking and everything and, you know, owning up to mistakes and all that. It's important. Anyway. Absolutely. Great book. So interesting, also just so, I mean fun is the wrong word because there are a lot of serious heavy issues and very disturbing, you know, things in the world that you write about.

But it's, it's very entertaining in the way that you're sucked in and want to like keep reading and find out what happens. So no surprise, but well done. 

Nicholas: Thank you. Thank you. And since you mentioned the plane crash, um, uh, that begins the book, I should clarify that I actually do survive the plane crash. 

Zibby: I should have said that.

Oh my goodness. Well, congrats again and best of luck. 

Nicholas: Thank you, Zibby. Great, great conversation and good luck with your own, with your own work. 

Zibby: Thank you. Take care. Have a great day.

Nicholas Kristof, CHASING HOPE

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens