Chasing Hope: A Reporter's Life

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Release Date: 
May 14, 2024
Reviewed by: 

Many people may have read the articles, tweets, or even previous books of New York Times journalist Nicholas D Kristof but Chasing Hope is his first autobiography. The book is a three-legged stool that tells a story of the changing nature of the media industry, global events as seen through Kristof’s own eyes, and of course the wider life and times of the man himself. Frustratingly the breadth of covering this triumvirate means that each individually lacks a depth that would allow it to stand above the shoulders of similar biographies.

One can’t help feeling reading the book that several stories within it could be unpacked and become standalone tomes to themselves. The story of his father and his family’s escape from war and tyranny in Europe was one of those. So much boiled down to the generosity of one French official in Yugoslavia who helped him escape to America. A single act of generosity and humanity that would reverberate through the lives of so many touched by its consequences. Later in the book Kristof’s tale of the kids he used to travel on a school bus and the challenges of poverty and addiction that blighted so many of their lives was enlightening before we learn that he’d already written a previous book, Tightrope, on exactly that subject.

Kristof describes the book as a “love letter to journalism” and its title explains his inherited predisposition as a “optimistic liberal” with “ink (that) runs in my blood.” He advocates for journalism as “an act of hope,” although he admits that so much focus on war and disasters disguises macro trends in the progress of humanity toward reducing poverty and disease. He confesses to being a self-proclaimed ideologue who believes his “purpose driven journalism that exposes injustice” can change the world. Sometimes this can veer toward being a bit “holier than thou” with occasional reflections such as “to be human, sometimes, is to set high standards for ourselves that we then fail to meet.”

There can be little doubting the ferocity of his early ambition and talent. The resumé the book describes jumps from an idyllic childhood in rural Oregon to a checklist that includes Harvard, becoming a Rhodes Scholar, a scholarship to the American University of Cairo before a career in journalism dominated almost entirely by work with the New York Times. Work at the paper took him from California to Hong Kong, China to Japan, before he eventually becomes a roving OpEd international writer reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan to mention just a few.

Along the way he picked up numerous languages—study toward these barely mentions a sentence in the book—two Pulitzer Prizes and a marriage to a similar successful wife, Sheryl WuDunn. One of those prizes was for reporting from the Tiananmen Square massacre. “In the midst of a massacre, I had found my place,” he explains.

Woven throughout the book is a tension between wanting to report on the world and to actively change it. Kristof explains that journalism when “harnessed to some larger vision” gives it meaning.” His bully pulpit has allowed him to raise issues and catalyse change. As he writes “when journalism projects an issue onto the agenda and forces people to pay attention, it can have an impact.” In a sense his biggest enemy is indifference, although he is equally scathing of intelligence devoid of cause. Almost crammed into the end of the book is a moment of inflection where Kristof leaves the New York Times to run for governor in Oregon. Although forced out of the race by a technicality, it leaves a huge “what if” hanging over the reader as to which field of public life this remarkable man would have achieved more positive influence in.