The Journalist Biography in an Age of Crisis

Nicholas Kristof started his journalism career as a teen-age reporter for the News-Register, an Oregon county newspaper where he was paid twenty-five cents a column inch. He spent his pocket money on books about how to turn that gig into a career: a textbook on news editing, “The Best of Life,” accounts of White House reporters and foreign correspondents. The latter was particularly fascinating to him; the books claimed that foreign correspondents had “the authority and expense account to jump on a plane and go wherever they think best,” Kristof recalls in his new autobiography, “Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life.” But how could he join their ranks? He went back to look for clues. “One book noted that some of them are Rhodes Scholars; I decided I had better be a Rhodes Scholar.” So he became one, and went to Oxford after graduating from Harvard, in 1981. On breaks between terms, he sent himself on assignments to Eastern Europe and West Africa, racking up freelance clips that helped him get hired, at the age of twenty-five, by the New York Times, where he would spend most of his career.

Though Kristof’s story is one of singular—at times nauseating—meritocratic prowess, his impulse to study his predecessors’ paths is not unusual. Journalism is a relatively young profession whose norms have changed constantly; journalism schools started only in the early twentieth century, and many practitioners never formally study the craft. I’m no exception, as I was reminded when I read two new books about the lives of illustrious journalists: Kristof’s memoir and “The Rulebreaker: The Life and Times of Barbara Walters,” by Susan Page, a D.C.-based journalist. Old habits insisted that there was something to learn from careers as disparate as those of Walters, who dominated what her biographer calls the “big TV interview”—her sitdown with Monica Lewinsky, in 1999, was watched by some seventy million Americans—and Kristof, who pioneered the modern human-rights beat and embodied an idealistic, internationalist early-millennium Zeitgeist. Each was indisputably great at their job, but their sensibilities are polar opposites. Walters championed an enduring mashup of facts and entertainment which brought personal and sentimental elements into the fold of news. Kristof, meanwhile, admits that he views journalism “not just as a technical craft but as one with an ethical mission: a better world,” and he pushed the profession’s norms with an activist’s zeal.

Although the contents of both books can be reasonably called current events, they also read like history. Walters died in 2022, but her career milestones are already blurry; when she retired from “The View,” the talk show she co-created, in 2014, so many female correspondents had already followed her example that there was a “high-heeled traffic jam” to honor her. It’s no longer remarkable to be a woman journalist, or unusual for journalists to have an activist bent. But it is, increasingly, somewhat incredible to be a journalist at all. During a particularly despairing moment for the field, how should we read these exemplary careers?

Kristof’s early life was largely one of virtue rewarded: before Harvard and Oxford, he sailed through public school in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he also worked on his family’s sheep farm and cherry orchard. Although Kristof’s Oregon classmates were mostly white and working class, his father came from a noble Armenian family and fled Iron Curtain Romania, eventually becoming a political scientist in the U.S. Kristof’s parents, both university professors, co-founded a chapter of Amnesty International, and their dining table was “cluttered with appeals for political prisoners around the world.” As an aspiring reporter in this cosmopolitan household, Kristof was entrepreneurial from the start. He broke into a local newspaper at age fourteen by covering a field trip to Seattle, which occasions one of his few admissions of impure motivation: “the ego thrill of the byline.” When that publication went bust, he and his classmates started mailing out his high school’s paper to neighbors. After a brief interlude at Harvard’s student newspaper, Kristof spent his early twenties reporting on conflicts in Ghana, Sudan, and Poland, for outlets like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, sometimes through exigent means, like getting American tourists leaving Warsaw to smuggle handwritten stories to editors. If he faced any of the typical obstacles of the early-career journalist—pitching editors, reporting in a foreign language, competing with more established journalists—we don’t hear about them.

Kristof landed at the Times in 1984, as a business reporter—though he didn’t yet know what the Nasdaq was. He was rapidly promoted and became the paper’s youngest national correspondent, in L.A., and then its youngest foreign correspondent, in Hong Kong, at twenty-seven. Kristof recalls it as the “golden age of foreign correspondence.” The Times flew him business class, paid for a six-bedroom apartment, gave him a company credit card, and floated “intimations that expense accounts were not closely monitored.” At twenty-eight, he was tapped for Beijing bureau chief, which he made an even better deal by negotiating a role for his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, as the second Times China correspondent. Arthur (Punch) Sulzberger, part of the family that owns the paper, personally intervened to help her get accredited—one of many details from these years that follows the logic of a fairy tale.

How would Kristof return this astounding investment in human capital? He turned thirty in April, 1989, during the student protests in Tiananmen Square. He and WuDunn covered them around the clock and were there when the Chinese government declared martial law, and Kristof raced to the scene on June 3rd, when the Army opened fire on thousands of civilians. “In the midst of a massacre,” he writes blithely, “I had found my place.” In 1990, Kristof and WuDunn became the first married couple to win a Pulitzer. Kristof’s rise was dizzying, but his sense of his own life is too picaresque to convey what it felt like.

That same year, he fatefully encountered a study estimating that thirty-nine thousand infant girls died in China each year because they weren’t given the same food or health care as boys. It was a watershed. “The number of girls who died of gender discrimination every month was far greater than the number of people killed in the Tiananmen crackdown,” Kristof writes. “Yet . . . I hadn’t written a single column inch about these girls.” He mobilized this guilt in his subsequent role as Tokyo bureau chief, a staid posting that he disrupted by assigning himself to cover grittier stories, farther afield, such as sex trafficking in Cambodia and the Congo civil war. In the process, he formulated his signature journalistic posture: explicitly engagé, and focussed on intractable social issues, not just sexy headline events. It helped, when developing this beat, that the news business wasn’t yet beholden to readership metrics. There was no way to know, Kristof writes, which stories people actually read, unlike today, when we “know just how much better a story about Meghan Markle will do than one about famine in Somalia.”

He returned to the U.S., and a changing industry, in 1999. Gone were the lavish expense accounts; news organizations were being pressured to squeeze out more shareholder value as the Internet collapsed advertising revenue. Kristof became ensconced as a Times opinion columnist in late 2001, and used his inaugural pieces to report from Iraq and Afghanistan in the lead-up to, and early days of, the forever wars. But pretty soon, like other globally minded liberals of the era, he shifted his attention to places where the U.S. military had fewer interests and leaned into his niche in global health and development. His classic body of reporting from the late nineties and early two-thousands dovetailed with a heyday of development economics—Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom” was published in 1999—and an era of technocratic optimism that, if we diligently applied the resources of the rich world, many problems in the developing world could be solved.

Kristof’s role in this panorama was spotlighting issues most people hadn’t even heard of, such as diarrhea from contaminated water, which killed more than three million children a year. (Kristof writes that his reporting on the subject reached Bill and Melinda Gates, who have donated millions to the cause.) His broader theories can be somewhat banal—“I came to think that the two crucial factors for development are mass education and good governance and leadership”—but he’s at the height of his powers on subjects like child malnutrition. Even his retelling in the book is striking: “Children dying of starvation are eerily quiet. They are in enormous pain but they don’t cry. Their hair has fallen out, they have sticks for limbs, they suffer painful skin rashes, yet they are almost completely passive. . . . [The body] doesn’t waste energy on tears.”

After a decade as the world’s most famous journalist on the development beat, Kristof’s brand started to plateau. His readers may have changed, too. The idealism of the early millennium petered out in the Trump years, the recounting of which also introduces a sneering register to Kristof’s narration. In 2021, he left the Times to run for governor of Oregon and “quickly became the state’s first Democratic candidate to raise $1 million, in just a month.” But the campaign ended anticlimactically when he was disqualified because of residency requirements, and the paper welcomed him back in 2022: somewhat the prodigal son, but still “the quintessential trusted voice.” His idealistic world view does not seem fundamentally dented. You can see how his life story came to be narrated with chapter titles like “Covering Genocide and Poverty Left Me an Optimist.”

It wasn’t idealism but raw determination that propelled Barbara Walters to the forefront of her field. “She interviewed a wider range and a larger number of the world’s political leaders than anyone else, before or since, giving Americans a personal introduction even to despots and dictators,” Page, her biographer, writes. The book’s opening anecdote revolves around the forty-six-year-old Walters getting a record-setting salary of a million dollars a year from ABC, in 1976. Page draws attention to a derisive comment from a senator who lamented how “this little girl” was making five times more than the President. Even if you don’t scale that figure—some $5.5 million today—Page’s note of indignation rings a little false. Then again, the often-mercenary Walters was never easy to cheer for, even as she careened through glass ceilings in real time.

The brand of infotainment that Walters pioneered succeeded the dispassionate broadcasts of Walter Cronkite and dominated what Page calls the “golden age of television journalism.” Walters likely would have found a way to hack whatever objective most counted for success in any era: page views, clicks, scoops. In mid-century broadcast news, it was big-name interviews, and she raised the art of getting them “to a contact sport.” Walters had a sixth sense for sound bites, as when she got Richard Nixon to say that he “probably should have” burned the Watergate tapes, or Monica Lewinsky to admit she had experienced sexual pleasure. She prepared for these by writing out dozens of questions on index cards, and she booked many of her high-profile guests herself.

Walters was born in September, 1929, and grew up during the Great Depression shuttling between Massachusetts, New York, and Florida, where gangsters like Al Capone patronized her father’s night club. In 1955, she was hired as a writer at “The Morning Show” on CBS—“mostly,” per one of the producers, “because she had a darling ass.” Though women were undermined and sidelined in the newsroom, Walters pushed for on-air assignments and revealed her skill at getting tragedy victims to talk on live television. In 1961, she was hired to help produce the much bigger “Today” show on a thirteen-week contract, and stuck around for more than a decade. A producer flatly told her that she didn’t have the “right looks” to be on the air, and her “easy-to-mock lisp had resisted the corrective efforts of voice coaches,” per Page. Nevertheless, Walters “badger[ed] everyone half to death” to get on air covering stories like Jackie Kennedy’s tour of South Asia. A couple of years later, she beat out more glamorous candidates to become a full-time “Today” anchor.

Walters herself has narrated these heady years in a memoir, “Audition,” from 2008, and Page doesn’t dramatically enrich that self-portrait in her workaday third-person account. Seemingly through sheer force of will, Walters expanded her remit beyond what one executive called “girl-type subjects” to harder news. And a spot of luck, when a male colleague died in 1974, got her promoted to co-host on “Today”—making her the only woman to co-host any network-news program. Suddenly, she was such hot talent that ABC wanted to poach her; her eventual first day there was such a milestone that President Gerald Ford telegrammed his congratulations.

“None dare call it show biz,” Time wrote, warning that the “new and less hard-newsy combination of interviews, news-you-can-use features and ad libbing is being watched closely by CBS and NBC.” This was the pre-cable age, when some forty million Americans tuned in for the evening news on the three big networks. After a rough start, Walters played fast and loose to court big names. “I love to flirt and be flirted with,” she admitted in a 1970 book—“an approach that made some more traditional female journalists cringe,” per Page. Feminine wiles aside, there were also long hours (she described her work as a “five to nine” job), extensive correspondence (writing to John Lennon’s killer for a decade until he agreed to an interview), subterfuge (swiping interviews from rivals, especially her younger colleague Diane Sawyer), gimmicks (hiding in the bathroom of Camp David), and literal athleticism (crossing a Cairo airport “like a football player going into the play” to join Walter Cronkite in Anwar Sadat’s plane). Walters steadily expanded her Fifth Avenue apartment’s “Wall of Radicals” with mementos from interviews with the likes of Yasir Arafat and Fidel Castro. Her 2011 sitdown with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, won after years of networking and resulting in a minor favor-trading scandal, was praised by the stodgy foreign-policy press, and her interview with Lewinsky was dissected in the American Bar Association Journal as a case study in effective questioning.

In 1965, Gloria Steinem wrote that “the shift from the old ‘Today Girl’—who was usually a coffee-server and amiable lightweight—to Barbara Walters is the television industry’s change of attitude in microcosm.” But Walters was, as Page writes, “determined to win the game, not change its rules.” Walters once remarked, “I think that a little of a woman goes a long way on television . . . our voices are different and can easily become tiresome.” And she declined to join a gender-discrimination lawsuit initiated by female colleagues at NBC. (A contemporary remembered that Walters “occasionally chipped in for fundraisers for the litigation, but she largely kept her distance when it mattered.”) Page’s biography argues, somewhat artlessly, that Walters nevertheless advanced women’s prospects in the workplace by example. It remains sobering to clock the sexism that she put up with, like a provision demanded by her “Today” colleague that he could “ask the first three questions without interruption during remote interviews from Washington” before Walters was allowed to speak. In the nineties, an ABC executive remarked that Walters’s career was almost over, because “nobody wants to see a woman over sixty on television.” She soon had the idea for a panel show featuring women from different generations. “The View” premièred in 1997, and Walters hosted it until she was eighty-four.

Both of these books invoke a lost “golden age,” whether of foreign correspondence or TV news. For most journalists today, hardened by precarity, the lives of Kristof and Walters likely seem as distant as the Bronze Age, and the elements of their careers—million-dollar salaries, elaborate schemes to get quotes from dictators, cloying declarations of admiration for their employers—like shards of ancient pottery. You could try to reconstruct their careers, but to what end? It hardly bears repeating that both journalism and media today are much changed, even existentially challenged. Yet I was surprised to feel, after several hundred pages tracking the vertiginous ascents of both Walters and Kristof, a creeping sense of relief: thank God we have other sources of news today. Their era of vast expense budgets and network-executive wars was also the era of torturous gatekeeping; it’s no surprise that one wunderkind was handed such enormous resources, or that a network’s few female correspondents were encouraged to fight to the death. Today, far more people can practice journalism—can record and convey factual information—than when either Walters or Kristof got their starts. Although the field’s jobs and gigs are in a sorry state, I hope we don’t call time on the profession right when it’s opening up to so many new voices. Women today can look back on the sexism of Walters’s era as dated and, often, illegal; Kristof writes that his wife was the first Chinese American reporter at the Times, indicating just how homogenous newsrooms were in the recent past.

Walters once wrote, “No matter how high my profile became, how many awards I received, or how much money I made, my fear was that it all could be taken away from me”—a broadly relatable sentiment today, when the scarcity and uncertainty once imposed on women is now imposed on just about everyone. The journalistic careers of the twenty-first century will probably be more like patchworks than the long, continuous arcs of the twentieth: funded by other income streams and other jobs; increasingly reliant on grants; with freelance as a rule, not a way station. (Again, I’m no exception.) Those who manage to endure the field’s long, difficult growing pains will have substantive legacies to advance, such as Kristof’s powerful evangelism for covering global health or even Walters’s mercenary pursuit of talking heads, which seems freshly relevant in the age of the no-news Presidency. From where I stand, the traits that once made Kristof and Walters soar—doggedness, enterprise, ingenuity—are widely distributed among those who have stuck it out this far; everyone now works “five to nine,” everyone who has survived layoffs has the courage once demanded of a select few. Anyone reading these books didactically can take heart that they already have what it takes. ♦

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