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Nicholas Kristof, renowned author and award-winning journalist, joined Frank Bruni for a conversation covering the most pertinent issues of today's headlines. Discussing topics such as the 2024 election, global conflict, education, and the importance of journalism, Kristof and Bruni shared the stage at Page Hall for a fireside chat between two New York Times columnists.

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Two men sitting on stage talking.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nick Kristof (left) and Frank Bruni (right)

It was a night energized by Kristof’s enduring optimism. Despite a career that has spotlighted some of the worst atrocities in recent history, he continues to find hope in the progress of humankind and the individuals who have motivated him to continue his mission of giving a voice to the world’s most vulnerable populations.

In this latest event in Sanford’s Rubenstein Lecture series, Bruni guided a conversation brimming with humorous and insightful wisdom from Kristof as he gave the packed audience a glimpse of his career journey, including a recent (short-lived) campaign for governor of Oregon. (He was deemed ineligible shortly after declaring his candidacy due to a residency requirement).

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Two men on stage sitting and talking.

Politics was, in fact, a central theme as the talk began. Starting with a lighthearted question about the recent political conspiracy theories surrounding Taylor Swift, the two political writers then speculated on the 2024 U.S. presidential election and the state of the two major political parties involved. Within this discussion of democracy, Kristof highlighted the integral roles of journalism, education, and religious faith as crucial ingredients in the recipe of American unity as the nation faces increasing polarization.

As an internationally focused journalist, Kristof also addressed the current global headlines. Sharing his thoughts on the current conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, he also relayed his thoughts on the U.S. relationship with China. He pointed to the differences between modern-day Chinese leadership and China's foreign policies in the past. Turning towards lesser-known conflicts, he also voiced his concern for suffering and violence in Ethopia, Myanmar, and Sudan.

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Two men sitting on stage talking to each other holding microphones.

As the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, his career has taken him to various corners of the world, covering international events for The New York Times and as a contributing voice to major media outlets for nearly 40 years. His reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 earned him his first Pulitzer and introduced the world to his human-focused approach to journalism. His second Pulitzer came in 2006 for his commentary on the genocide in Darfur. Kristof's columns in The New York Times serve as a platform for his insightful commentary on domestic and international affairs. His writing style combines empathy and analysis, making complex issues accessible to a broad audience.

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Bruni's book "The Age of Grievance" releases this April.

Beyond journalism, Kristof is a prolific author. Collaborating with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, he has co-authored several books, including China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power (1994), Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia (1999), Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009), A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (2014) and Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (2020). His upcoming memoir "Chasing Hope: A Reporter's Life" will be released in May. 

Bruni, Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, who is also releasing a book this Spring, finished the evening with questions submitted from the audience.  

Notable Quotes

On media coverage of the 2016, 2020, and 2024 presidential elections

In covering any election, there is sometimes a tension between fairness and truth. If there is that tension, truth has to have priority, and as journalists, we should ensure we convey that truth to the public.

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Two students listen carefully
Two Master of Public Policy students listen to the talk.

On The history of higher ed as a factor in American prosperity

The U.S. was the first country in the world to have widespread literacy and then widespread secondary education. In the 1970s, we led the world in high school graduation rates and college attendance, but many countries have passed us since.

…I think it (higher education) has consequences for the kind of discourse and politics we can practice, so I’m firmly in the camp that we need to expand higher education and invest more in it.

on Creating opportunities for non-college educated workers

I know somebody roughly my age (in their 60s), and after high school, he did not go to college. He initially had a very high-paying job and a series of high-paying jobs. Gradually, those jobs and industries collapsed, and he is now earning $20,000 or so per year from odd jobs. I think that story is kind of widespread and I think we underutilize America’s talents when we focus too much on qualifications rather than skills.

on covering working policies rather than broken systems

The mistake we make as journalists is that we focus almost exclusively on things that are broken and not working, which leads to public misperceptions that everything is broken and not working. That is hopeless. We cover planes that crash, not planes that land, but actually, there are a lot of planes landing all the time.

I recently looked at the problem of homelessness in two Texas cities: Dallas and Houston. Two cities were not far from each other, with leaders who cared about homelessness. Both tried to address it; in Dallas, it got worse. But in Houston, they managed to reduce homelessness by more than 60%, and that was because of smarter, more evidence-based policy.

The importance of understanding Americans and faith

I often write about faith because if you think about the social forces that shape America, faith is a hugely important one. Evangelicals, in particular, play an enormous role in American politics and civic life across the country.

As a reporter in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen, we all accept that we have to understand the role of Islam in those societies. Likewise, if you want to understand America, you must explore the role of faith and know the strength of it.

on Reporting the war in Gaza

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A sellout crowd listened to the talk.

What really frustrates me in writing about this is the degree to which we have become polarized to the point that so many Americans sympathize with one side or the other, but don’t understand that there are desperate humans on both sides of that conflict that have just suffered immensely.

on covering suffering in the world, even if the stories don’t get as many readers  

The first time I went to Sudan, I realized that the people you meet in these places just kind of haunt you. Again and again, the same pattern unfolds when you make these trips and meet these people. They haunt you and shape you.

You can’t get them out of your mind, and you want to do everything you can to try every way you can try to bring these stories and shake people up and make them spill their coffee over the morning paper in hopes that it will generate a little more compassion and a little better policy.

Should students today pursue careers in journalism?

I would say do it. I deeply believe that journalism is an incredibly important tool of accountability as a form of oversight. It’s a form of knitting together our social fabric.

I say also in my memoir that journalism is an act of hope. You go and cover these conflicts and hope that somehow you will have an impact. These days it seems like even entering the field of journalism can seem like an act of hope, but I do think it is hope that is worth pursuing.

With a memoir entitled “Chasing Hope” - What gives him hope?

With the worst of humanity, you invariably encounter the best.

There was one time in Congo during a Civil War when I interviewed a warlord and realized the human capacity for evil. But I also met this incredible Polish nun who had stayed behind. When all the aid workers fled, she ran a center for starving kids in that area, negotiating to try to keep the warlord at bay. That story reminded me that when human beings are tested, we can be capable of incredible things.

 

This lecture was a part of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy's 50th Anniversary, with generous support from the David. M Rubenstein Distinguished Lecture Series. David M. Rubenstein is a Duke alumnus and former chair of Duke's Board of Trustees. The David M. Rubenstein Distinguished Lecture brings high-profile thought leaders and policymakers to campus each year. Event partners for this lecture include the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Sanford School of Public Policy, and American Grand Strategy and Duke Centennial. For questions about this event, please feel free to email sanfordevents@duke.edu.

 

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Student Voices: Sam Sreeram PPS'24

"Despite witnessing and hearing about these experiences, Kristof maintains hope by recognizing that in the most extreme cases of evil and wrongdoing, in the face of enormous costs and suffering, he has invariably encountered the extraordinary resilience, tenacity, and inherent goodness of human beings."

- Sam Sreeram PPS'24

Read Sam's student perspective on this event