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In 'Chasing Hope,' columnist Nicholas Kristof details life as a reporter

The cover of "Chasing Hope" and author Nicholas Kristof. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House and David Hume Kennerly)
The cover of "Chasing Hope" and author Nicholas Kristof. (Courtesy of Penguin Random House and David Hume Kennerly)

Host Robin Young speaks with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof about his new memoir “Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life.”

In the book, he tells stories of his years growing up in Yamhill, Oregon, covering the 1989 student uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square, the genocide in Darfur and the devastation that came to his hometown due to lack of opportunities and methamphetamine.

Book excerpt: ‘Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life’

By Nicholas Kristof

Journalism is an act of hope. What impels reporters forward is our faith that if we get the story and shine a light in the darkness, the public will respond and change will come. That’s why reporters rush toward gunfire, talk their way into drug dens, scramble toward riots and, in my case right now, take a small plane into the heart of the Congo civil war.

Our adventures are not always well executed, however, and at the moment, I’m not brimming with hope. The plane is in trouble, and I’m petrified, thinking: So this is how I die. Not in old age, inconsolable grandchildren at my bedside on the family farm in Oregon, with the farm dogs giving up gopher-hunting to come inside and nuzzle their goodbyes. No, my end is looming far from family in a fiery plane crash in the vast Congo rainforest.

I’m in a chartered plane with other journalists. Our small plane is sputtering, the pilot steadily losing control. It looks as if my ashes won’t be scattered on the farm and on the Pacific Crest Trail, as I had hoped, but rather my remains will mingle with termite mounds in a jungle on the other side of the world. A baboon or okapi may notice, but no one else will.

Sheryl WuDunn, my wife, will get a call from Bill Keller, the New York Times foreign editor, saying that my plane is missing in a rebel-held part of Zaire and that everything is being done to locate the plane:

It’s probably just a forced landing on a remote airstrip, or maybe the rebel army has kidnapped the plane and passengers for ransom. Then there will be air searches that prove unsuccessful, for it’s easier to find a flea in a baobab tree than a downed plane in the endless Congo basin.

This is not what I want to be worrying about. I’m a perpetual optimist, so I conjure ways in which I won’t perish. Maybe the plane will reach a road or airstrip to land on. Or maybe a meadow will abruptly appear in the jungle and the pilot will somehow bring the plane down even without its landing gear.

I know I’m kidding myself. I’ve seen the terrain: an endless expanse of forest. There’s no place to land. The plane is damaged and coming down. Time is almost up.

It’s 1997, I’m the absentee Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times, and I’ve spent more than a decade as a Times foreign correspondent, in Hong Kong, China and Japan. But now, as I huddle over my knees in the “brace position,” staring down at my white sneakers with my clammy hands clasped on the back of my head, as our propeller plane wobbles downward toward a crash, as the pilot struggles with the instruments of a plane that has lost its hydraulic lines so that he can’t even dump fuel, as I prepare for the impact and wonder if I will be torn apart by the crash or incinerated in the subsequent fire, or both, I keep thinking: It was not supposed to end this way.

The idea had been to cover other people’s tragedies, not to become one. The plan had been to write a series of articles that might move hearts and policymakers. But we already have killed an innocent man, and his body is dangling from our plane as an emblem of shame. Somehow I’ve not only wandered into a Graham Greene novel, but I’ve become the well-meaning Quiet American who makes everything worse. I’m mortified as well as terrified.

I can feel us descending, but since I can’t see anything more than my sneakers, I have no idea when the last moment will come. Will we hit in a second or a minute or ten minutes? Will I survive in good enough condition to wrestle the door open and help the injured out before the plane bursts into flames?

The rainforest below is vast. The Congo basin is Africa’s largest rainforest, four times the size of California, Oregon and Washington combined. Its vastness turns humans into specks, a tiny part of a complex natural order. The basin is home to gorillas, elephants, bonobos, okapi,

chimpanzees, crocodiles and twenty-foot pythons. The rainforest stretches into the horizon, largely unbroken by roads or signs of habitation. You look down through the airplane window and for long periods see no sign of humans, just an endless landscape of trees, hills and an occasional blue creek or river. It’s mesmerizing and humbling to see so vast an expanse in which humans have left so little mark.

My satellite phone! It’s in my pack. Maybe I could use it to go online and hurriedly buy more life insurance? No. I dismiss the thought. The plane windows are too thick to allow a signal. My last purchase will not be life insurance.

My dream since I was a kid was to be a journalist flying into civil wars, covering humanitarian catastrophes, mobilizing a response. It had seemed so glamorous. In high school in rural Oregon, I had read about foreign correspondents with awe, and seen journalists on television shows like Washington Week in Review. I read globe-trotting correspondents in the Times, and in university I invited dates to watch movies about foreign correspondents like The Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously. (My dates weren’t always impressed by my movie choices.)

I had wanted that life quite fiercely, and I had toiled and sacrificed to achieve my journalistic dreams. I had spent thirteen years at The New York Times, mostly in the rarified world of the overseas bureau chief. I had won a Pulitzer and other prizes. And although it seemed too earnest to talk about in the cynical world of a newsroom, I was also engaged in another life task that remained incomplete: I hoped to pay forward the debt my family owed to the diplomats and journalists who rescued my dad in the aftermath of World War II. They took risks. They breached convention. They skirted boundaries. I owe them my existence.

Over the years I had become aware of the downsides of the career of a foreign correspondent. This was a life that split up marriages. It could be unfair to kids and sometimes orphaned them. I had lost a good friend, a Times colleague named Nathaniel Nash, to a plane crash in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, and he had left behind his wife and an eight-year-old son and twin five-year-old daughters. Nathaniel loved his family and was prudent, but he boarded a government plane carrying Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and died along with everyone else aboard when their plane slammed into a hillside in Croatia.

How does a journalist balance the imperative of covering global crises with the imperative to be there for family members? Sheryl didn’t think I appreciated the risks, and now she was proven right.

From “Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life” © 2024 by Nicholas Kristof. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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