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His beat is the world’s afflicted

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times travels to hot spots around the globe reporting on humanitarian crises. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times travels to hot spots around the globe reporting on humanitarian crises. (Will Okun)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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‘Reporter’’ is a paen to a great journalist who wears his heart on his sleeve and a reminder of what it takes to capture riveting stories while in harm’s way. It is a snapshot of journalism practiced at the highest level, and it warrants our attention.

Nicholas Kristof, an op-ed columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner for The New York Times, has been drawn for years to the terrain of humanitarian crises and appalling human rights abuses. His was the most relentless voice calling world attention to the slaughter in Darfur.

More than any columnist I can think of, Kristof has built his career as a moral crusader who uses his Times pulpit to spread his message around the globe.

“He is prepared to do the thing that is the hardest for many people writing,’’ says Samantha Power, herself a luminary of the global human rights movement. “He is prepared to be predictable. He is prepared to be repetitive.’’

Power is one of several Kristof admirers featured in the documentary, which airs tonight on HBO. Most of the film captures him on a 2007 trip to the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he is accompanied by the two winners of his second annual Win-a-Trip With Nick Kristof, an essay contest he created to show people the harsh global realities.

People there live terrible lives, traumatized by endless fighting between a brutal rebel warlord, since captured, and the Congolese government. The resulting collateral human damage in deaths, disease, and dislocation has been appalling.

“Reporter’’ is a compelling visual experience as well as an intellectual one. Newsprint cannot do justice to the world Kristof confronts. He and his film crew document the squalor of shattered villages, camps, and gamy Congolese cities like Goma. We see from SUV windows the dazed faces of people caught in its headlights at night, the unsettling red mud and green foliage under gray skies, and then desert. A bouncy, hand-held camera captures the intimacy of a rough ride in an SUV as Kristof talks to his fellow travelers, always in an understated way, about a particular danger.

Kristof works as print reporters always have: a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other, listening to people tell him horrific tales. No safari jacket, no glamour. He has reached a point where, by his own admission, he listens dispassionately to the worst stories. (Kristof has lived on four continents and visited 120 countries.)

The salient message of “Reporter’’ is what Kristof tells us about the underbelly of compassion. He quotes Susan Sontag as follows: “Compassion is an unstable emotion.’’

“At what point,’’ he asks, “does the number of sufferers become too large for our minds to process?’’ Pretty much when it involves more than one person, it turns out. More victims, quite simply, mean less compassion.

He cites experiments showing that people respond with compassion and money when the story is about one individual - a starving child, for example. The response diminishes as more people enter a story. Readers’ eyes glaze over, as they do from a sea of statistics about the horrors. This is why Kristof writes his columns about individuals.

“Reporter’’ comes close to the line separating profile from canonization. Kristof does great work. He is the most prominent and impassioned voice in the American media on humanitarian nightmares around the world. He is certainly worth following. But so are others. It would have been nice to know if he is fundamentally different from other reporters who cover the same beat, and if so, how.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com

REPORTER On HBO

Time: Tonight, 9:30-11