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Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life

The distance was a bit of dissonance in this case. I attended a book signing and speaking event for an author who lives just a few miles north of where I do. But the book in question had reach around the globe, and the story opened with a scene in Congo – where the author was on board a rickety plane that looked to be about to crash.

He is Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist and for years before that a for4eign correspondent for the newspaper. Obviously he survived the rough landing and, just afterward, he pulled out his satellite phone and called his wife. The idea was to tell her he was okay, but when she came on the line, he decided otherwise: The story was best told in person.

Except, that soon afterward his wife got a call from the home office in New York which included the comment that people there were happy Nick had survived. Oops. The lesson after that, Kristof recounted, was: Immediate transparency about important events is helpful in a marriage.

Kristof’s memoir, Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life, is packed with stories about things learned in the field. He’s Harvard and Oxford-educated, but much of what he recounts here – and a lot of the book is devoted to the practical work of researching and writing about places around the world, many remote and some of them extremely dangerous – which plainly constitutes its own form of grad school.

Some of that relates to how to get the work done (how, for example, you get past checkpoints filled with armed soldiers when you’re in the4 country illegally). Some of it relates to how people live in places extremely different from the United States (the hazards of introducing himself in certain locales) by his nickname).

But some of it too comes from what you learn when you’re on the ground and can see for yourself – which can look a lot different than it does from a distance. That applies not only to distance places in Africa and Asia but even to his home town area around Yamhill, where many of the problems facing parts of rural America can come into sharp focus.

There are plenty of reporter memoirs out, and many of them make for lively reading. (In the last few years, I especially liked Seymour Hersh’s.) None I’ve seen, though, has been livelier, or covers more ground, than this one. He talks in detail about life growing up in small-town Oregon, about his time in universities and freelancing articles about places around the globe – an achievement that seemed to me as remarkable as anything else he has done – and dealing with deadly threats, from illness to being in a crowd fire upon by Chinese troops at Tiananmen Square (then frantically running on foot miles back to his residence to send the story so the paper would have its own version).

There’s plenty of solid fact and earned wisdom here. And if you’re in the mood for an adventure story, you can find a while pile of them between these covers.

Photo/World Economic Forum from Cologny, Switzerland, World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0.


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