As part of our series of interviews with journalists covering the Syria crisis, we reached out to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. Kristof is a bi-weekly columnist and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He has been covering the Syria story since its earliest days, reporting from Syria in late November. ‘It’s frustrating that we have this apathy,’ he tells us.
News Deeply: What do you think of the coverage that’s come out of Syria?
Nicholas Kristof: I think journalists have done an extraordinary job for along time now, almost two years, risking their lives and in some cases losing their lives to bring back coverage of what’s been going on. It’s an amazing tribute to what’s been going on [in journalism] that we do have a sense of what’s happening in Aleppo and Homs.
It’s unfortunate that the Syrian crisis doesn’t resonate with American viewers or readers, and that’s not the journalists’ fault. It’s that people are kind of weary about what’s happening abroad in the Arab world or in the greater Middle East.
ND: How do you account for a growing lack of coverage?
NK: It’s unfortunate, but access drives a lot of the coverage. I think that if I’m ever a ruthless Arab dictator then one of the lessons I’ve absorbed is, ‘don’t let journalists in. Don’t give them visas, don’t let cameras in.’ Access drives coverage, more than we’d like to admit.
Anyone could just board a flight to Cairo; there were issues with cameras but one could get in and get coverage and get the drama because there was a Tahrir Square. It was easy. By contrast Damascus is really tough to get to. More or less they do not give visas, and one can go in through Turkey but that’s complicated and risky and you only get part of the story.
And that’s been true of other stories and places. Where you get access, you get more. Similarly, Shi’a areas of Saudi Arabia don’t get covered because it’s very hard to get access.
ND: How does Syrian coverage in the U.S. compare to other Arab uprisings?
NK: There was a greater fascination with Egypt. More Americans has been there; they knew who [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak was. There was this extraordinary collective breath held as people decided which side was going to break.
In contrast I think Assad has been very clever in escalating where there hasn’t been one ‘moment.’ First he’s clubbing protesters, then a few people were shot, then there were bombs or missiles fired – a gradual escalation in places where we don’t have video footage of it. And it doesn’t have that kind of ‘inspirational’ quotient to it that Egypt had. To the American public it feels like this big messy unpleasant Iraq-type mess that people are just sated with. And the human suffering hasn’t registered.
ND: What’s your reaction when journalists are captured or killed on the ground in Syria? Does it make you not want to go back?
NK: I was sobered by the death of [the NYT’s Beirut bureau chief] Anthony Shadid and [Sunday Times correspondent] Marie Colvin.
I think that frankly we reporters are too cavalier about risk. I didn’t work it out in Syria but in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I worked out the magnitude that journalists were getting killed, and it was 10 times the rate of U.S. soldiers. I think that sometimes, especially when there are a number of journalists around, we do things that are not worth the risk.
I always think about the one percent risk. If you’re covering conflict after conflict those 1 percent risks add up and it’s not going to pan out. And I try to be very cautious. And it’s just this impossible trade-off of,you feel that this is an important story that deserves international attention and coverage, and it’s hard to get that story unless you’re there. On other hand, no story is worth the life of you or your colleagues, and you’re also risking the life of your driver, your interpreter.
It’s much easier in a place where the front lines are well defined. In a place like Syria where road blocks suddenly go up, it’s much harder.
ND: What story coming out of Syria has upset you the most?
NK: By mistake I saw a video of a man getting cut up with a chainsaw. Once I realized what it was, I tried to tune it out. And a boy back in May of last year, who was seized and cut up. That story was excruciating.
What I saw there wasn’t nearly as horrific, and the conditions of the displaced people that I saw was, by global standards, not so bad. The IDPs [internally-displaced people] there are still better than in the Congo or Sudan.
But the thing to remember is that these people freezing in tents in Syria, a week earlier they were middle class people in warm homes with cars and good jobs and living standards much closer to ours. And it’s particularly hard and particularly shocking when their lives are turned upside down.
We try and see whatever will resonate. I don’t presume to suggest what other journalists should do. We find the best stories who will make my reader spill [his or her] coffee in the morning, to feel some attachment to this individual.
It feels to me like Americans – and Europeans, to an extent – are more inward looking, are fed up with upheaval in the Middle East. They’re sad about the Syrians but don’t see a solution and the easiest thing is to turn away. If this were happening in Syria before Egypt and Tunisia, or even before Iraq, there would be an outpouring of a response. But Syria had the misfortune of being at the end of the sequence.
ND: What reaction do you get from Syrians on the ground?
NK: I get a lot of emails and tweets pleading for more coverage. I think they know that coverage makes the difference. But I get the same from Burma, from the mountains in Sudan, from Congo. Coverage really does make a certain amount of difference.