December 09, 2011

Off, but not lost—I hope

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *
I find myself compelled to point out that Nicholas Kristof, who appears regularly on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, has succumbed to cheap sensationalism and anecdotalism. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner has unfortunately become a panderer to riotous populism and emotion. His writing has become highly caloric, but lite on substance. Hopefully, this will not prove to be chronic.

It may seem cannibalistic for one columnist to attack another. But, writers don’t let better known writers write dribble. Therefore, this is not an attack; it is a strong but charitable attempt to stop a great writer from ending up in Schlockville. There are far too few discerning journalists in the world with the scope of Mr. Kristof. It would be sad to lose an insightful writer of his caliber and resources to Oprahitis.    

I first became concerned about Mr. Kristof’s declining ability to see the trees for the forest when I read his December 4, 2010 column on the arrival of mobile cash in Haiti. Mobile cash is money circulated through cell phones rather than through traditional banks. In an uncritical, sophomoric column, Mr. Kristof gushed that being able to receive and store money on a cell phone would help the poor save.  

In the article, Mr. Kristof claims—without providing support—that the poor do not save because banks will not accept their micro-deposits. To punctuate his point, he reported, “Banks typically won’t accept tiny deposits. In West Africa, private money dealers accept deposits, but they charge 40 percent annual interest rates on them.” What Mr. Kristof failed to mention is that the major banks in Haiti will open a regular savings account for the equivalent of $10 US—about the cost of a cell phone.

Ironically, shortly after Mobile Cash was introduced, Digicel, the larger of Haiti’s two cell phone providers, announced plans to add a new application for the lottery to their service. Clients can now play the numbers directly from their phone. Mr. Kristof, in his blind enthusiasm, missed this point as well.

Mr. Kristof hit a new low in his writing on October 8, 2011 when, having inserted himself as a heroic actor in his own story, he ended an especially disturbing column on child rape with a teaser. He wrote, “So is the situation hopeless? To my surprise, I found a hint of progress, especially when a teenage girl asked me to help capture her rapist. I’ll tell that story in my next column.” I would have preferred a punch to the gut.

Sometimes it is not even clear that his presented “cases” are, in fact, cases at all. For example, in a more recent column built around an inarticulate mea culpa by a mid-level mortgage writer (“A Banker Speaks, With Regret”), Mr. Kristof provides two inflammatory assertions without an ounce of backup. (The “he” below refers to the source, not the columnist.)

“If you had some old bag lady walking down the street and she had a decent credit score, she got a loan,” he added.

“You’ve got somebody making $20,000 buying a $500,000 home, thinking that she’d flip it,” he said.

There is no denying that the mortgage market got out of hand; however, I wonder if Mr. Kristof asked for any documentation to prove these statements. It appears more likely that he just blindly jumped at the chance to take a cheap shot at the banks.

Not to load on, but when did it become kosher to refer to an indigent, homeless woman as a bag lady?

Clearly, Mr. Kristof’s writing quality has crashed. Instead of educating his readers, he has taken to stirring the pot with a mish-mash of personal stories, strained facts and unsupported assumptions. He has developed a bad habit of building whole columns around generalizations. It is time to let him know that he is off his game before he becomes completely lost, which would leave us with one less person taking a good look at the world.  

Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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