Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists write about problems and solutions for working-class America
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the husband-and-wife duo who won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Tiananmen Square, are renowned for their relentless chronicling of human rights abuses and giving a voice to the voiceless.
The authors and former New York Times journalists recently discuss “Tightrope,” their new book offering solutions to the problems facing working-class America, with the News-Press. (They had planned to speak Thursday at UCSB, but canceled their appearance.)
“I grew up in a tightly knit rural community in Oregon (Yamhill), which unraveled with the loss of good jobs,” Mr. Kristof told the News-Press. “More than a quarter of the kids on my old school bus are gone due to drugs, alcohol and suicide. This is happening all over the country in working class towns. We lose more Americans to drugs alcohol and suicide than we do to war. There are solutions. We can do better.”
In “Tightrope,” “we weave the narrative of Nick’s high school friends and their trajectories with stories that are similar,” Ms. WuDunn told the News-Press. “There is a lot of data and evidence underpinning these stories, from research done by two Princeton economists.
“Working class white men and women have a decreasing life span, due to alcohol and drugs, while the American lifespan overall is increasing,” Ms.WuDunn said.
Noted Mr. Kristoff, “There are solutions that have worked to address problems including homelessness, housing, education, racial inequity, etc. Our book offers solutions on how to make the country a fairer one with more opportunity for all.”
Ms. WuDunn said the book uses Mr. Kristoff’s hometown of Yamhill, Ore., as a microcosm, but noted the challenges and solutions pertain to every man and woman. “They are more ubiquitous than we would have hoped. We were shocked. But we were equally shocked at the people who have come up with solutions and no one was writing about them.”
Mr. Kristof said, “We would like readers to understand why so many have been left behind and why they have ended up supporting politicians who don’t seem likely to address their needs. I would place Donald Trump in that category.”
Ms. WuDunn said the problem isn’t small and is a national crisis in many ways. “The opioid crisis is one symptom of it. We scour the country for evidence-based solutions and highlight those solutions.”
Mr. Kristoff said the emphasis in “Tightrope” is on hope.
“We face difficult problems, but there are solutions that make a difference and that really can make us a more equal country,” he said. “Targeting young people is one of those solutions. It is easier to help a child than a struggling adult.”
In October 2021, Mr. Kristof left the New York Times to throw his hat in Oregon’s gubernatorial ring. While there is a residency dispute that may obstruct his run for governor, the dispute has been turned over to the Oregon Supreme Court, and a ruling is expected to be handed down in the coming days.
Mr. Kristof said he expects the ruling to come down in his favor, putting him back on the ballot and relaunching his campaign.
He explained what inspired him to run for governor.
“Seeing the struggles of people that I have grown-up with, I had a great career while I watched old friends struggle and die,” Mr. Kristof said. “As a journalist, I had a great toolbox to call attention to problems, but I wanted to try and fix them. The problems in my hometown are reflected all around Oregon and often around the country. I saw it as an opportunity to be a problem solver in a state I loved.
“My top priority is to deal with homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, which is as big of a problem in Oregon as it is in Southern California and the Bay Area,” Mr. Kristof said. “We can do better. Oregon can be a model for other states. I also want to prioritize treatment and mental health services and addiction.
“We believe that the answer to almost every question is education. We can do a better job providing good jobs around the state,” said Mr. Kristof when asked what his goals would be if elected governor.
Mr. Kristof’s housing policy can be found on his campaign site (nickfororegon.com).
Before “Tighrope,” he and Ms. WuDunn worked together on the books “Half the Sky,” “A Path Appears,” “China Wakes” and “Thunder From the East.”
Mr. Kristof worked for 37 years at the New York Times.
“It was a fantastic experience. I did not leave because of any dissatisfaction,” he said. “It wasn’t that I loved the New York Times less, but I loved Oregon more. It was a fantastic platform, and it was very very hard to give it up. But I felt a deep obligation to my own community.
“In journalism we have a bias toward covering bad news. We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off,” he said. “There are solutions that address these problems. When we put our minds to it, we may not make it go away completely, but we want to give people a sense of hope. There is hope.
“We can enjoy real progress. We just have to buckle under and turn to the best evidence around the country about what works.”