USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay (left) moderates discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas Kristof (right) and Sheryl WuDunn (center) on their new book, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.
Photo by Spencer Quinn.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn discuss the humanitarian crisis unfolding in rural America

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have documented humanitarian crises around the globe. With their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square democracy movement and the massacre that followed, they became the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

They have co-authored several books together, including A Path Appears and Half the Sky, which have taken them from Zimbabwe to Cambodia. But with their latest project, Tightrope, Kristof and WuDunn turned their attention much closer to Kristof’s rural hometown of Yamhill, Oregon.

As they regularly returned over the years, they saw a crisis unfolding as blue-collar jobs began to disappear.

“A quarter of the kids on my old No. 6 school bus have died from drugs, alcohol and suicide,” Kristof shared with a standing-room-only audience in Wallis Annenberg Hall on Feb. 26. “So, it started really with seeing this dysfunction in my hometown and not knowing how to process it. Is this something about the No. 6 bus? Is this something about Yamhill?”

Kristof said that once he and WuDunn began examining life expectancy and mortality figures across the United States, they realized the “deaths of despair” they were observing were part of a nationwide phenomenon. He cited the work of USC Presidential Professor of Economics Angus Deaton and Princeton University’s Anne Case, who have chronicled these trends as part of their research focusing on poverty and inequality in the United States and globally.

“We started realizing that there's an incredible amount of pain and suffering,” WuDunn said. “We started to understand the reasons behind why they didn't have full-time jobs…. [I]n some households there was abuse, violence.”

USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay, who moderated the discussion, encouraged Kristof and WuDunn to share how they managed to capture Yamhill residents’ devastating and deeply personal stories while earning their trust. Bay also asked the bestselling authors to delve into the flickers of hope they uncovered along the way and how to start identifying possible paths forward based on that hope.

In their own words, here are five takeaways Kristof and WuDunn offered.

Descending into an inferno and 21st-century feudalism

WuDunn: Irene Green had five kids, four of them are gone. Another of Nick's friends had four kids, three of them are gone. And these aren't the only families. [W]hen you actually also learn more about their journeys and their tales, it just feels like they are going through Dante's Inferno. It's just so horrific. This is the bottom of the human condition. It really is a kind of suffering that is hard for us, so many ordinary Americans, to appreciate and to understand….

There is lots of research now that shows that depending upon what ZIP code you are born in, we can predict with fairly good accuracy what your outcome is going to be like in a couple of decades…. One example is that a kid born in Shannon County, South Dakota has a life expectancy that is lower than an infant born in Bangladesh or Cambodia. I mean, that's stunning. And there are two other counties in Florida that have a lower life expectancy than babies born in Cambodia or Bangladesh. 

We think of upward mobility as just part of the American dream. But that upward mobility is really gone for so many Americans, and they are basically slaves to the environment that they are born in.

Confronting despair

Kristof: These deaths of despair I think really are symptoms of something deeper and broader. And that relates to the loss of jobs…. These days you have an awful lot of people who are in kind of an extreme social isolation and they have often absorbed this narrative of personal responsibility. So when they don’t do well, they see themselves as complete failures, and that leads them to self-medicate.

Loneliness is deeply toxic. It is a substantial danger and there are ways of addressing it. Britain has appointed a minister of loneliness and it's something the entire Western world is wrestling with. I don’t think that in this country we have fully appreciated that.

Reporting on rural America

Kristof: Spend an amazing — an enormous — amount of time listening and don’t just pursue your agenda about what you think is important to write about from this community. Pay attention to what people within that community think is important. That is true not just in Malheur County, Oregon, that's true in the South Sudan, in a refugee camp or anywhere else in the world. For example, issues of faith are something that we in the journalism world rarely cover. Yet, they are something that are enormously important to a zillion Americans. I think we have to figure out better ways of covering issues like that. 

Family structure, family breakdown — in journalism we tend to be good at covering what happened today at a press conference or whatever. We tend to be bad at covering things that happen every day. And that’s what I would really encourage students to keep an eye on — these longer-term changes that are never announced, don’t exactly happen on any one day, but that change societies.

Preserving inspiration

Kristof: People often think that because I cover genocide and human trafficking and war and drugs and so on, I must be incredibly depressed, and I’m actually not. Part of it is that when you go out and cover these issues, side-by-side with the worst, you see the very best. You see incredible people sacrificing their lives to help others, transforming lives.

Our subtitle for Tightrope is “Americans Reaching for Hope,” and it may be that we in journalism, and in the NGO community, don’t adequately highlight those issues of hope and change…. We see people who risk their lives, who dedicate themselves and find this meaning and perspective, and that is enormously reassuring…. In contrast, when one is in rich parts of the country, you see people who find meaning in getting the most recent iPhone, which seems a lot more shallow than some people in rural Oregon or in South Sudan or Congo, who express their humanity in ways that are incredibly profound and admirable. That’s how I manage to cover these things and really feel pretty good about our species.

WuDunn: I also think that you have to think about, what is the best role that you can serve in, what uses your talents and what you would be the most effective in contributing to a particular cause that you care about? So, you may not be the best person to work on the front lines in a refugee camp because this is not your thing, you won’t be very good at it. You may not contribute as much as if you are writing a story as a graduate from a journalism school like USC and doing something that you know is in your field of expertise and talent.

Benefitting the whole

Kristof: It’s wonderful that NGOs do this kind of thing, and philanthropy does wonderful work, but we would never try to build an interstate highway system in America with volunteers and private philanthropy. That would be crazy. And it is crazy to try to treat healthcare in America or children not getting support with volunteers and philanthropy. 

Since this is a journalism crowd, a story. When I was growing up in Yamhill, a friend of ours was growing up in southern Oregon in the town of Ashland. She was from a working-class family, eldest of five kids, and named Ann. Ann was not planning to go to college. But the spring of her senior year, her English teacher, Hattie Converse, stops her in the hallway and says, ‘Ann, where are you going to college?’ And Ann says, ‘I can’t go to college.’ And Mrs. Converse, who was quite fierce, more or less drags Ann to the office, gives her an application to the University of Oregon, and pretty much orders her to apply.

So, Ann applies to the University of Oregon and gets a scholarship from the local foundation in Medford, Oregon. She is the first in her family to go to college and studies journalism. Works her way through college, which was possible in the 1970s in a way that is not possible today. After graduation, she gets a job at a local TV station and works her way up. And Ann Curry ends up at The Today Show and that was because Mrs. Converse gave her this support. 

There are so many other “Ann Currys” out there who don't run into a “Mrs. Converse” in the hallway. What we need to do is not somehow replicate Mrs. Converse. We need to create institutional structures that will support kids and that will provide those avenues to better education in ways that don't just benefit the individual “Ann Currys,” but benefit society in America as a whole.