"Journalism and Culture: Between Two Worlds"


Stephen Kinzer

Former National Culture Correspondent, The New York Times


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

Feb 24, 2003



So you heard that my journalism career began writing for my high school newspaper. But actually looking back on it, if you want to be a little elastic in your definition, maybe it goes back even further than that. I was a newspaper boy, in the days when they used to have those. It was the beginning of our fourth grade year, I think, and after school I would get on my bike and bring the paper around. My first week of being the newspaper boy taught me a lesson far more profound than I realized at the time. On Saturday, we bundled papers in front of my house for delivery. And when I opened up the plastic, I saw that not only were there papers, there was other stuff also: there were comics, and the magazine. But there weren't quite enough to go around. And I put them together, but there weren't enough funny sections and magazine sections to fit inside all the newspapers.


And Sunday, I took the day off, thinking I didn't have to do any work today, but sure enough the truck comes and drops off Sunday papers also. And then I realized those extra sections I got on Saturday were actually supposed to be delivered on Sunday. So I had to apologize to the many people who never got their comic or magazine sections that were supposed to be delivered that Sunday.


But that experience had an effect on me because it made me realize that journalism and news never stopped. On thanksgiving day there was also a newspaper! I had to work Thanksgiving, and on Christmas. It was the first time my eyes were open to the idea of what journalism is, beyond just what a newspaper is.


I think there are a lot of people who read newspapers who don't even understand that there are journalists, that there are people out there. And this persisted even into my adulthood, when I was working as a free-lancer and working for the Boston Globe. There was a certain amount of stuff that happens in the world on a given day, and when you looked at the New York Times the next day, you were going to get a pretty good approximation of those facts that shaped what happened yesterday. But upon becoming a New York Times reporter, I realized that there is no six, separate things that happened in the world the next day, and the New York Times or any other newspaper is just a wild approximation of a few things that some people picked out as representing what happened in the world that day.


I thought, looking at this morning's paper, and I don't have it in front of me to see what the headlines are, but the read of the New York Times today says trial show new-age drugs fail to work. Meanwhile, in USA Today, the headline read, "new age drugs working." This is why I advise people, when you're reading the newspaper, don't pay attention just to the front page, the real important stuff is a little further in. I prefer to write the stories that are deeper inside the paper than the ones that are on the front page.


I got to see three of the defining historical events of the latter part of the 20th century. When I was working in central America, that would've been during the late 70s and also the 1980s, I watched the last gap of Muster's revolution, the imperialist revolution. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, it was the end of an era that went back at least till the 1950s. Then when I went to Germany I had the chance to observe the unification of Germany, the emergence of post-Communist Europe, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which is also Š And then when I  got to Turkey, I had the chance not just to watch Turkey re-emergence as the power center of the world, but also the emergence of a whole group of new countries in a part of the world.


In my career, I began learning about and writing about events and developments that we would describe as cultural. When I was in Nicaragua, for example, I discovered Nicaragua's famous 19-th century poet, which helped shape the whole Nicaraguan identity. I remember a story about a group of stone idols. Those would be considered cultural stories.


When I got to Germany, of course, I was in more of the world's cultural centers, and I got to see the influence that German and Latin art had on each other, other cultural stories like that, what's it like walking through the capital. But I don't view culture as strictly limited to the kinds of things included in ruins, or what poets have written, or what art is seen.


Culture is really how you live every day. And it turns out that a lot of the people in the United States can visualize what life might be like in another set of circumstances. I had the advantage of being on the spot, and a journalist always wants to take advantage of that, because that's the one thing that separates him or her from everyone else that's giving information to the readers back at home. Don't write about anything that people would be able to find out without coming here.


When the time came, 17 years later, for me to come back to the United States, I wasn't surprised that an editor said, you've shown a great interesting culture over the years, and we want you to come back to the United States and be a cultural correspondent in the United States. I would be doing the same thing in the United States that I was trying to do abroad. Try to find out what our cultural aspect of life is that shapes us and makes us who we are.


My last assignment, from which I just returned on Saturday night, was to travel around the Mississippi delta and hunt around and try to find out through the music that was played ŠRap and hip hop. Through the musical form was the expression of a culture and the extent to which that music survived is definitely linked to the culture surviving. There are thousands of these cultures within the United States. So I'm trying to take the reader along with me on my voyage of discovery in the U.S., and this is what I used to do when I was abroad.


I had some big transitions to make, in the places where I lived and the places where I worked. Moving from Nicaragua to Berlin, for example, was a bit of a stretch. But there was no move that ever prepared me for the biggest move of my life, which was moving from outside the United States to inside the United States. There is no country in the world that is more different from all the other countries than the U.S.


Americans have a very America-centric view of the world. Americans believe the world is divided into two groups of countries, one group is the United States. The other group is the entire rest of the world, which is operated mainly by people who are very unfortunate because they didn't get to be Americans, and are naturally very sad about this. And devote themselves entirely to being Americans, either by coming here or imitating Americans. There is no other country that thinks of itself like this. Americans believe that they are living in a shield from the outside world. I think this is a cause for a great deal of the shock that happened after September 11. We thought that anything we did in the world would never have any effect, especially not on us. I think its important for foreigners working in the outside world to convey to Americans the fact that Americans cannot separate themselves from the outside world. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.


When the outside world crashes into your living room, it doesn't have to be in a negative or a violent or malicious way, it can actually be in a very positive way. We have a group that I think is Š. of the world. It is that  allows them to embark on policies that I think are predicated on the view that the U.S. walks in and makes everything right.


Americans are actually very positive and compassionate people and really want to help and do they right thing. And they do have a sense of the United States of doing good in the world. Maybe they believe it in a na•ve way, but I think it is a very positive force.


For example, in Nicaragua, I remember walking into the hospital where children were the victims of violent battles and other problems. This was in wretched, miserable hospitals all over the country, and there was almost no medicine available, and there was absolutely nothing in the way of painkillers. I wrote a story about this, and it appeared on the front page of the New York Times. I started getting letters from readers with hundred-dollar bills in them, take this to that doctor who's treating that boy and tell him to buy the medicine that will cure him or ease his pain. I really felt a genuine sympathy or compassion. I think that's very America. They want to help, they want to do the right thing. On the other hand, there's a disconnect in their perceptions of the world because they never let themselves wonder why this happens. Are we responsible in some way for creating a structure or background situation that now requires us to send hundred-dollar bills. Might there be a more effective way for us to deal with children like this than just to send hundred-dollar bills after the fact?


I think this is a problem that comes out of our cultural view of ourselves, as a part from the outside world. Instead of looking at America as we Americans look at America, try to look at America as how other people see America. I see that as a real cultural thing, not a political thing. As I'm reporting, I'm trying to tell you not what happened yesterday, but I want to try to tell you what's going to happen tomorrow. I like to be sure that my readers are never going to be surprised by daily events, because I prepare them for them. The consumerism, along with the egocentrism of America is something that takes a lot of getting used to.


Someone once asked about the most memorable characters that I met. If I were to list the 10 most memorable characters that I met, none of them would be anybody that anyone's ever heard of. They were not the kind of people Š A few of the people that have left great impressions on me have told me something very profound about the life that they live, that I didn't know before. And its been my desire in my life and work to come to know people that have a different life form mine, and transmit a view of those lives to my readers.




Copyright 2003. Stephen Kinzer. All rights reserved.