A Columnist Fails to Meet the Press

Nicholas Kristof pledged to apply the full “communication toolbox” of journalism to his run for Oregon governor but struggled with the basics of interacting with reporters during his ill-fated campaign

Grinning nervously, Nicholas Kristof stepped up to a microphone in Portland, Oregon, last fall, about to take his first questions from political reporters after 37 years of asking them on behalf of The New York Times. He’d called a press conference to announce an audacious bid for governor, but before explaining why he deserved the Democratic nomination despite never having worked in government, introductions were in order.

“I’d be delighted to take your questions,” Kristof said, “if you could just first identify yourself since there are a number of you I don’t know.”

That acknowledgment foreshadowed the controversy that would haunt and ultimately doom his campaign when the state Supreme Court ruled in February that recently moving to a family farm in Yamhill, about 25 miles south of Portland, did not meet Oregon’s residency requirement that candidates for governor need to have lived in the state for at least three years. The exchange put an odd dynamic on display: This lifelong journalist was, for the most part, a stranger to Oregon’s political press. Still, Beaver State reporters had reason to be optimistic. If nothing else, this was Kristof’s chance to model the transparency and candor he’d asked of politicians throughout his career. Presumably he had taken extensive mental notes on how not to interact with the press. Jeff Mapes, a stalwart in Oregon media, said that Kristof was pursuing what many of his peers fantasize about. “Any longtime political reporter can’t help but think, What would I do if I were in charge?

Of course, Kristof, 62, was no ordinary journalist. After growing up on a sheep and cherry farm and editing his high school’s student newspaper, he left Oregon for Harvard and Oxford, then traversed the globe as a reporter and columnist for the Times, winning two Pulitzer prizes and becoming “one of the finest journalists of his generation,” as Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger put it when Kristof quit the paper last October to run for governor. Opinion columnist Ezra Klein called him “the single most moral opinion columnist of his generation,” and another former Times colleague, Timothy Egan — Kristof’s friend and fellow Northwesterner — said Kristof is “the least cynical journalist I’ve ever met.” For Egan, the prospect of a Kristof campaign brought to mind another candidate who successfully deployed the gifts of a skilled writer: Barack Obama.

By February of this year, when the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s decision that Kristof failed to meet residency requirements, he was drawing comparisons to another former president. When Kristof blasted Fagan’s initial ruling as evidence that “a failing political establishment in Oregon has chosen to protect itself,” a rival candidate for governor, State Treasurer Tobias Read, said, “I’d expect that kind of talk from Donald Trump.”

The comparisons didn’t stop there. Oregon journalists and political insiders said that during Kristof’s four months on the trail, his campaign often adopted a Trumpian posture toward the media: shielding the candidate from hard-hitting interviews, refusing to turn over documents that might shed light on the residency dispute, blocking a tenacious reporter from attending press conferences, and attacking the motives of respected journalists.

Speaking by phone from his farm last month, Kristof said, “I did have a sense that in Oregon, the relationship between politicians and journalists was not particularly constructive.” He is still plotting his next career moves, but looking back at his short turn as a politician, he said, “I would have liked to have built a better working relationship over time.”

How long into his candidacy did it take for journalistic principles to give way to political calculations? “About two minutes,” said Brent Walth, a University of Oregon journalism professor and longtime investigative reporter. Over several months reporting a story for Politico about Kristof’s ties in the state, Walth made six requests for an interview with Kristof and was denied each time. Like other reporters for national outlets, including Oregon-based writers, Walth was told that Kristof was prioritizing listening to voters and talking with local outlets. (That was also the reason given when Kristof’s representatives declined The Fine Print’s interview last September.) But Walth kept hearing of other Oregon reporters who couldn’t score a Kristof interview, either.

Finally, just before publishing, Walth got Kristof on the phone for 45 minutes. They spoke again to give Kristof a last chance to respond to damning details in the piece—like that he’d never met the mayor of Yamhill—and his campaign manager, Carol Butler, joined the call and warned that no new questions were to be asked. Kristof quibbled with numerous facts but wouldn’t explain how to correct them. As Walth pressed for clarity, Butler interjected, “We’re moving on here, or we’re ending the conversation.” Kristof remained silent.

“All of us in the press had hopes that he would bring the same values to the campaign trail,” that he’d practiced as a journalist, Walth said. Such a combative and evasive media strategy, Walth added, was something “Nick Kristof as a journalist would have thundered about in his column.”

Oregon has a history of journalists seeking elected office. Richard Newberger was the Times’ Northwest correspondent before serving in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s. Tom McCall, Oregon’s influential governor from 1967 to 1975, was an accomplished radio and TV reporter. More recently, broadcast journalist Mark Hass spent 14 years in the state senate.

Kristof pitched himself to voters as a modern McCall who would bring a “communications toolbox” to government. “It feels like the right moment to move from covering problems to trying to fix them,” Kristof wrote in a farewell to Times readers. He was inspired to run, he said, after seeing more than a quarter of the people he rode with on his childhood school bus die in recent years, which he and his wife and frequent collaborator, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote about in their 2020 bestseller Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. 

“Of the five Knapp [family] kids who had once been so cheery,” they wrote, “Farlan died of liver failure from drink and drugs, Zealan burned to death in a house fire while passed out drunk, Rogena died from hepatitis linked to drug use and Nathan blew himself up cooking meth. Keylan survived partly because he spent 13 years in a state penitentiary.”

Oregonians’ sentiment about the direction of their state is as negative as it’s been in decades, and with a deeply unpopular governor termed out, this year’s Democratic primary was thought to be wide open. With the help of Butler and her partner, New Republic owner Win McCormick — two major players in Oregon political circles — Kristof quickly mounted a fundraising juggernaut, eventually raising $2.6 million, far outpacing his Democratic competitors, thanks largely to out-of-state donations from the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates, Angelina Jolie, Lawrence Summers, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey.

To political operators, however, Kristof’s journalism background was thought to be a potential liability with Oregon voters. Rival campaigns were prepared to unleash some of his past provocative columns: “Two Cheers for Sweatshops,” an argument for racially profiling Muslims, and his sentence “If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed.”

Oregonians were skeptical, said Portland State University political science professor Richard Clucas, “of a savior figure coming to rescue us.” Sarah Iannarone, a Portland political activist, said she’d never seen Kristof at city council meetings or organizing events before he ran. “It’s grueling and very unsexy work,” Iannarone said. “I think we need a governor who’s extremely engaged. It’s not just the ability to come up with good ideas, you need to be able to build coalitions. Can he do that? Maybe. But there’s a comfortable distance between his observations and the reality on the ground.”

In one of his only extensive interviews as a candidate, with Portland’s alt-weekly, Willamette Week, Kristof said that, unlike himself, Oregon Democrats “have been reluctant to tackle really hard problems.” Asked to cite a problem he’s tackled, Kristof replied, “Genocide, poverty, homelessness, drugs.”

“He was conflating writing about issues with being a policymaker,” said Nigel Jaquiss, a political reporter who helped conduct that interview. For his first question, Jaquiss asked Kristof to name three people in Oregon who could talk about him and his campaign. “He could not come up with three names,” Jaquiss said. “That was a revelatory moment,” but his answer was too flustered to include when the print interview was published.

Those who accused Kristof of saviordom might have felt validated after that interview. “I think we need new leadership,” he told the newspaper, “and here I am.”

Oregon media is a shadow of what it was when Kristof interned at The Oregonian during college. “In smaller towns across the state,” he told me, “there has been a real loss of the scrutiny that comes from community newspapers. That has been a big problem. And I was struck by how a little of the current coverage involves serious policy analysis, even on issues like homelessness.”

Rather than make time for the few remaining political reporters, however, the Kristof campaign focused on producing slick videos and hosting journalists for softball interviews at the Yamhill farm. When Kristof held a campaign event in Eugene in October, Eugene Weekly reporter Henry Houston says the candidate gave a short speech, then allowed the three journalists in attendance to ask a single question each. In January, days after the secretary of state deemed Kristof ineligible to run, he visited Eugene again. This time he met only with a columnist at The Register-Guard who informed readers, “I didn’t ask him about the residency controversy that has dogged him this week.”

“If an interview goes really well, there is some modest upside,” Kristof said in an interview last month, noting the competing interests of journalists and politicians. “On the other hand, if you say something dumb or something that can be taken out of context, there’s a huge potential downside. That’s one reason why a lot of interviews tend to be pretty boring. I have a more intuitive understanding of that now.”

Julia Shumway, a reporter at a relatively new site, the Oregon Capital Chronicle, was determined to get answers from Kristof. His campaign paid the law firm Perkins Coie more than $300,000 to fight his residency battle, and in lengthy memos making his case, the firm referenced a range of documents, such as tax returns and incorporation papers, that would indicate he was a resident of Oregon. Shumway repeatedly asked the campaign for redacted copies of the documents so she could cross-check his claims, copying Kristof on her emails. She was denied each time, and the campaign didn’t respond to a fact-checking request. When her editor, Les Zaitz, appealed to the campaign to share the documents, he says Kristof communications advisor Kristen Grainger accused him of being “hostile.” (She declined to comment.)

Shumway’s story was published in January. Soon after, she noticed Kristof’s press releases stopped arriving in her inbox. When colleagues mentioned receiving the releases, she realized she must have been removed from the campaign email list. An email inquiring about that to Kristof spokeswoman Melissa Navas went unanswered.

“It wasn’t the way I expected a journalist to handle dealing with other journalists,” Shumway told me. “You’d think he’d have learned not to stonewall reporters.”

In our interview, Kristof said he is still deciding what to do next. He will likely write a book, he said, and has “had inquiries about running a couple of universities,” though he didn’t sound eager to do so. As for whether he’ll seek office again, “The stars perfectly aligned for me” this time, he said, and it’s “unlikely” they would again.

“I think the odds are that I would have won the race,” he said, though sources with access to internal polling said he was by no means the clear front-runner.

Asked later over email why he didn’t cooperate with the Capital Chronicle, Kristof wrote, “The paper had asked for a ton of documents that were inappropriate to provide during litigation and in some cases just seemed bizarre.” But why couldn’t he let Shumway review documents that his lawyers were referring to publicly? (The Times, after all, heroically published tax returns of a politician who’d refused to release them for years because he was “under audit.”) “They asked for a long list of documents that represented a fishing expedition and that neither the Secretary of State nor other journalists had asked for,” Kristof replied. “We heard through the grapevine that one of our rival campaigns counseled them on what to put on the fishing expedition list.”

Shumway said she didn’t speak with anyone at a rival campaign about his residency before publishing, and Zaitz, who has known Kristof for years, called the accusation “offensive and absurd.”

“Which rival campaign?” we asked Kristof.

He replied, “I can’t say.”