REPORTER. 9:30 tonight, HBO.
JOURNALISTS ARE like cars: We tend to get judged as a class by our worst mistakes - the gas pedal that sticks, the reporter who fabricates or steals someone else's work - rather than for our overall dependability.
That's probably fairer, though, than lumping us in with Nicholas D. Kristof, the subject of tonight's HBO documentary, "Reporter," and a guy who, if he were a Toyota, would probably get 200 miles per gallon.
In off-road driving.
Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times who's won two Pulitzers and spends his days poking around some of the world's saddest and most dangerous places in hope of pricking the consciences of those of us fortunate enough to live elsewhere, is in a class by himself.
Not just because he's a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar, or because he works for one of the few news organizations that still believes it can afford to report regularly from beyond its own back yard and on topics its readers might not be clamoring for. ("It's his job to decide where in the world he needs to write his column from, and go there," says Kristof's Times boss, Andrew Rosenthal, describing a job that barely exists anymore.)
Or even because Kristof's the guy whom actress/activist Mia Farrow credits with sounding "the clarion call that there was a genocide unfolding in a place called Darfur," with reports that she said "tore me apart and re-arranged me."
Mostly, it's about showing up. And about figuring out a way to keep caring.
As a reader, I've wondered for a while how Kristof manages those things in the face of one horror after another.
The only answer I can glean from "Reporter" - which was directed by Eric Daniel Metzgar, and which follows Kristof on a 2007 trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was accompanied by a medical student and a high school teacher who'd won a contest to be there - is that, like most newspaper people, he's both more and less detached than he seems.
He's chosen, for instance, to fight compassion-fatigue in his readers by focusing on the suffering of individuals.
"But the thing is, I don't want my readers to send money to individual victims," he says in the film. "I want to inspire readers to tackle the broader problems, the systemic problems. So, inevitably, I have to present those statistics, to feel that I'm doing intellectual justice to the issue. But in doing so, I risk losing those readers, and . . . their compassion."
Watching how he finds those individuals gives "Reporter" a transparency that newspapers themselves seldom offer. At one point, he's shown asking - in halting but serviceable French - if anyone in a refugee camp had lost a child in the previous week, looking for a hook into a larger story.
Yet, he doesn't believe everything he hears, noting that "victims lie as much as other people," and that people tend to exaggerate tragedy.
Truth-tellers can be even more frightening, though.
On a visit to a Tutsi warlord in the eastern Congo - where a dinner invitation means that Kristof and company will have a hairy trip back after dark - the columnist questions a boy soldier about whether it's OK to rape women (and, he adds, girls).
"If it's war, you can rape them," replies the boy in French, looking mildly puzzled.
That's not the kind of interview you get on the phone.
Or as Kristof's Times colleague, Gail Collins, puts it, "The part of journalism that matters, the part that we can't afford to lose, is the part that goes out into the world and looks at things and tells you about things that nobody else is telling you."
Sketching 'Ricky Gervais'
If the animated Ricky Gervais bears more than a passing resemblance to Fred Flintstone, it's not an ancestry he claims.
"I think you will find, in a court of law, I don't look like him at all," the British comic told a reporter last month who'd noticed the likeness in a screener of Gervais' new HBO project, "The Ricky Gervais Show," which premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m.
Ardent fans of Gervais' "The Office" (the BBC original, not the NBC remake) and HBO's "Extras" may already be familiar with the raw material of his new show, which animates a series of podcasts that Gervais made with "Office" co-creator Stephen Merchant and their friend Karl Pilkington that set a Guinness record for downloads.
The podcasts made Pilkington a household name in Britain, though his willful ignorance is too perfect, one hopes, to be anything but an act.
("You know, 'The Flintstones' are only partly based on fact," Merchant informs Pilkington at one point.)
Given that the show largely consists of the animated Gervais and Merchant sitting around a table with the notoriously round-headed Pilkington, disabusing him of one oddball notion after another, it's strange that Gervais would've chosen this show to carry his name.
But true believers - or fans of "The Life & Times of Tim," whose second-season premiere follows at 9:30 - may well have a yabba-dabba-do time. *
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