Kristof was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up on a sheep and cherry farm in Yamhill, Oregon. He is the son of Jane Kristof (née McWilliams) and Ladis "Kris" Kristof (born Władysław Krzysztofowicz), both long-time professors at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. His father was born of Polish and Romanian-Armenian parents in the former Austria-Hungary, and immigrated to the United States after World War II. Nicholas Kristof graduated from Yamhill Carlton High School, where he was student body president and school newspaper editor, and later became a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard College. At Harvard, he studied government and worked on The Harvard Crimson newspaper; "Alums recall Kristof as one of the brightest undergraduates on campus," according to a profile in the Crimson. After Harvard, he studied law at Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. He earned his law degree with first-class honors and won an academic prize. Afterward, he studied Arabic in Egypt for the 1983–84 academic year. He has a number of honorary degrees.
After joining The New York Times in 1984, initially covering economics, he served as a Times correspondent in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo. He rose to be the associate managing editor of The New York Times, responsible for Sunday editions. His columns have often focused on global health, poverty, and gender issues in the developing world. In particular, since 2004 he has written dozens of columns about Darfur and visited the area 11 times. He has also been a pioneer in multimedia: he was both the first blogger on the New York Times' website and the first to make a video for the website, and he also tweets, has Facebook and Google Plus pages and a YouTube channel; according to Twitter lists, he has more followers (almost 1.5 million) than any other print journalist in the world. Kristof resides outside New York City with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and their three children: Gregory, Geoffrey, and Caroline.
Kristof's bio says he has traveled to more than 150 countries. Jeffrey Toobin of CNN and The New Yorker, a Harvard classmate, has said: "I’m not surprised to see him emerge as the moral conscience of our generation of journalists. I am surprised to see him as the Indiana Jones of our generation of journalists.” Bill Clinton said in September 2009: "There is no one in journalism, anywhere in the United States at least, who has done anything like the work he has done to figure out how poor people are actually living around the world, and what their potential is....So every American citizen who cares about this should be profoundly grateful that someone in our press establishment cares enough about this to haul himself all around the world to figure out what's going on....I am personally in his debt, as are we all."
Kristof is a member of the board of overseers of Harvard University, where he was chief marshal of commencement for his 25th reunion, and is a member of the board of trustees of the Association of American Rhodes Scholars. Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists, said in a 2013 statement: "Nick Kristof is the conscience of international journalism."
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says that a page one article by Kristof in January 1997 about child mortality in the developing world helped direct the couple toward global health as a focus of philanthropy. A framed copy of that article is in the gallery of the Gates Foundation.
In 1990, Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, earned a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their reporting on the pro-democracy student movement and the related Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. They were the first married couple to win a Pulitzer for journalism. Kristof has also received the George Polk Award and an award from the Overseas Press Club for his reporting which focuses on human rights and environmental issues.
Kristof was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004 and again in 2005 "for his powerful columns that portrayed suffering among the developing world's often forgotten people and stirred action." In 2006 Kristof won his second Pulitzer, the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary "for his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world." Kristof was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize again in 2012 and 2016; altogether, he has been a Pulitzer finalist seven times.
In 2009, Kristof and WuDunn received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize's 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award. Together, they also received the 2009 World of Children Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also won the 2008 Anne Frank Award, the 2007 Fred Cuny Award for Prevention of Deadly Conflict, and the 2013 Advancing Global Health Award (from Seattle Biomed). Commentators have occasionally suggested Kristof for the Nobel Peace Prize, but when Media Web named Kristof its "print journalist of the year" in 2006 and asked him about that, it quoted him as saying: "I can't imagine it going to a scribbler like me. That's a total flight of fancy."
In 2011, Kristof was named one of seven "Top American Leaders" by the Harvard Kennedy School and The Washington Post. "His writing has reshaped the field of opinion journalism," The Washington Post explained in granting the award. Earlier, in 2007, U.S. News & World Report named Kristof one of "America's Best Leaders."
In 2013, Kristof was awarded the Goldsmith Award for Career Excellence in Journalism by Harvard University. Alex Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning director of Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Shorenstein Center, declared in presenting the award that “the reporter who's done more than any other to change the world is Nick Kristof." In the same year, Kristof was named an International Freedom Conductor by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, largely for his work exposing human trafficking and linking it to modern slavery. The last person named to receive the title, two years earlier, was the Dalai Lama.
Kristof's books, all best-sellers and all co-authored with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, include China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power (1994), Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia (1999), Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf, September 2009). and A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (Knopf, September 2014). Among many of the motivations for writing Half the Sky Kristof explained to Jane Wales of the World Affairs Council of Northern California that the idea for the book was sparked by the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. After covering the protests, which resulted in some 500 deaths, Kristof and WuDunn were shocked to learn that roughly 39,000 Chinese girls died each year because they were not given the same access to food and medical care as boys. Yet WuDunn and Kristof could not find coverage of these deaths, even though they were far more numerous than the casualties at Tiananmen Square. That led them to dig deeper into questions of gender, Kristof said. Half the Sky covers topics such as sex trafficking and forced prostitution, contemporary slavery, gender-based violence, and rape as a weapon of war and method of justice, as it shines light on the multitude of ways women are oppressed and violated in the world.
Half the Sky reached No. 1 on the best-seller lists. Carolyn See, a book critic of The Washington Post, said in her review: "Half the Sky is a call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, but also a call for volunteers. It asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue. It does so with exquisitely crafted prose and sensationally interesting material....I really do think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed." In Cleveland, a reviewer for The Plain Dealer said: "As Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" once catalyzed us to save our birds and be better stewards of our earth, 'Half the Sky' stands to become a classic, spurring us to spare impoverished women these terrors, and elevate them to turn around the future of their nations." The Seattle Times review predicted that Half the Sky may "ignite a grass-roots revolution like the one that eliminated slavery." In CounterPunch, Charles R. Larson declared: "Half the Sky is the most important book that I have read since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962. I am not alone in saying that this is the most significant book that I have ever reviewed."
In a column published six months before the Iraq invasion titled "Wimps on Iraq", Kristof stated "To use the existing Iraq debate seems largely beside the point; the real issue isn't whether we want to overthrow Saddam, but what price we would have to pay to get the job done." In the same column, he wrote, "President Bush has convinced me that there is no philosophical reason we should not overthrow the Iraqi government, given that Iraqis themselves would be better off, along with the rest of the world. But Mr. Bush has not overcome some practical concerns about an invasion." He concludes, after detailing five practical concerns about invading Iraq, "So if Mr. Bush were really addressing these concerns, weighing them and then concluding that on balance it's worth an invasion, I'd be reassured. But instead it looks as if the president, intoxicated by moral clarity, has decided that whatever the cost, whatever the risks, he will invade Iraq." In a column entitled "The Day After" in September 2002, during a reporting visit to Iraq, he declared: "In one Shiite city after another, expect battles between rebels and army units, periodic calls for an Iranian-style theocracy, and perhaps a drift toward civil war. For the last few days, I've been traveling in these Shiite cities—Karbala, Najaf and Basra—and the tension in the bazaars is thicker than the dust behind the donkey carts. So before we rush into Iraq, we need to think through what we will do the morning after Saddam is toppled. Do we send in troops to try to seize the mortars and machine guns from the warring factions? Or do we run from civil war, and risk letting Iran cultivate its own puppet regime?"
On May 6, 2003, less than two months into the war, Kristof published an op-ed column titled "Missing in Action: Truth," in which he questioned whether the intelligence gathered by the Bush administration, which purportedly indicated that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, was either faked or manipulated. In this article, Kristof cited as his source a "former ambassador" who had traveled to Niger in early 2002 and reported back to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the State Department that the uranium “allegations were unequivocally wrong and based on forged documents.” Kristof added, "The envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and seemed to be accepted—except that President Bush and the State Department kept citing it anyway." Two months later, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV came forward publicly and published a now-famous op-ed in The New York Times titled "What I Didn't Find in Africa". This set off a series of events which resulted in what become known as "Plamegate": the disclosure by journalist Robert Novak of the – until then covert – status as a CIA officer of Ambassador Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame Wilson. A criminal investigation was launched as to the source of the leak, as a consequence of which I. Lewis Libby, then-Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was indicted on obstruction of justice, false statement, and perjury charges, and subsequently convicted and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and a $250,000 fine (though he never served time in prison because President Bush commuted his prison sentence). Kristof's May 6 article was mentioned in the federal indictment of Scooter Libby as a key point in time, and a contributing factor that caused Libby to inquire about the identity of the "envoy" and later divulge the secret identity of his wife to reporters.
Kristof published several articles criticizing the missed opportunity of the "grand bargain"—a proposal by Iran to normalize relations with the United States, implement procedures to assure the US it will not develop nuclear weapons, deny any monetary support to Palestinian resistance groups until they agree to stop targeting civilians, support the Arab Peace Initiative, and ensure full transparency to assuage any United States concerns. In return, the Iranians demanded abolition of sanctions and a US statement that Iran does not belong in the so-called "Axis of Evil." In his columns, Kristof revealed the documents detailing this proposal and argued that the "grand bargain" proposal was killed by hard-liners in the Bush administration. According to Kristof, this was an "appalling mistake" since "the Iranian proposal was promising and certainly should have been followed up. It seems diplomatic mismanagement of the highest order for the Bush administration to have rejected that process out of hand, and now to be instead beating the drums of war and considering air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites." Kristof further believes that even if the grand bargain is not currently feasible, there is still an option for what he calls a "mini-bargain", i.e., a more modest proposal for normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations.
In 2002 Kristof wrote a series of columns indirectly suggesting that Steven Hatfill, a former US Army germ-warfare researcher named a "person of interest" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), might be a "likely culprit" in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Hatfill was never charged with any crime. In July 2004 Hatfill sued the Times and Kristof for libel, asserting claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Subsequently, Hatfill voluntarily dismissed Kristof as a defendant in the case when it became clear that the District Court lacked personal jurisdiction over Kristof. The suit continued against the Times and was initially dismissed by the District Court on the basis that the allegations in Kristof's articles, even if untrue, did not constitute defamation. In July 2005, however, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision, and reinstated the suit against The New York Times. In January 2007 Judge Claude M. Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia tossed out the suit, claiming that Kristof's anthrax articles were "cautiously worded" and asserted that the scientist could be innocent. Judge Hilton wrote that Kristof "made efforts to avoid implicating his guilt" and that "Mr. Kristof reminded readers to assume plaintiff's (Hatfill) innocence." Kristof praised the dismissal of the suit, commenting that he was "really pleased that the judge recognized the importance of this kind of reporting" and that it was "terrific to have a judgment that protects journalism at a time when the press has had a fair number of rulings against it". When the FBI exonerated Hatfill, Kristof wrote a column on August 27, 2008, "Media's Balancing Act," in which he wrote: "So, first, I owe an apology to Dr. Hatfill. In retrospect, I was right to prod the FBI and to urge tighter scrutiny of Fort Detrick, but the job of the news media is supposed to be to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Instead, I managed to afflict the afflicted."
Kristof is particularly well known for his reporting on Sudan. At the beginning of 2004, he was among the first reporters to visit Darfur and describe "the most vicious ethnic cleansing you've never heard of." He recounted what he called "a campaign of murder, rape and pillage by Sudan," and he was among the first to call it genocide. His biography says he has made 11 trips to the region, some illegally by sneaking in from Chad, and on at least one occasion he was detained at a checkpoint when the authorities seized his interpreter and Kristof refused to leave him behind. Kristof's reporting from Sudan has been both praised and criticized. Robert DeVecchi, past president of the International Rescue Committee, told the Council on Foreign Relations: "Nicholas Kristof...had an unprecedented impact in single-handedly mobilizing world attention to this crisis. There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of refugees in and from the Darfur region who owe their very lives to this formidable humanitarian and journalist." New York Magazine said that Kristof "single-handedly focused the world's attention on Darfur," and the Save Darfur Coalition said that "he is the person most responsible for getting this issue into America's consciousness and the resulting efforts to resolve it." Samantha Power, the author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, told an American Jewish World Service audience that Kristof was probably the person the Janjaweed militia in Darfur most wanted to kill. In June 2008, the actress Mia Farrow spoke as Kristof was honored with the Anne Frank Award, declaring: "Nick Kristof was one of the first to publicly insist that the words Never Again mean something for the people of Darfur. For his courage and his conviction in telling tell searing truths, he is the voice of our collective conscience, demanding we bear witness to the first genocide of the 21st century and encouraging us not to sit by while innocents die. Every once in a great while a moral giant appears among us. Nicholas Kristof is that person." For his coverage of Darfur, Ann Curry of NBC suggested that Kristof was "the modern journalist who showed courage and leadership comparable to the great Edward R. Murrow." On the other hand, some commentators have criticized Kristof for focusing on atrocities by Arab militias in Darfur and downplaying atrocities by non-Arab militias. A book by Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University, "Saviors and Survivors," criticized Kristof's reporting for over-simplifying a complex historically-rooted conflict and packaging it as "genocide." Others, including some critical of Sudan, have sometimes made similar arguments. Sudan's government has also objected that Kristof's reporting exaggerates the scale of suffering and ignores the nuances of tribal conflicts in Darfur. The Sudan government and pro-government news media criticized him in March 2012 for sneaking into Sudan's Nuba Mountains region without a visa, to report on hunger and bombings there, saying that his illegal entry was "shameful and improper."
Nicholas Kristof argues that sweatshops are, if not a good thing, then defensible as a way for workers to improve their lives and for impoverished countries to transform themselves into industrial economies. In this argument, sweatshops are an unpleasant but necessary stage in industrial development. Kristof is critical of the way "well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops", particularly the Anti-Sweatshop movement's strategy of encouraging consumer boycotts against sweatshop-produced imports. Kristof and WuDunn counter that the sweatshop model is a primary reason why Taiwan and South Korea—which accepted sweatshops as the price of development—are today modern countries with low rates of infant mortality and high levels of education, while India—which generally has resisted sweatshops—suffers from a high rate of infant mortality. Kristof and WuDunn admit that sweatshop labor is grueling and dangerous but argue that it is an improvement over most alternatives in extremely poor countries, providing much-needed jobs and boosting economies. They caution that anti-sweatshop boycott campaigns could lead to the closing down of manufacturing and processing plants in places like Africa where they are needed most. "This is not to praise sweatshops," they admit:
Some managers are brutal in the way they house workers in firetraps, expose children to dangerous chemicals, deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union. Agitation for improved safety conditions can be helpful, just as it was in 19th-century Europe. But Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less.
Kristof supports Israeli and U.S. negotiation with Hamas as a means to resolve the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. He criticizes Israel for what he views as collective punishment of Gazans and holds that the lack of negotiations only strengthens extremists. He also advocates removing Israeli settlements from Hebron since "the financial cost is mind-boggling, and the diplomatic cost is greater ". Kristof contrasts "two Israels": an oppressive security state in the Palestinian territories and a "paragon of justice, decency, fairness – and peace," in the work of Israeli human rights activists, journalists, and jurists.
During the 2011 Libyan civil war, Kristof wrote that the U.S. should create a no-fly zone and also use military aircraft to jam Libyan state communications. He remarked, "let's remember the risks of inaction – and not psych ourselves out. For crying out loud!"
In a column published in the New York Times on June 15, 2011 Kristof argued that the United States military was a prime example of how a comprehensive social safety net, universal health care, a commitment to public service, low income disparity, and structured planning could be made to work within an organization. He then suggested that the military could serve as a model for improving American society along those lines. This brought criticism from several other commentators, who argued that the military is only effective at what it does by severely limiting the freedom of its members. Jonah Goldberg argued that "You’ve got to love how a system that requires total loyalty, curbs free speech, free association, freedom of movement, etc., is now either 'lefty' or 'liberal' because it gives 'free' healthcare and daycare," and hinted that the ideas in Kristof's column resembled fascism. David French added that "If you want to see the military do what it does best, then ride out on a mission with an armored cavalry squadron. If you want to see the military struggle to do its job well, then I suggest you spend some time with its social services."
In a 2011 New York Times op-ed, Kristof wrote that he is "not a fan" of teachers' unions because he maintains that unions encourage teachers to accept low wages in return for job security (future seniority benefits, pensions, and protection from arbitrary dismissal). He feels that such protections have the effect of protecting bad teachers, who then have to be fired for cause – a time-consuming, drawn out process – rather than being subject to being summarily fired at will. Instead, Kristof advocates that teachers give up these rights and protections in exchange for receiving much higher average starting salaries. He suggests that instead of the current figure of $39,000 for teacher starting salaries, entering teaching salaries start at $65,000, a figure which he believes will have the effect of attracting and retaining more talented individuals to the profession.
Kristof has written several articles on the controversial use of flame retardants in furniture, most recently in a November 2013 piece titled "Danger Lurks in that Mickey Mouse Couch." Kristof argues that legislative mandates of flame retardants in furniture are a result of powerfully influential lobbyists representing the chemical industry. He claims that flame retardants are ineffective in saving lives, yet pose an increasingly evident public health risk, to both families and firefighters. In his words, "These flame retardants represent a dizzying corporate scandal. It’s a story of corporate greed, deceit and skulduggery."
In 2012, Kristof went as far as to write that flame retardants in furniture are "a case study of everything that is wrong with money politics." He concluded that article, "Are You Safe On That Sofa?" by arguing that the United States needs not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by what he calls "toxic money."
Kristof's stances on flame retardants have come under fire from the chemical industry, who call his opeds "overdramatic" and "misleading."
In 2006, The New York Times launched the Win a Trip with Nick Kristof contest, offering a college student the opportunity to win a reporting trip to Africa with Kristof by submitting essays outlining what they intend to accomplish in such a trip. From among 3,800 students who submitted entries, Kristof chose Casey Parks of Jackson, Mississippi. In September 2006, Kristof and Parks traveled to Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic and reported on AIDS, poverty, and maternal mortality. During the trip, Kristof published his New York Times columns while Parks wrote about her observations in her blog.
The success of this partnership prompted the Times to hold the Second Annual Win A Trip with Nick Kristof contest in 2007. Leana Wen, a medical student at Washington University in St. Louis, and Will Okun, a teacher at Westside Alternative High School in Chicago, were the winners of the 2007 competition. During summer 2007, they traveled with Kristof to Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern Congo. Filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar joined Kristof, Wen and Okun on their trip. The resulting film, Reporter, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO in February 2010. In reviewing the film, which was executive produced by Ben Affleck, Entertainment Weekly wrote: "In Reporter, he's a compelling figure, a cross between Mother Teresa and the James Woods character in Salvador, and what seals the intensity of his job is the danger." The Washington Post observed, "Ideally, [Kristof] hopes to teach his companions, who won a contest to travel with him, about the value of witnessing the world's atrocities and scintillating [sic] them into stories that will call on people to act. Which is what Kristof did with his work in Darfur, Sudan: He caused people – from George Clooney on down – to do whatever they can."
Since 2010, the Center for Global Development has screened applicants for the contest, forwarding Kristof a short list of finalists for his selection.