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Christiane Amanpour

On fear, a free press and following public tastes.

By JANE AMMESON

Christiane Amanpour has a tough job. From the streets and deserts of war-torn nations, she comes into our homes via CNN to broadcast the strife of the world--a hard sell to people who would prefer only the good or the scandalous. With a face and voice indelibly synonymous with international news, the 47-year-old Amanpour says she believes that it is important for us as a society to understand what's going on in the world and doesn't believe anyone has the right to shade or silence the objective truth. It is, at times, an admittedly daunting battle, but Amanpour, who witnessed the tragedies of the Islamic Revolution as a young girl, says she knows that knowledge is power, making her determined to contribute to our knowledge, no matter how dangerous the job, she says.

Chicago Life: Why is there so much interest in international news?

Christiane Amanpour: I saw a spike in international news coverage after 9/11, but I do feel that it is still a struggle to get international news in any depth and time on American television. A vital component of any news organization must be to provide international news to the public's attention because it's such a central part of what affects Americans every day. What goes on around the world has had a direct impact on the United States, especially at a time when the president of the United States is so pro-active in his foreign policy--Americans must know what that means.

Chicago Life: So in your opinion the interest in international news is waning?

Christiane Amanpour: I believe that there is an increasing and gathering disrespect for serious information and an increasingly big knowledge vacuum in the United States. I believe that many news organizations feel that they are following public tastes and public trends. They seem to feel that they don't need to provide serious news. Covering serious news, whether it is foreign or domestic, takes time and effort. It's not like having talking heads that you can just sit in front of the camera all day.

Chicago Life: Why are there so many talking heads these days?

Christiane Amanpour: I don't know what's driving this. I can only assume that it's the market. But I believe that news organizations have a special responsibility, and their responsibility is to provide a public service. Even private organizations have a bond of public duty. We set ourselves up as purveyors of truth and information, and if we're going to do that, we need to be responsible. I just think that it's too easy these days to simply chase the lowest common denominator and pursue the path of least resistance.

Chicago Life: Why have you chosen to pursue this hazardous and daunting job?

Christiane Amanpour: That's an interesting question. I'm a product of one of the most dramatic events of the late 20th century, which was the Islamic Revolution in Iran. I'm half Iranian. I lived through the Islamic Revolution and saw what it did not only to Iran, not only to my family and friends, but to the world. I became hugely aware of the power of written and broadcast information and became incredibly interested in being a part of that. It was only after several years into my job that I realized what an incredible position of responsibility we journalists hold. I think that really hit me most dramatically when I was covering the Balkan Wars.

Chicago Life: How does this dangerous work affect you?

Christiane Amanpour: It's professionally and personally painful. It's not very smart. But what is a society if it doesn't have knowledge? What is a democracy if it doesn't have a driving, serious, independent and free press?

Chicago Life: Can you give us an example of the lack of interest in serious news?

Christiane Amanpour: Well, I think a classic example is what's going on in Darfur. Nick Kristoff [of The New York Times] has been the standard for the reporting from there. But many other news organizations have simply not reported on it in any continuous form. I'm currently attempting to get another visa to go back there. I did it twice last year, in May and August, and I'm trying to go back because there are still incredible violations of human rights there. It's very difficult to get there--very expensive. But networks and news agencies should care. I wonder whether they do care, and that pains me because I remember very vividly when nobody cared enough to shine the light on what was going on in Rwanda in 1994. No government intervened to stop a genocide that killed as many as one million people in three months. That should be a lesson for us as journalists and for world leaders. We can't afford to let that happen again.

Chicago Life: Can you name one of your personal heroes?

Christiane Amanpour: Oriana Fallaci.

Chicago Life: Do you ever feel like you're going to burn out?

Christiane Amanpour: The longer I do it the harder it becomes because you just keep building up this well of horrors that you witness. But I do feel strongly that it's my job and that I owe it to those people to tell their stories and owe it to our viewers to tell those stories. I think that if we don't tell important stories, it has a very negative effect on our society and on their society.

Chicago Life: What were your first jobs in journalism?

Christiane Amanpour: Remember that I started late. I spent a couple of years in boarding school in England. Then, after the Iranian Revolution, I came to the University of Rhode Island in the United States, and by that time, I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. I had jobs on the side at the radio station at the university. After I graduated, I was hired by the local television station. Then, in 1983, I got my first job at CNN, an entry-level job from where I worked my way up.

Chicago Life: Are you ever afraid?

Christiane Amanpour: I didn't focus so much on fear in the early days. I think that's a function of youth and inexperience. Fear really became much more prominent for me after I had a child. That changed my relationship with what I do. I'm more fearful and more careful. My son is [now] five.

Chicago Life: What is one of the scariest experiences you've had?

Christiane Amanpour: In Bosnia I had a very terrifying moment when I narrowly escaped being blown up in my own hotel room. A howitzer shell came through the wall of a room nearby, but luckily it was faulty. If not, my whole floor would have been wiped out.

Chicago Life: With all those things going on, do you have trouble sleeping when on assignment?

Christiane Amanpour: I don't have trouble sleeping, actually. I get so tired that I just sleep.

Chicago Life: Does your husband worry?

Christiane Amanpour: It gets more and more difficult for our spouses and for our children. But my husband knows that it's important and has done the same line of work. He was in the government--in the State Department.

Chicago Life: What do you do when you're not covering the news?

Christiane Amanpour: I stick close to my family. I try to be a good mother and a good wife. I like to go on good vacations with my family. I like being with my friends when I'm not on the road. We go to restaurants, museums, cinemas--all sorts of things like that.

Chicago Life: What are your views on Iraq since the election?

Christiane Amanpour: I think everybody would like to think now that the elections have happened we can just pack our stuff and go away and don't need to report on Iraq anymore. I think election day was a real triumph for the Iraqi people. They braved terrible threats of violence to go and vote. I believe the Iraqi people, in that one moment, regained their pride and dignity and gained a special place in the Arab world. The U.S. military did an incredible job ensuring that election day was peaceful and nonviolent. The sad thing is that the insurgency hasn't stopped. Hundreds of people have been killed since the election--127 people were killed on one day alone. In other words, we can't say, "Oh, that's great; elections are over, so the story is over." It's not.

Chicago Life: What can we do to stabilize Iraq?

Christiane Amanpour: The way to make Iraq stable is to deny the insurgents any support from the people. One of the main goals of the Iraqi election is to set up a democratic government for which the armed forces and the population are willing to fight. Right now Americans are fighting to keep Iraq stable. Also, the goal must be to provide economic hope for the people. Reconstruction must happen. So far the violence has prevented that. People need jobs. It's a long-term project. It's daunting, but needs serious attention, serious commitment and continued efforts.

Chicago Life: What do you think when people argue that we shouldn't be told about the "bad" stuff going on in Iraq?

Christiane Amanpour: The notion that somehow a society is better off knowing less rather than more is quaint. It's quaint and a little bit scary, especially for a society and a country as important as the United States of America.

Chicago Life: A recent survey showed that more than half of the high school students thought it was OK for the government to restrict information. What are your thoughts on that?

Christiane Amanpour: If students aren't taught about the importance of a free press, of a free society, that goes against the grain of the very democracy on which the United States of America is built--the very democracy that the United States wants to export around the world.

Chicago Life: What can our readers do?

Christiane Amanpour: Care, be interested and refuse to put up with rubbish--engage in what's going on around them and what's going on around the world as much as they possibly can, in little ways or big.

Published: June 01, 2005
Issue: Summer 2005