Back on the frontline but without a flak jacket
As Fox News feuds with Barack Obama, Christiane Amanpour's CNN can take the journalistic high ground, reports Stephen Foley from America
Monday 19 October 2009
Christiane Amanpour is surveying her studio, proud. It is typically, grandiosely, CNN. Her name scrolls in giant letters across a dozen flat-screen televisions, bathed in a rich red. Along the vast video wall that dominates one side of the set, a map of the world floats in blue.
"Teal," she corrects. "All the American shows use red, white and blue. We didn't want that." After all, the show – titled simply Amanpour – is a new daily flagship for prime time on CNN International. A "greatest hits" package is aired on Sundays in the US, but the programme is a deliberately internationalist contrast to most of the rest of the output from the New York newsroom where it is based. It is serious global news, from the quintessential global news reporter.
There is something inherently incongruous about the famed war correspondent confined in a studio. This is the woman who rose to worldwide prominence, with CNN itself, as one of the flak-jacketed rooftop anchors of the first Gulf War. Like the BBC's Kate Adie before her, Amanpour exists in the popular imagination as a fifth rider, a short distance behind the apocalyptic horsemen. Her reporting, most notably her heartfelt descriptions of ethnic cleansing in Sarajevo, has been credited with changing US foreign policy. Her laptop case, stickered with entry visas from war zones across the world, is on show in Washington's Newseum, an institution dedicated to journalism. What on earth is she doing behind a desk?
"For me, this is a real challenge," she says. "I am perfectly used to being out there fighting for the story. This, however, is outside my comfort zone. The common imperative is to explain. For me, that is my mission statement. To continue doing what I have been doing in the field, going to difficult places and bringing information back, and presenting it in an honest way, and in as human a way as possible. To tell stories that are vital and compelling, and to connect with people."
For Amanpour, the move to New York was dictated by personal considerations as much as professional ones. Previously, she had been based in London with her husband, former State department press chief James Rubin, who she met while covering the Balkans. Last time she spoke to The Independent, in 2006, she had been circumspect about the possibility of giving up the foreign correspondent lifestyle. "I never say never to anything because the next move will be my husband's. He came to England for me."
Now, with the Democrats back in power, Rubin is once again advising the State department and looking for a more formal career in US politics. Amanpour, meanwhile, wraps up her show at 3.30pm, in time to pick up their son, nine-year-old Darius, from school on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Amanpour says she still plans to head back out into the field to do documentaries, but her nesting has given her bosses a chance to try revitalising CNN International. Long the preserve of hotel visitors and businessmen, the channel hopes that a wider audience might tune in to its new prime-time line-up.
In the US, CNN is also trying to exploit an opportunity to reassert itself. For years it has been bashed from the right, which accuses it of liberal bias, and it has been eclipsed in terms of viewing figures by Rupert Murdoch's brash Fox News. Last year's election marked the coming of age of a left-wing mirror to Fox, MSNBC, which has altered the politics of cable news. CNN now sits demonstrably in the political middle. Fox still outscores it two-to-one in viewers, as pundits such as the veteran ideologue, Bill O'Reilly, and the newly popular Glenn Beck (who came to fame accusing President Barack Obama of being a "racist") draw crowds to their brand of shock jock shows. Where once CNN tried to compete, putting controversialist Lou Dobbs in to prime time, it is now moving in the opposite direction. Dobbs's show has been subtly re-engineered, scaling back the opinion and upping the news content, according to insiders. Amanpour's place on the weekend line-up adds to its serious news credentials.
"I have spent my whole career in the world of facts. I don't feel like leaving it," says Amanpour. "I have refused to join the ranks of the commentati, or whatever it is called. Mine is not an opinion programme. We put things on and let the audience figure things out for themselves, we don't bludgeon them. Of course, that's not to say that the choices we make and the voices we put on are not designed to highlight a position."
A case in point: as we talk, the day's show is going out, concluding a discussion of Myanmar with footage from a U2 concert, showing Amnesty International volunteers brought on stage wearing masks of jailed dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. A few days earlier, Amanpour had juxtaposed her interview with Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, with a correspondent's report from inside the country, subtly ridiculing his claim that "land reform is the best thing that could ever have happened" to Zimbabwe. One of her aims, Amanpour says, is to test whether leaders are "connected to their people".
It was the Islamic Revolution in Iran that galvanised her interest in journalism. Born in 1958 to her Iranian airline executive father and British mother, Christiane Amanpour grew up in Tehran and attended boarding school in the UK and only enrolled in a journalism course on Fleet Street by accident because her sister dropped out of an already paid-for place. When the revolution happened, and Amanpour's parents fled, she says she was "lifted up" by her intimate connection with major world events. A journalism degree in the US, plus stints at the BBC in London during summers, when she reported on the Brixton race riots of 1981, amongst other things, was followed, in 1983, by a lowly foreign desk job at CNN's headquarters in Atlanta. Within two decades she was arguably the network's biggest star.
"Good journalism is about being in the field, putting in your time, gaining the experience, the knowledge, the credibility and the trust, not just from the people you are reporting on but from the people you are reporting to. Don't think you can just sit back and comment on something and then you are an expert. There is no substitute for professional journalists," she says.
Amanpour agrees that the US media landscape is being "impoverished" as a result of continuing cutbacks in the foreign staff on the nightly news shows of the networks and the closure of scores of overseas bureaux by once-mighty regional newspapers. The loss of these operations does not mean we are starved of information from overseas – more is gushing forth over the internet than ever – but there is a poverty of a different kind.
"We have vastly increased the speed and power and breadth of delivery systems, but the relationship with actual understanding seems to be very tenu
ous. There is tons and tons of information – but that does not mean there is tons and tons of understanding."
So Amanpour the show, like Amanpour in person, is studiously high-brow, and aiming high. "There are clear historical and geographical reasons for why Americans care and know less about the rest of the world than the rest of the world knows about America. Do I expect them to be more interested in what I do than in American Idol? No. But we don't compete. The American people are not dumb, but they are treated as if they are dumb. I have always had a massive respect for their views, and respect for their knowledge and understanding. If you build it, they will come."
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