Christiane Amanpour Q&A: Fighting to Tell Important Stories

Apr 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

By Elizabeth Jensen, Special to TelevisionWeek

At the 2000 Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in Minneapolis, Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, gave a passionate and much-quoted defense of the value of reporting, decrying the financial pressures from corporate overseers that had pushed journalists into what she called “the fight of our lives to save the profession which we love.”

It was time, she said then, that “the cost cutters, the money managers and the advertisers … gave us room to operate in a way that is meaningful, otherwise we will soon be folding our tents and slinking off into the sunset.” And if journalists can’t bear witness to the events of the world, she said, “Then the bad people will win.”

Almost one year to the day later came the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, and Ms. Amanpour’s words took on new meaning. Even foreign reporting quickly regained respect among the bean counters as news operations scrambled to redirect resources overseas.

Ms. Amanpour, who is based in London, is back at this year’s convention as winner of the prestigious Paul White Award, traditionally one of the industry’s most visible platforms.

“I’m not going to try and top it,” she said of her 2000 address, which she recalled “came out in a stream of consciousness” when she was writing it. “It was what I was thinking at the time.” But she noted, despite the post-9/11 resurgence of foreign reporting, the news business has, “in a way … gotten darker, beyond what I would have imagined then.”

The extensive coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith symbolizes the problem, she said, as the bar gets higher for serious and foreign stories to get on the air, with those stories often shunted into headlines and bulletins and real storytelling given over to celebrities. The business, she said, “has veered into a direction I didn’t imagine possible. The triumph of sensational and silly and entertainment over news is complete.”

Ms. Amanpour, who started her broadcast career as an electronic graphics designer at WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., was chosen by a committee of past chairs of RTNDA, led by Dan Shelley of New York’s WCBS-TV.

“I think in a year when there is so much focus on reporting from overseas, and focus on the courage that it takes to go out and cover some of these stories, she was really a very logical candidate,” said Barbara Cochran, RTNDA’s president. The RTNDA Foundation honored ABC News’ Bob Woodruff and CBS News’ Kimberly Dozier, both seriously injured while covering the Iraq war, with First Amendment Awards at its awards dinner in early March.

In Ms. Amanpour’s case, “The award really goes to her lifetime career of going to all kinds of dangerous places and telling the story,” said Ms. Cochran, who noted the CNN correspondent’s stories are particularly special “because she is focusing on trying to convey the human story” behind the news.

After WJAR, Ms. Amanpour, who was born to an Iranian father and a British mother and spent much of her childhood in Iran, worked as a reporter, anchor and producer for WBRU-FM, also in Providence, from 1981-82. In 1983 she jumped to the fledgling CNN, starting as an assistant on the international assignment desk in Atlanta and working her way up.

In her 2000 address, Ms. Amanpour, who is married to former Clinton State Department spokesman and current Sky TV commentator James Rubin, noted she was the mother of a 5-month-old son, the child she had once insisted she would never have because of her dedication to her profession. Then she said, “Like every working mother, when I think of my son and having to leave him, and I imagine him fixing those large innocent eyes on me and asking me, ‘Mummy, why are you going to those terrible places? What if they kill you?’ I wince.”

Now that he has just turned 7, she said, it is indeed “emotional, and it gets more and more difficult” to tell him she’s heading off to cover a hot spot. “I think as you grow older you evaluate what you’re doing, your position in terms of the industry,” she said. “You want to be sure you are still contributing and able to do something constructive, to make sure it is still worth it.”

She added: “I still feel very, very strongly that this is one of the most important professions around. Without information, we’re pretty much useless.”

Just the Facts

She said her own focus is “to remain in fact-based reporting. For me, the most difficult thing to cope with over the last several years has been the increasing ideological, opinionated, politicized news. I’m very clear that what I do is fact-based reporting. That is becoming scarcer and scarcer at a time when it is even more vital.”

As for foreign coverage, Ms. Amanpour said she is convinced — based on the evidence she sees of individuals worldwide who have committed themselves to issues, charities and non-governmental organizations — that there is more of an audience than some in the news business have estimated. “We in the news media are always a step behind the public,” she said, adding that her feeling is often validated on trips to the U.S. when viewers thank her “for telling us what is going on out there.”

With more than 23 years at CNN, Ms. Amanpour said, “I think I proved my commitment and ability and I think I’ve been lucky that I’m able to do journalism the way I was taught to do journalism.”

As journalism migrates to the Web, she noted, “That doesn’t mean that so-called ‘old journalism’ should go away either.” While the Internet is “quick and efficient,” she said, “The power of what we do is still about the impact of pictures and sound, and there is not the same impact on a tiny screen.”

Ms. Amanpour is the first full-time foreign correspondent to receive the Paul White Award, which was established in 1956 and is named for CBS’s first news director. But it’s not her first award from RTNDA; she received a 2002 Edward R. Murrow Award.

In addition, Ms. Amanpour has won nine Emmy Awards, including one for her documentary “Struggle for Islam.” Among her numerous other honors are the Sigma Chi Award for her reports from Goma, Zaire; and two George Polk Awards and two George Foster Peabody Awards for her reporting from the Balkans. Her work contributed to CNN’s duPont Awards for its coverage of Bosnia and Iran.

The Paul White Award, which has gone to Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel, among others, recognizes an individual’s lifetime contribution to electronic journalism. In the case of last year’s winner, ABC News’ Charles Gibson, it was given even before he ascended to the network’s top job as anchor of “World News.” Ms. Amanpour, at age 49, also is likely to have other career achievements before her.

Recently she has been reporting from Israel for an upcoming documentary project she can’t discuss in detail. “Documentary is the new venue for some really compelling storytelling,” she said, noting she hopes to spend more time on the genre.

What: The annual convention of the Radio-Television News Directors Association
Where: Las Vegas Hilton
When: Through Wednesday, April 18
Details: www.rtnda.org/conv07

Radio-Television News Directors Association’s 2007 Convention