leanor Foa Dienstag

She Asks the Tough Questions: Christiane Amanpour

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This Friday, a dismal day of rain and humidity in New York, a packed audience gathered in an auditorium of The Paley Center on West 52nd Street to hear what Christiane Amanpour had to say about her career, the current state of affairs in the Mideast, and the role of new and old media in covering today’s political and social upheavals.

These days, she is CNN’s chief international correspondent as well as global affairs anchor for ABC News. Her daily one-hour interview show with international heads of state and other movers and shakers is not broadcast in the U.S. But Amanpour – who quipped that “being in a studio is like being in a new war zone” — is still one of the most respected and recognized international correspondents in the world, and her frank and passionate responses to questions posed by her former CNN colleague, Pat Mitchell – now President and CEO of The Paley Center for Media — made it clear why she is so special.

Amanpour, who was slightly hoarse and scheduled to have an operation to remove a polyp on a vocal chord right after the Paley event, made it clear, at the outset, that she remains an optimist when it comes to the Arab Spring. Speaking without notes and with amazing fluency, she reminded the audience that over 70 percent of the Muslim world is under 21, and insisted that a majority of them want, “what we all want: freedom, accountable government, a good job.”

Raised in Iran and England, with an American journalism degree, a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, Amanpour brings an international perspective to her work. She believes that there is “still not enough dialogue in the U.S. about foreign affairs,” adding that, “It’s hardly been discussed in the Presidential campaign.” In England and France, she pointed out, “public debate is more serious and not hostage to politics, as it is here.”

Amanpour was fortunate enough to join CNN in its earliest days when, as she put it, “Ted Turner, the great pioneer, changed the world.” In her view, his vision of “democratizing information around the world,“ is now receding.

Mitchell gracefully interspersed her questions with clips of famous Amanpour moments, including her confrontation with President Bill Clinton over his non-intervention in Bosnia. Apparently, he’s never forgotten or forgiven and, except for a brief moment when he was promoting his book, has never since agreed to a lengthy interview with Amanpour. But she is proud of her reporting and confrontational style. “We did our job. Bosnia is the story where journalism made a difference.” And added, “Syria is today’s Bosnia.” In her view, today’s interviewers in the U.S. are “too deferential,” because of the fear of alienating those in power whose access they need to retain their jobs.

For Amanpour, her nine years as a 60 Minutes correspondent were, “the high point,” of my career. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” Mitchell ran a clip of Amanpour’s return to Iran with her family, a groundbreaking piece that for the first time showed how Iranians drink, dance, and dress in Western fashion — in private.

Amanpour, who clearly cannot wait to get back into the field, is perplexed and unhappy with the effects of social media, which she believes is “fragmenting and miniaturizing” the news. In the heyday of television news reporting, she says, “We had a communal experience.” Television images of war, of child soldiers, of injustice, were events everyone shared. She is afraid that today, people flit from one news event to another and take none of it seriously.

Amanpour ended the rewarding one-hour interview by quoting a famous Edward R. Murrow line about the future of television. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

Still passionate, still outspoken, still asking the tough questions, she is an admirable force of nature. We miss her.

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag


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