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Keeping the Press Powerful: Christiane Amanpour

By Sara Scheiron

Christiane Amanpour stands in front of the Dome in the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel in February 2007. Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images for CNN

Christiane Amanpour’s long list of awards and honors is as impressive as it is humbling.  The reporting for which Amanpour has been so extensively honored is incisive and hard-hitting, and her commitment to the public’s right to information is unswerving. And yet, she herself is impressively humble, and this humility makes her all the more familiar and engaging. This month, IDA honors her with the Courage Under Fire Award for demonstrating conspicuous bravery and venturing into dangerous territory to pursue and report the truth.

“I’ve lost many friends and had many others wounded in this profession, and I really take it seriously,” Amanpour says. “We do it because we take this profession seriously and because we respect the public and really want to help increase understanding and knowledge and awareness.”

As CNN’s chief foreign correspondent, Amanpour has been granted exclusive interviews with world leaders and has reported from war zones like Somalia, Iraq, Israel and Sarajevo. For these efforts and her dedication to the public, she’s won Peabody Awards, Emmys, Edward R. Murrow Awards, and, most recently, the CBE, or Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, from Queen Elizabeth II.

Amanpour was 19 when the Iranian Revolution upturned her “very calm and non-turbulent childhood.” She’s often said that surviving the Revolution was formative. “To have your whole country, life, everything turned upside down and suddenly feel unwelcome in a place where you had grown up changed my world view,” Amanpour says, adding that in a situation like that a person can either “sink or swim. I felt that I really swam out of that. I took it and used it to shape my future and to shape the career that I chose.”

After earning a degree in journalism from the University of Rhode Island, followed by a short stint as a designer at a New England news station, Amanpour was hired by CNN in 1983 as an entry-level desk assistant. “There were no expectations of me at all,” she reflects. “I had expectations of me—I wanted to be a foreign correspondent from the minute I walked through the door.”

Then three years old, CNN was a still untested name in the universe of broadcast news. Amanpour recounts that Ted Turner “came along and said, ‘There is room for something else; maybe people want to have their news 24 hours a day.’ Then he took it international and he democratized information for a world which had been fed a diet of state-run propaganda and highly controlled information.”

Amanpour cites among her influences Edward R. Murrow and Oriana Fellaci. Fellaci was “brave and stood up for what was right and the ability to tell information to the public, whether it was palatable or not.” Murrow “had moral and physical courage and the courage of his convictions… He wouldn’t be bludgeoned by the attempts of people to sully his name or to cast aspersions on what he or some of his guests were doing.” Amanpour calls this “a lesson throughout the ages. This kind of harassment of the press and attempt to corral the press into reporting just one specific point of view is unacceptable in a democracy, and he [Murrow] stood up for that. I hope that I stand up for that in my time and many of my colleagues stand up for that as well. That’s my motivating force.”

Any person whose profession puts them in harm’s way must develop a staunch conviction, but Amanpour explains that danger is not the only threat to her or her profession. “Turn on any station, any radio, any dial and look at the quantity of sensationalism, tabloidism, opinion––much of which is simply ignorance and personal opinion-based, often not on intellectual analysis but based on personal agendas. I personally think that does a disservice to civil society and democracy. If the public cannot expect to get fact-based journalism and intelligent analysis and only relies on somebody’s opinion masquerading as news, that’s a disservice. And that is the definition of journalism in decline.

Issues of censorship, media consolidation, waning journalistic integrity and changing financial priorities play into this decline. “Resources are being cut unacceptably [for] those who are the eyes and ears of the public and of the world,” Amanpour notes. “The minute you start slashing news and current affairs, you start cutting into the very essence of what an informed society is, and that is dangerous for that society.”

Budgets aren’t the only thing networks are “slashing” for journalists. The censoring of Iraq war reportage “does a disservice and a dishonor to those people who have put their lives on the line and those who have been killed in combat. It’s almost like saying, “We don’t want to know about them.” Referring to the omission of caskets from televised reports of the war, she says, “To dishonor them by keeping them secret in their final trip home is unacceptable.” Amanpour believes that journalists should have the opportunity “to show people the cost of war and by putting the pictures of their coffins [in reports], you give them a moment of honor and respect.”

Amanpour feels censorship is a particularly detrimental situation Stateside. “For the people of the United States not to have as much information as possible, I think, is a disservice to them and to the world—particularly since Americans like to project their power and their influence around the world.” And, she follows, “There’s nothing more debilitating than ignorance.”

Amanpour views media consolidation as a detriment to journalism. However, a solution to the declining integrity of journalism does exist. “The news organizations have to stop thinking they’re cogs in a corporate empire,” she maintains. “And the corporate empires who unfortunately own news organizations now should give the news organizations the capacity to do their basic duty and their basic job, and that is to inform the public.”

As for her longer-form documentary pieces, Amanpour affirms, “Documentary is the new spot news. As daily coverage of news, especially foreign news, has dramatically diminished, documentary or longer form is the only way to get information across these days."

Inspired by the work of Max and Marcel Ophuls, Michael Moore, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neil, Errol Morris and James Longley, Amanpour says she has great respect for what Robert Redford has done with the Sundance Film Festival: “I’ve been to the Sundance Festival and I’ve been blown away by the quality of documentary work that is done there.”

When asked about her feelings on other brands of news-letting, in particular comic news-letting like The Daily Show, Amanpour observes, “I think Jon Stewart is perhaps one of the best people in the news business. He and others like him are a conscience and they provide a vital alternative to some of the headlong rush to conformity in much of the media.”

Amanpour’s upcoming long-form piece is about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This work will explore what happened to democracy in Russia and investigate the decline of independent media there. The outlook, Amanpour says, “is a complicated picture because on the one hand, the Russian people want stability and security and dignity and they believe Putin affords them that. And on the other hand, there’s a wholesale retreat from political and press freedom, not to mention human rights.”

Well-viewed, well-discussed and well-rated, Amanpour’s long-form television documentaries have provided her with the opportunity to report on hard-hitting international affairs and have proven once again that “We should not belittle and disrespect the public’s right to know and the public’s right to information… If each person according to his ability stands up for what’s right and what is the basic professional ethic and duty, I think we would be in a vastly different place.”

Sara Scheiron is an editor for and contributor to The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Film Arts Foundation’s Film Arts and a variety of other outlets. She teaches film studies at DeAnza College in Cupertino and lives in San Francisco.


Courage Under Fire Award

2001          Saira Shah

2004          Jonathan Stack and James Brabazon

2006          Andrew Berends