Q&A: This Week Host Christiane Amanpour

The move to Sunday morning, her critics, and reporting in a new age

Christiane Amanpour has been sitting at the newly refurbished This Week desk for nearly two months now. While some reviewers took shots at the former foreign correspondent in her first few weeks on the job—the Post’s Tom Shales ludicrously asked if Amanpour was suggesting we mourn Taliban members after the host made a point of including “all those who died in war” in an “In Memoriam” segment—she has had successes as she’s settled in. This week alone, Amanpour booked Hillary Clinton and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pressing the latter hard; and with a new, more international focus, This Week began airing on BBC World News at the beginning of September.

That deal takes Amanpour and This Week to over two hundred countries across the world; but Amanpour told CJR assistant editor Joel Meares that her priority is bringing the world to the U.S. She spoke to Meares Tuesday about the move to Sunday morning, her critics, and reporting in a new age. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

After twenty-seven years covering international news at CNN, why did you move to the more inward-looking arena of Sunday morning talk?

Taking this program was not about leaving CNN or having any problems in that regard. It was about seeing an opportunity and seizing it, seizing the day, and seizing this moment to further what I’ve always tried to do.

The bottom line is this: I have a mission and my mission has been to bring, through all my work, a broader understanding of the world to U.S. viewers—first with my job at CNN and now at ABC with This Week. I feel strongly that the United States is in a unique moment of history right now where everything is in play—economy, politics, environment, security, not to mention wars and how to deal with rogue nations, how to deal with proliferation, how to deal with peace and conflict resolution. All of that is globalized. It’s not about the U.S. sitting inside fortress America and not being willing to look out. Everything now, right down to how Americans are educated, how they do business, how they operate in the world, is globalized.

This was an extraordinary opportunity and it was counter-intuitive—it wasn’t conventional wisdom; I’m sure ABC didn’t think of me first when George Stephanopoulos went on to do his great job at GMA. I felt that when this opportunity came up I needed to grab it with both hands, because this is what I’ve been talking about all my career. I believe in putting my work where my mouth is. I felt that I could no longer just talk about how not enough international perspective was on network or other news in the United States. ABC said to me that what they wanted to do was also to differentiate themselves on a Sunday morning. And, while I am doing politics, and while I am being competitive on the midterm elections and the economy and all the things that affect the United States, I’m also adding new layers of international perspective.

Do you think Americans want to see international news on a Sunday morning?

I’m not going to put the cart before the horse. I’m just going to say that I’m pleased with the way we have been received so far. I understand that this is a big challenge. I understand that it is somewhat counterintuitive. And therefore I understand how hard my team and I have to work. But I’m not trying to deliver something that’s foreign. I’m trying to deliver something that I believe many, many Americans want, particularly those who tune in on a Sunday morning—these are people who are interested in what goes on around them, the politics and economics of their own country, but also, by virtue of how their country is changing and how the world’s reality changing, I hear direct feedback from people saying that they do want to know more about the world.

For instance, look at the Islamic center controversy in New York. On the one hand, that’s a local issue. On the other hand it’s a national issue. And on the other hand, it’s an international issue. I’m trying to take all of these stories, all of these human dramas and national dramas, and point out the confluence of where domestic meets global. And I believe strongly there is an appetite and there is a window for that.

How big is the appetite?

I’ve never tried to compete with American Idol, whether I was at CNN or whether I’m here now at ABC. I think that’s a false dichotomy. I’m not saying news or international perspective competes with entertainment or any other mass audience program on television. But I strongly believe—and I know it to be true—that there are now markets for this kind of information. On TV, and especially in the news, there is a lot more niche marketing going on. Hopefully, I can step into it and fill that gap.

When it was announced you would be joining the show, there was some criticism that you weren’t the right choice—some of it implying your experience as a foreign correspondence, and your foreignness itself, made you inappropriate for a Sunday show. How do you deal with that criticism?

Yes, there was some negative carping about me taking this position. And I think that has died down. Let me be frank. I am foreign: I’m half Iranian, I’m half English, and I have an English accent. I was told when I first started in this business twenty-seven years ago that I had a name that would never make it in television, I had the color hair that would never make it on television, I had an accent that would not make it on American television, and that all-in-all I should basically pack up and think of doing something else.

Well, I don’t take no for an answer when I have an ambition and a strong belief. Nor do I roll over in the face of what some people say. I’m used to people having low expectations; and frankly I don’t think that’s a bad thing [laughs]. And I’ve always said, and I will continue to say, that I will simply let my work speak for itself. I’m not political, I’m not a performer on television; I am a journalist and I’m a reporter and I have been for twenty-five years and I continue to do that. And I say that there is still room for that, particularly on a Sunday morning, which is devoted to real substantive hard news. That’s why I felt I would try to make a go of it on this particular piece of real estate in the broadcast media. If I have a chance anywhere it’s there.

Your former network, CNN, has been struggling of late, while more ideological cable news channels Fox and MSNBC are enjoying success. What do you think of this trend in cable news?

The truth of the matter is that I left CNN, I left on extremely good terms, I started my career at CNN, I’ve been there for nearly twenty-seven years, and I don’t really want to talk about their programming or the situation in cable news right now.

Other than to say that I strongly believe that there is still space, whether it be on cable or on broadcast, for fact-based reality and the pursuit of truth—the pursuit of in-depth investigation and being there as a differentiator between the ideological left or the right. I strongly believe there is a place for that and that great journalism will triumph, that it still has an indispensible role in our world and in civil society. I’m on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists, where I chaired a panel between really heroic Mexican journalists who every day are putting their lives on the line to bring the truth about what’s going on in Mexico. Good journalism is alive and well, and it’s something that those of us who believe in it put our lives on the line to defend.

I know that this is hard, what I’ve chosen to do at ABC is hard, and for ABC it was a leap to bring me on board. But when you believe in something and you’re prepared to put yourself on the line and you’re prepared to take the slings and arrows and the criticism, all you can do is do your best and do what you believe in. That’s what I’m going to do and that’s what I am doing.

Objectivity is constantly being tested today by new technologies like blogs and Twitter, which encourage reporters to communicate directly and can then punish them for it, which is what happened with Helen Thomas and Octavia Nasr at CNN. Is there a new line that journalists have to be aware of in guarding their objectivity?

I don’t want to comment on Octavia because all of that happened after I left CNN, and I don’t [want to comment on] Helen either, other than to say… In general, we have to be doubly careful and redouble our ordinary journalistic efforts in the face of these massive and exploding platforms. And I think people make a choice these days. They choose either to remain objective and within the fact-based reality and the realm of objective journalism. Or they choose to bring more of their personality, more of their ideas, more of their opinions. I belong to the first group, and when I talk beyond objective journalism it’s basically to analyze [issues] based on my reporting experience—whether it’s about Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, whatever it might be.

I do think we have to be doubly careful, most particularly because I think two things are going on. In some instances, those people who stick cameras or tape recorders under our noses are not always doing it with the best of intentions. There’s a huge amount of “gotcha!” going on out there. But there’s also an immediate reactive mechanism happening so that what one says is doubly, triply, to the power of ten, magnified and amplified, and it becomes a huge crisis. I think that’s the unfortunate reality of the whole world we live in right now, including the world of journalism. We do have to be careful; we do have to remember who we are and what we represent, and where we fit into this exploding platform landscape. For me, it’s still about the content, it’s still about the journalism, and it’s still about the people. It is a profession, it does have rules, and it does have a framework within which we know our boundaries.

Some people want to jump on whatever comment is made and use it for their own political ends. We have to be careful about that too.

What’s the biggest story that we’re neglecting at the moment?

Mexico is a huge drama right on the border of the United States. There’s a narco-trafficking sub-state that’s taking over, it’s corrupting officials, it’s killing journalists, it’s killing civilians. This is a huge problem and it’s combined with the immigration issue and it’s an area where we can do a lot more work. But it’s very dangerous.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.