Elana Berkowitz

Tuesday October 10, 2006

Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, is one of the most recognizable faces in news. Now she is narrator of “The Journalist and the Jihadi,” a new HBO documentary about Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan. She has reported from Eastern Europe, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia, winning nine Emmy awards and two Peabody awards in the process. A staunch defender of the power of serious-minded journalism, she abhors the notion that Americans only want to see “crime and punishment and sex and face-lifts.” Appearing recently at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Amanpour answered questions from Campus Progress and other reporters about Daniel Pearl, the documentary, and the state of journalism in our society. Daniel Pearl would have turned 43 this week. “The Journalist and the Jihadi” premieres on HBO tonight.

Christiane Amanpour Given the violence so many journalists have encountered, how are reporters and their organizations taking more precautions? How close is too close?

The violence has certainly had a chilling effect on the profession. I spent four whole years in Bosnia, in a city under siege. There were snipers in the hills, but there wasn’t the same wholesale slaughter as in Iraq with roadside bombings and gun-to-head assassinations. So it is more dangerous now. No doubt, it is hard to tell the story. Our organizations have really stepped up money for security. It is a major budgeting issue. We have former special forces guarding us. We have special hardware like helmets and Kevlar vests. At this point, I won’t do a stand-up interview in the streets of Baghdad. It is dangerous to do a man on the street interview so we need to tell the story differently, but we still tell the story.

What is the primary lesson you hope people will take away from the documentary?

I hope they’ll come away knowing that people like Daniel Pearl give journalism a great name and not because he died and not because he was killed but because he was doing something important. His whole body of work and reporting after 9/11 was so important. He went beyond the headlines and went deeper to penetrate these big questions–who are these people? What do they want? Why are they doing this? I hope it will stop these offensive accusations from some that journalists are too afraid to go out and tell the story–we just sit in our hotel room reporting rumors. Clearly, that is not the case. What we do comes at terrible cost and it is in pursuit of the truth, in pursuit of service, and can advance the policy debate.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge for cable news networks trying to cover international issues?

Number one, resources. Corporations that own news organizations want higher and higher profits and the commitment to international news is being rolled back at a time when it should be increased. The other challenge is that there are very real issues of maximum importance that we need to examine, and we need to be able to do it as honest, independent journalists reporting without fear or favor. Sadly since September 11th, so much reporting has been done or viewed through a political prism. Reality is being politicized, our work is being politicized. If we tell a story about, say, Iraq getting worse–more car bombs, more murders and assassinations, more dangerous–we get accused almost of lying by those who don’t want to hear that. We need to be able to tell the truth; if we don’t we’ll just be compelled to keep repeating mistakes.

In your remarks at the Kennedy School, you discussed the relationship between truth and journalism–

I never thought I’d have to talk about the truth as a journalist working for an American organization; I thought that was a given. In this situation, your job is to report objectively, factually. I’ve been stunned by the way that the news media has been attacked and vilified, and aspersions cast on our motives. When we were in Iraq, and I was there during and after the war, we reported that there was looting–debilitating looting–and we were told by the administration, oh, no, this wasn’t really a problem. We were told, and this is a quote, that “stuff happens.” This was Donald Rumsfeld. They said that we were selectively editing the pictures to make it look as if there was looting. “Isn’t that the same old vase that is being taken out over and over again?” Look, we know now too late that it was a real problem. Then we talked about insurgents and we were told, “Oh, no, these are just a bunch of dead-enders, just a handful.” And now look where we are in Iraq. If you don’t deal with reality, then you get into the kind of mess we are in now. It’s a crying shame.

As someone who has extensive field experience, how do you deal with the personal dimension and those tough choices? How do you respond to a recent comment from Katie Couric, noting that she wasn’t enthusiastic about reporting from Iraq as a mother?

Look, I’m a human being. All of us have lives. Those of us who are parents have an incredible double burden going to these places. No one really likes it, because it is so difficult and dangerous, particularly those of us who have been doing it for a long time. This is not the beginning of my career. People take risks at the beginning of their careers, because it’s the time honored tradition of getting ahead in a field that you love and in a field that is highly competitive. I still do it because I feel like we have to hold the line, because there is such a retreat from doing serious international news in general. But it’s very difficult when you have a child. Every mother will understand, it is really difficult to put yourself in danger when you have a child because what you didn’t care about before, your own life, you now do care about.

How have you seen coverage of the Iraq War change over time?

Well, unless there is a major bombing, it is inside the paper, not the first story in a newscast these days. Iraq, lets face it, is the single biggest thing happening to the United States of America right now. It’s the biggest foreign policy challenge, not just because of what is happening there but because of all of the implications for the region. Plus, it’s a huge domestic policy challenge because of the way it is affecting people in this country, the way it’s affecting political dynamics and the way it is affecting soldiers and families. It is a massive, massive story, and it should be front and center every day.

You recently participated in the Clinton Global Initiative in a discussion about religion as a source of resolution instead of conflict.

It has got to be. That is our challenge. We are losing the war of ideas right now. It’s a psychological war, not just a physical war. Those of us who would like to see some way of bringing all sides together are being drowned out by the extremes. As citizens of the world, not just as journalists, our global challenge is to figure out how we compete in the war of ideas and confront extremism. How do we compete to win? And I don’t mean just winning a war by bombing people back to the Stone Age; I mean winning for the advancement of our civilization. How do we get away from a notion that it is us against them?