Will ABC Let Amanpour Be Amanpour?

Will ABC Let Amanpour Be Amanpour?

 ABC is in a position to break open a paradigm for the Sunday interview programs.


In choosing Christiane Amanpour to host This Week, ABC News has done something not only right but also brave. Giving the show to a tireless reporter with an avowed commitment to "make foreign news less foreign and link it with domestic policy" puts ABC in a position to break open a paradigm for the Sunday interview programs that has held sway since NBC’s Meet the Press began in 1947.

The appointment must have come as a shock to the cozy world of Washington insiders, who would have been much more comfortable with one of their own, such as network correspondent Jake Tapper, Nightline co-anchor Terry Moran or former Bush adviser turned ABC analyst Matthew Dowd. In reporting Amanpour’s hiring, Politico‘s Michael Calderone correctly observed, "It’s an unlikely moment for a host lacking experience in covering Washington politics to take the reins, and another reason the hire struck some staffers as coming out of left field." Unlikely and decidedly welcome. Amanpour’s entire career stands in almost perfect contrast to the increasing "Politico-ization" of the news, with its laserlike focus on what happened five seconds ago and what that will mean for the next fifteen minutes.

Typically, the Sunday shows function as a corollary to a David Broder column or a Sally Quinn dinner party. While ABC’s recent roundtables have expanded the political universe ever so slightly–offering seats to liberals like E.J. Dionne, Paul Krugman and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel–your typical Sabbath Gasbag understands that he must stay in the Cokie Roberts/George Will safety zone of conservative conventional wisdom. In the past this meant generally strong support for the need to impeach Bill Clinton, make fun of Al Gore, cut taxes on the rich and, of course, invade Iraq without asking too many pesky questions. And the most popular guests of late have been similarly pitched, with Newt Gingrich, John McCain and Joe Lieberman among the bookers’ not-so-surprising favorites.

Demands of comity and good manners take precedence over journalism unless it comes in the form of reporting a prescripted announcement or a silly gaffe. This coziness was neatly captured when NBC’s David Gregory appeared at the 2007 Radio and Television Correspondents’ dinner as a dancing backup singer to "rapper" Karl Rove–a Pip to Turd Blossom’s Gladys Knight–only to be granted the host’s job of Meet the Press not long afterward. (So, too, with the late Tim Russert’s admission that it did not occur to him to ask Scooter Libby any substantive questions when Libby called him during the Plame/Wilson affair, reportedly to try to smear MSNBC’s Chris Matthews as an anti-Semite.)

Amanpour has spent the past twenty-seven years in a different world entirely. At CNN, she has famously occupied herself not with moronic insider gossip but with war, famine and mass rape. Profiled in 1994 in The New York Times Magazine, Amanpour could be found pitching a tent next to the airstrip in Goma, Zaire, having flown in from Port-au-Prince. Describing how "bodies littered the ground for as far as one could see in any direction" amid the overpowering "stench of rotting flesh and human waste," reporter Stephen Kinzer aptly concluded, "Like perhaps no other reporter on American television, Amanpour seems to belong in such places."

Amanpour has made a career not of toadying to power but challenging it. "Mr. President, it’s a privilege to address you from Sarajevo," she said via satellite to Clinton before he decided to intervene militarily in the Balkans. "You tonight just said that Bosnia was just a humanitarian catastrophe. Surely, sir, you would agree it is so much more than that, a fundamental question of international law and order. You also said that it is clearly in your national interest, the US national interest. So my question is, as leader of the free world, as leader of the only superpower, why has it taken you, the United States, so long to articulate a policy on Bosnia?"

While Amanpour does not exactly have a politics–right-wingers pretend that she’s a left-winger because she does not eschew reporting facts inconsistent with their various biases, while many on the left believe her to be a prisoner of a narrow, NATO-style paradigm–she does not take refuge in the age-old dodge that "objectivity" demands neutrality. Speaking of Bosnia, she once explained, "There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing."

A refugee from the Iranian revolution, she has no taste for violent upheaval in the service of lofty ideals, whether put forth by the Serbs in Sarajevo or the Bush administration in Baghdad. "It’s all about money and power and nothing else. Whatever anyone says, it’s just about power," she once explained. Nor is she afraid to criticize her profession, including her own network. In September 2003 Amanpour spoke out publicly and said CNN had been bullied by the Bush administration and Fox News, which had created "a climate of fear and self-censorship." Professional journalists, she later observed, failed "to do our duty, which is simply to ask the hard questions, to stay on it, to fact-check and to cross-check and not just to take one version of the story hook, line and sinker."

ABC News president David Westin spoke the truth when he said, "With Christiane, we have the opportunity to provide our audiences with something different on Sunday mornings." The program’s executive producer, Ian Cameron, promises, "You will see less of the sort of default talking points-type programming." If true, then the difference between what has so far been typical Sunday fare and a show that reflects the journalistic values of Christiane Amanpour are almost as great as that between a White House occupied by George W. Bush and one directed by Barack Obama. So the real question is, Does ABC really have the courage to let Amanpour be Amanpour?


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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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