Interview: Christiane Amanpour

Amanpour : When something like this happens to one of our brotherhood—which is what it is, really—it’s a stab in the heart of all of us. It has a very deep, chilling effect. All of us have had to reevaluate and reassess what we’re doing. But I think we will continue. I don’t buy some of the comments I’ve heard that say maybe journalists should be more cautious. It’s not only about being cautious. It’s about bad luck. Sometimes we have to take risks when we’re covering certain stories, when we want certain big interviews, when we’re seeking certain information—particularly in the dirty little corners of the world we work in. Daniel Pearl was experienced. But he was very, very unlucky.

Proceedings : How is covering this war against terrorism different from the other conflicts you’ve covered, beginning with the Gulf War?

Amanpour : I think the Gulf War started a very unfortunate process, in terms of how you cover the U.S. military. The military started what I call very draconian censorship rules in the Gulf War that went way beyond the legitimate requirements of military and national security. And I think it’s just unspeakable what the military is doing to journalists in the Afghan conflict. I don’t believe any meaningful reporting has come out of the U.S. military, vis-à-vis its war in Afghanistan. None. None! For the first time in any conflict I’ve covered, I have not covered the U.S. military in this one. Let’s be very honest. The administration has not suffered any public backlash from its restriction of journalists. The public doesn’t care how little or how much, apparently, they see of this war. So, that’s a problem for us.

The military is right to be concerned about what we cover and how we cover it and what access they give us. But it seems to me that there has to be a balance. And it’s possible to create a better balance between giving nothing and giving everything. Now, they’re giving nothing meaningful. Those pools at Kandahar Airport don’t cut it for me. They just don’t. What’s the point? Sending a couple of journalists to Kandahar Airport and saying they’re based with the Marines, and not letting them see or do anything significant is, in my book, a woeful waste of a great opportunity.

Proceedings : So what would you like to see done differently?

Amanpour : I’d like to go out and see the operations. I’m fully aware that you cannot see all the Special Forces operations. I’m fully aware there are things that are simply impossible for journalists to cover. I just think this is all out of whack right now, to our detriment. They’re just not letting us see or do anything meaningful. Throughout history, reporters, documentary makers, and photographers often have been the first line of interesting, historical reportage about what an army or a navy or an air force has done. And I think the public is definitely poorer, because some really good and experienced reporters and photographers have been so far unable to cover this particular war fully. And let’s face it, the U.S. forces have for the most part done amazing things in Afghanistan, things that have made life better for people living there. Many Afghans appreciate that, and it would be wonderful to have the opportunity to send that message back to families and ordinary viewers in the United States. This also would show a skeptical world some of the good stuff the U.S. military does.

Proceedings : Why do you think it’s worse now than it was?

Amanpour : All the meaningful, substantive information is coming out of Washington—specifically, the Pentagon—to a degree that I have never experienced. Remember, in the Gulf War, in Haiti, and in Somalia, commanders, generals, admirals, and senior officials at least gave us briefings. I do believe our bosses at our news organizations should be pounding on doors within the administration and conducting some access diplomacy on our behalf.

Proceedings : What opinions have you heard outside this country about the “axis of evil” rhetoric President [George] Bush has used?

Amanpour : The opinion of people in the rest of the world is that it was a cute line, but over the top. That’s what most European newspapers are saying. Some of the senior European foreign policy officials have called the rhetoric simplistic and unilateralist. Fears that were first raised when President Bush entered office are surfacing again.

Proceedings : How do you handle militarily sensitive information? Is that your call?

Amanpour : I think it’s a little bit of both. Usually, it’s the military’s call. There are things you know you’re not allowed to talk about—operations happening in real time and numbers of troops or equipment. That is perfectly understandable. But let’s also look at it from the reporter’s point of view. Why would you want to broadcast information that could potentially get your unit and yourself killed? Why? It just doesn’t make any sense.

I do think there are certain reporters who are experienced enough to be trusted with covering this kind of stuff. And there are others who are not. I think there should be a pecking order. The military should be able to trust certain reporters—because of their body of work and how they report—to cover these matters.

I’m not an American citizen. But in the end, these military actions are in the name of the American citizens. Right? This is a democracy. Citizens have a right to know what the military is doing in their name, in the name of the United States. They’re not getting the information. All the interesting stories are coming out of Washington. The rest is just color, and pretty minimal color, at that.

Proceedings : What do you make of the Pentagon’s notion of the now-canceled Office of Strategic Influence?

Amanpour : The original story that came out in The New York Times was very worrying. The notion that the Americans were going to knowingly plant false information, inter alia, in foreign publications and with foreign journalists, is just Orwellian. It’s nutty. I mean, what’s going on here?

Now, does the Pentagon need to get a better grip on public relations and know what the rest of the world is saying, and effectively and vigorously counter some of the propaganda that comes from abroad? Yes, probably. But the notion of planting false stories, and admitting to it, is disturbing. Who’s going to believe a word anybody says after that? Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld has walked that back, saying that U.S. armed forces won’t be involved in planting false information.

A few months into the war in Afghanistan, they did set up a public information cell, with staff that operated in Pakistan, London, and Washington. That was legitimate, but it came too late. For many months in the beginning of this conflict, the Taliban, through its ambassador in Pakistan, was allowed to dominate the news cycle by giving a press conference every day, early, before Washington woke up. Finally, toward the end of the year, maybe three months later, the U.S. government created this cell, a little too late. That’s the kind of thing that’s legitimate and helpful, helpful to those of us on the ground. Before that, we had nobody to bounce these comments off of, because Washington was still asleep for eight hours after the Taliban statements were made.

Proceedings : How do you feel about the contention that the United States is somehow, at least partially, responsible for the September terrorist attacks?

Amanpour : I think that’s a completely and wholly unjustified and illegitimate contention. Now, do I think that there are lots of areas in the world where the United States is blamed or considered to be playing favorites? Yes. The United States gets a lot of bad publicity around the rest of the world for some of its policies. The United States is perceived as not caring about the rest of the world, of not sharing its vast economic and technological prosperity. But I don’t buy into the theory that this justifies what happened on September 11th, by any stretch of the imagination. I think the people who did that are on record as saying they don’t care whether there’s peace or war between Israel and the Palestinians. They don’t care whether there’s peace or war in Iraq. They care about hating America. Period. End of story.

Proceedings : What has been your most difficult assignment?

Amanpour : A very difficult assignment is to get a real idea of the military situation in Afghanistan. But Bosnia, I think, was a very difficult military assignment. It was one of the first post-Cold War wars that was fought with civilians being the main targets. That was very difficult because you were among the civilian population. As a journalist, you’re a civilian and you’re covering the people in the city you’re in. So you’re very much in the line of fire all the time, rather than being an observer over one army or another. The more these wars become targeted at civilians, the more difficult it is for journalists.

Proceedings : Now that you brought up Bosnia, is that off the radar screen since September? You don’t hear very much about it.

Amanpour : You haven’t heard much about it for a while. But all these things come in cycles. It’s impossible to cover everything all the time; we just don’t have the resources. But Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Balkans actually are very much in the focus right now, because Slobodan Milosevic is on trial at The Hague. In that way, it’s being reported.

Proceedings : As the chief international correspondent do you get to pick and choose what you want to do?

Amanpour : Not entirely. I get to pick and choose, but then so does CNN. It’s sort of a meeting of the minds. Most of the assignments tend to be no-brainers. When there are big stories going on, CNN wants me to go and cover them, and I do. Sometimes there are stories that may not be as massive but are nonetheless significant, so I ask whether I can cover them—like the trial of Milosevic, for instance.

Proceedings : Who are the heroes in your profession?

Amanpour : I don’t know about heroes, but I think the people who go above and beyond the call of duty are the war correspondents, the war photographers, and all the people who make up a team of journalists who cover wars. In the end, this is the most difficult and the most dangerous. You just never know; are you going to come back or not?

Proceedings : Without giving away any trade secrets, how do you prepare to spend lengths of time without the amenities that most people take for granted?

Amanpour : You just do. You go with as much as you can. Often you’ll see television crews, particularly in places where electricity is sporadic, with things like generators—all the things you need to be able to run your own TV equipment, electricity being the basic component. Just trying to get clean water is very difficult, too, even though, believe it or not, most of the places we go—even the most dire, end-of-the-world kinds of places—have bottled water these days. Then, of course, there’s the danger factor. There’s only a certain amount of preparation that can be done. You also need a certain amount of luck and good fortune. Caution has to play a big part, as well.

Proceedings : What about food?

Amanpour : Sometimes people do MREs [meals ready to eat], and sometimes we eat whatever’s available locally. Usually we’re in hotels or in houses we rent, and we try to employ local staff to help us keep the houses clean and to cook a little bit for us. It’s never gourmet, but it keeps us alive.

Proceedings : Have you considered writing a book?

Amanpour : I think I’d like to, but I haven’t really solidified that notion.

Proceedings : Reporters frequently are charged with putting their political inclinations into their reporting. How do you feel about that?

Amanpour : Some of those charges are valid, and some are just typical accusations that the left and right trade against each other. I don’t think it’s appropriate to wear your politics on your sleeve, and I don’t think reporters should do it. On the other hand, there are some stories where you have to state clearly which side is wrong and which side is not. But I don’t think the public good is served by reporters brandishing their political affiliations. That’s what we’re always told not to do, right?

Proceedings : How would you rate the various services and how they’ve helped you or not over your career?

Amanpour : I won’t play that game, because I work with all of the different services. I will just say that I usually find the commanders and the troops more forthcoming than the public information officers. I think often the public information officers—because of direction from above, from the civilian bosses—are way too concerned with the political impact of what the coverage is going to be. The actual commanders—or the soldiers, or whoever they are—are more concerned about tactics and strategy and about getting the story right and helping explain to us, militarily, what’s going on.

If I sound rather disappointed with the access we have gotten to significant military operations in Afghanistan, it’s because over the years I’ve had great cooperation from all the services—great cooperation. And I’ve really enjoyed my time covering American forces, whatever service they may be. I think it’s a shame we’re being so incredibly handicapped in this particular conflict, because what happens to the security of Afghanistan will make all the difference for the security of America and the rest of the world. This is a story Americans need to see.

 

 
 

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