Monday, July 11, 2011

Christiane Amanpour

The Awesome Woman of the Day is Christiane Amanpour (born January 12, 1958), a broadcast journalist well known around the world for her coverage of major conflicts and world events since 1990, as international correspondent at CNN for years and currently as anchor  of ABC's This Week.  Amanpour has navigated war zones, built an unparalleled network of worldwide connections, excelled in a hugely male-dominated profession, and gone face-to-face with world leaders fearlessly asking the hard questions. And she has also on many occasions taken the risk of breaking the "neutral journalist" mold by reporting from her own point of view and expressing her own conscience, in defiance of the old meme that if a reporter has a personal opinion on a situation they must keep it to themselves. She is brassy, outspoken, and brave.

Amanpour was born in London (or, by some accounts, in Tehran) to an Iranian father and British mother. She spent her early years in Iran, receiving an elite education as her family was among the privileged class under the Shah's regime. Her family emigrated to England on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In England, Amanpour attended the New Hall School, the country's oldest Catholic school that has educated girls since the year 1642. She then traveled to the United States to study at the University of Rhode Island, and graudated summa cum laude in 1983 with a degree in journalism.

Very soon after graduating, she was hired as an entry-level desk assistant on CNN's foreign desk in Atlanta, Georgia (1983) and gained rapid recognition and major opportunities early on. After an assignment covering the Iran-Iraq war, by 1986 she was transferred to Eastern Europe to cover the fall of Soviet Communism, and she remained in Europe into 1989 reporting on the democratic revolutions on that continent. Her achievements landed her a role as a correspondent for CNN's New York bureau, and very soon afterwards she was shipped out again to serve as CNN's foreign correspondent covering the Gulf War as it commenced in Iraq.

Amanpour quickly gained recognition and notoriety for her gutsy style of journalism, for her bravery in the field (even parachuting into conflicts), for her poise and incisiveness when interviewing officials and leaders, and for allowing herself to occasionally report quite emotionally on difficult events. After the Gulf War she was promoted to the position of being CNN's chief international correspondent (a position she held until she departed CNN in 2010), and she was sent to cover the Bosnian War.

Deftly moving between the field and arranged interview, on worldwide live TV in perhaps her most famous moment she challenged President Clinton (on his own "Global Forum" show) regarding U.S. policy on the Bosnian war. Locking eyes with him across the satellite signal, she asked one of the most ballsy questions in the history of broadcast journalism:
Mr. President, 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? Why, in the absence of a policy have you allowed the US and the West to be held hostage to those who do have a policy - the Bosnian Serbs - and do you not think that the constant flip-flops of your administration on the issue of Bosnia set a very dangerous precedent and would lead people such as [North Korean president] Kim II Sung or other strong people to take you less seriously than you would like to be taken?"

An angered Clinton responded coldly, "No, but speeches like that may make them take me less seriously than I'd like to be taken. There have been no constant flip-flops, madam." This exchange is worth watching -- Amanpour has it posted to her Facebook page. To cut Clinton a break, he did pretty well at recovering from her unsettling challenge. Also, near the end of the program Clinton returned to what she had said. "That poor woman has seen the horrors of this war, and she has had to report on them... She's been fabulous. She's done a great service to the whole world on that. I do not blame her for being mad at me. But I'm doing the best I can on this problem from my perspective."

Amanpour fell under some pretty strong criticism after this broadcast, and was accused of lack of objectivity -- many felt she was reporting too emotionally and that she had an agenda in favor of the Bosnian Muslims and was biased against the Serbs. Amanpour explained in a 1996 article in The Ouil that the Serbs denied CNN and other Western media better access to the territory they controlled, and she believed the Serbs "did themselves an incredible disservice."

Also in that article, Amanpour answers in response to the charges of bias: "The very notion of objectivity in war becomes immensely important... I have come to believe that objectivity means giving all sides a fair hearing, but not treating all sides equally. Once you treat all sides the same in a case such as Bosnia, you are drawing a moral equivalence between victim and aggressor. And from there it is a short step toward being neutral... So objectivity must go hand in hand with morality."

Since that time, Christiane Amanpour has covered wars, conflicts, genocides, strife, political upheavals, and other heavy aspects of the human story around the globe, before settling in to anchor studio-based work towards the end of her time at CNN and now at ABC. She has scooped some of the hottest political interviews in recent history. But whether working in the field with bombs exploding all around her, or sitting at a desk in the United States, she gets to the heart of the matter, engages people, and does not shy from the most important job in journalism -- holding politicians' feet to the fire while demanding answers to the uncomfortable questions.


Personal footnote: I met Christiane Amanpour, who was friends with an Iranian co-worker of mine, for a brief moment in 1990 when she was about to depart to cover the Gulf War. She had come to say goodbye to my co-worker. I was introduced, and was bowled over by the woman's aura without even knowing who she was. Then she and my friend continued a private conversation in hushed tones in the doorway of the office. After she left I learned some private details that I will not share here, but I can say that in order for Amanpour to accept her first war zone assignment, she was braving not only the potential dangers of the gig, but also huge personal changes were also involved. She was truly stepping off a cliff, and doing so with her characteristic (but not callous) moxie, which explained for me the energy that shimmered all around this awesome woman.

AWU post and comments at