Truth Is Your Master
Rigorous journalism can help prevent wars, but emotion-laden, agenda-driven reporting has helped spark them, Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, told the standing-room-only audience at this year’s Murrow Forum.
“I feel very strongly that the emotion post 9/11 is part of what chipped away at independent journalism,” Amanpour said. “Such an emotional and brutal shock… prevented journalists from doing what they should, which was to ask the rigorous questions, demand the answers and never stop pushing. Then we landed in a war.”
By contrast, Amanpour credits news reporting with ending the Bosnian conflict in 1995. “In the end, the reason the U.S. and its allies could no longer look away from the full-scale slaughter going on in Bosnia was because our democracies could not tolerate the pictures we were sending,” Amanpour said. “And guess what? In a few weeks [after American involvement] the whole war ended.”
The eighth annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism, held at Tufts on April 26, was sponsored by the Communications and Media Studies Program, the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Previous speakers have included such media luminaries as Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Chris Matthews.
Amanpour said she grew up in Tehran, Iran, in a materially and psychologically secure home and community. “This was the foundation for what I believe is a happy and successful life,” she said. One of her life lessons came at age 5, when she began to ride horses, instructed by a former cavalry officer, a disciplinarian.
“Every time I was thrown, which was frequently, I was literally picked up by the scruff of my neck and put back on the horse,” said Amanpour, who noted it taught her courage and persistence, which helped her overcome difficult challenges in later years.
What sealed her interest in a career in journalism was the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the same year that, at her father’s wishes, she left Iran to pursue her education in the United States. She remembers her father, with tears in his eyes, telling her nothing would ever be the same again.
“I had the clarity to know that this was a crystallizing moment…. Then I decided [journalism] is what I want to do,” she said. “What I don’t want to do ever is be a victim. I want to be in there and tell the stories and somehow use this, so I chose journalism and chose to go to the United States to pursue my future.”
In 1983, Amanpour left her first job at WJAR-TV in Rhode Island, and with $100, her bike and a suitcase, went to Atlanta to join CNN. She worked her way up to the New York bureau, and in 1990 was part of the team that covered Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. She remained a foreign correspondent and sees no more important calling.
“I say about all journalists that we are the eyes and ears of the public, and this is important with the intrusion of opinion into what I feel should be a space reserved for facts and factual reporting. We need to get up off our seats and bring back the reality of what’s going on [out] there,” she said. “We cannot just rely on armchair analysis and twice-removed social media to give us first-hand information.”
Amanpour has covered hot spots throughout the Middle East as well as stories in Somalia, Rwanda, North Korea, the United States and Europe. Covering conflicts, she said, has left her in a constant “state of repressed fear,” best illustrated by her experiences in Bosnia.
“So many of the battles were fought in towns and villages and farmlands, and the real fear is that when you are reporting, you are not an observer standing on the side; you are inside with the civilian population at equal risk,” she said. “So to do that day after day, year after year builds up a massive reservoir of repressed fear, because if you don’t repress it, you can’t do your job.”
Yet she hasn’t allowed fear to rule her life: “Where is our reporting more important than on the edge of war and peace?” And the power of reporting is evidenced, she said, in the 979 journalists who have been murdered since 1990—14 lost just this year in Syria. “People don’t want to hear the truth, and they are willing to go to any lengths to make sure the truth doesn’t get out,” she said.
Today, Amanpour anchors Amanpour, a nightly foreign affairs program on CNN International, and is also the global affairs anchor for ABC News, based in New York City.
Her comments at the Murrow Forum were in conversation with Tufts trustee Jonathan M. Tisch, A76, co-chair of the board of Loews Corp. and chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels. He hosts the Emmy-nominated television series Beyond the Boardroom with Jonathan Tisch. He asked Amanpour to describe what her dreams had been and what they are today.
“My dream when I was younger was to make it. My dream when I made it was to make it matter. And when it mattered, my dream was to realize my responsibility and give back,” she said. “One really must resist going with the herd. Truth is your master, and nothing else.”
Gail Bambrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.