Saturday, 5 December 2009

Profile: The Primadonna of War

By Anthony David Gatt

An emblematic TV face, female but not blonde, an Iranian background, an acclaimed body of work, a somewhat exotic accent, esteemed and despised at the same time, head to head with politicians… maybe fitting in their same class, but as she herself sustains, not in the class of “the current crop of opinion, commentary or feelings journalists”. Her name is Christiane Amanpour.

CNN’s Chief International Correspondent is 51 years of age. Born in Iran and educated in the UK and the United States she found herself working for a new cable network that would rapidly become one of the most influential media machines worldwide. Reviewing her work especially the coverage of the 1st Gulf War and the Balkan war helps extrapolate a particular image of Amanpour. She might as well be one of the best broadcast war correspondents in history. The particular mixture of traits and influences in her persona that should make her look contradictory in the eyes of the mainstream, actually strengthen her. Her embodiment of West and East, Christianity and Islam actually works. What throws off a portion of her audience, including myself, is the media world she had to model herself into. In this article I will argue that it’s mainly the effects of this commercial media regime which have ruined Amanpour’s claim to be held as an ultimate journalism role-model.

In an attempt to analyze her body of work I made use of her recent documentary entitled “Scream Bloody Murder”. This two hour documentary broadcasted on CNN in late 2008 analyzing the way genocide is made public and the legal issues inherent with such a proclamation, discloses a series of issues surrounding the philosophy, style and mission of this particular war correspondent. I have also reviewed a number of interviews with Amanpour where she talks at length about her background, motivations and the profession of journalism at large.

The perfect contradictions

As she files her work for CNN, the resultant generalization would be to place Amanpour amongst the breed of puppet journalists willing to push Washington’s Western capitalist agenda. But YouTube videos with promotions to her programme narrating the recent rise of a global Islamist sentiment and entitled “CNN for once is right” shows that at least a portion of the Islamic community approve of her output.

Her mother being Christian and her father a Muslim, not much is disclosed about her own religious convictions. Some might not understand how a person coming from an Islamic background can flourish in a society that embraces different values. Others might mistrust the idea of being tutored about Islamic customs by a Western looking lady which has a Muslim father. Yet that is exactly what Amanpour managed to do with a somewhat dazzling ease. One of her secrets is never framing herself as Iranian, American or British. She says that she is a bit of them all.

Recently in an interview about post election violence in Iran she pinned it down to this: “…nobody knows my biases. Do they think I’m against? Do they think I’m for? They don’t know my biases. They don’t know where I come from in this. I just try very hard to report the facts and to tell the stories as best as I can”.

Being criticized by the two sides is not the optimal situation, yet it might give more credibility than when a journalist is attacked for being biased to one side against the other.

Giving each side a hearing

Amanpour holds another feather in her hat. She talks about journalism and its central societal value with the rigor and passion of a University Journalism professor. She basks in widespread admiration for her approach to give a serious take on a subject from different points of view. Personally, her quote on the nature of objectivity and truth in reporting conflict situations has provided me with the most practical advice yet. It’s not equality that defines objectivity but giving both sides the opportunity of a hearing. Yet if responsible investigation at the war front presents a reality with one side being the clear victim, one shouldn’t refrain from highlighting such facts.

She sustains that “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.”

Her call for integrity, responsible and professional journalism and the rebuttal of the new media 24/7 scenario is precious especially when coming from such a well respected practitioner.

Reflecting on her experience CNN’s top correspondent said that “…to hold the line against a deluge of anchors and so forth, experts and analysts who have their own theories… I just have to … report what’s actually happening, not what they wish was happening, or that they think was happening”.

But has Amanpour always managed to keep that detachment from this new media establishment based on bombardment of information, opinions all packaged in a commercial business model called 24/7 broadcasting news networks?

Shining like a star

The answer is in the negative. Amanpour today has TV shows bearing nothing but her name. She is a star war reporter. She works in a ‘business’, as she herself dubs it, that revolves around a 24/7 news demand. Her abilities have made her one of the main racing horses of CNN’s stables. She is invited on late night shows. During the tumultuous Balkan war she even managed to appear on a big screen in the hall of a press conference given by President Clinton, hitting hard, live from the far away land.

Reflecting on a recent interview with Amanpour, The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg holds that “Nearly two decades of frontline… have moved Amanpour from the world of working journalist to one more usually occupied by celebrities and public saints. Her interviews are arranged by teams of publicists who flinch when she utters a single swear word“.

In another interview with fellow journalist Lesley Stahl, CNN’s Chief International correspondent  has even instructed the Stahl to take care of a full blown media campaign to get her back if Amanpour is ever abducted.

A colleague of hers during the spell of the Balkan war described Amanpour as "superaggressive, all-elbows, out-of-my-way style. She replied that there was no need for her to do that.

Throughout the two hour long “Scream Bloody Murder” we can see her filmed walking along with her interviewees in their troubled stretches of land. The only time we can’t see the journalist on screen with these witnesses is when the particular interview is not carried out by Amanpour herself. All the other times the cameraperson would give her as much attention as the subject… after all ‘she was there’.

In 1996 Amanpour was asked if she really is the hottest property in television. This is the way she answered: "What can I say, `Yes'? Then I'm going to be arrogant. Well…they say I give great war. Is that sexual or what?".

Onto the next front

Amanpour has managed to create around her an exquisitely refined aura of knowledge which reassures a confused, fact-seeking audience… yet in the same spell she manages to put off others who like me will never swallow the jet-set, bullet dodging, cemetery wandering, sunglasses wearing, Forbes listed Christiane Amanpour.

The creation of this media persona has resulted in Amanpour loosing herself in popularity, swaying away from her own mantras of factuality and detachment turning herself into a political animal disguised as a journalist. The angel of truth at the world’s rescue has contaminated herself with the power of the elite she had to check on. The same woman who would never give her opinion uses the exact words “In my opinion” in a promo segment envisaged to promote her latest analysis of Islam. The same detached journalist was ambushed by Iranian journalists during a tour of one of Iran’s nuclear facilities, a technique normally used to deal with politicians, not fellow journalists.

A telling detail is that Amanpour publicly remarks that she doesn’t cover American politics. On the suggestion that she should engage in covering the global economic crisis Amanpour replied that “Somehow I don’ feel it in my gut”. Cleverly enough she has distanced herself from covering the endeavors of the American political class that her husband James Rubin, and herself, fit so well into.

Heading to the next warfront one might consider to travel a bit lighter this time, shedding away a ration of glitz and glamour… packing an extra serving of self-containment.

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