The urge to become a journalist bearing witness to the events around her was born in Christiane Amanpour out of a family calamity, and also a failed med school application.
As a teenager in her native Iran, she watched the buildup to the Islamic revolution that toppled the shah in 1978 and that eventually forced her and her parents to flee the country. Despite the personal upheaval, Amanpour was fascinated by the history unfolding before her.
“I really liked the pictures and the photojournalism and the stories that I was reading in the paper, as well as what I was seeing and witnessing with my own eyes,” she says. “And I actually thought that this was a great way to make a living, to be out there seeing these world-shaking events.”
When her application to attend medical school was turned down, Amanpour took it as a sign to follow a different path, one carved out by women like Barbara Walters, whose interviews with world leaders such as Anwar Sadat were broadcast in the Middle East. “I thought, wow, that is super-cool,” Amanpour recalls. “I loved all of that, and I thought, well, she’s American; I better go to America. And that’s what led me to America, and to university, and to CNN, and to this.”
“This” is a stellar career as one of the foremost journalists of her generation, whose trophy cabinet bulges with 11 Emmys and four Peabody Awards. During the 1990s, Amanpour’s reporting on the wars in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans vaulted her into the international spotlight, and she hasn’t looked back, going on assignment to other danger and disaster zones, working at CNN, ABC and PBS, and speaking out on behalf of threatened colleagues.
Her most recent series of special reports has taken Amanpour in a slightly different direction: canvassing attitudes in six different countries towards sex, marriage, and the like. She already knew that all is not fair in war; in the new series, Amanpour shows that all is not necessarily fair in love either, particularly for women.
Amanpour spoke to Variety about “Sex & Love Around the World,” the advice she’d give to a young woman today, and the leaders she still hopes to get into the interview chair.
You’ve covered war and armed conflict. What is the greatest threat to journalists today?
Politics has now become the most dangerous things to cover, according to the CPJ [Committee to Protect Journalists]. When I say politics, [it’s] investigative journalism that’s trying to seek accountability, hold officials accountable, investigate corruption or the like and anti-democratic forces and the rise of nationalism. Then, when you have the president of the United States attacking free and fair and independent journalists in the United States…that has a knock-on effect in all the other countries where they’re run by authoritarians or dictators, and where they have no duty to their journalists or to any other journalists. They would much rather lock us up or have us silenced, and it gives them a pass. So in that regard, danger has increased exponentially as well in the last couple of years.
Was the newsroom an all-boys club when you started out?
It was shifting when I got into the business, but mostly shifting, say, in front of the camera – correspondents, producers… Where it hasn’t shifted is in the executive suite. This is very, very fundamental, and we need to change this dynamic. There need to be more women in the C-suite. There need to be more women running major organizations, the top news organizations, and there just aren’t any….Just like in Hollywood, you still have to have diversity at the top of the studio corporate structure. You still have to have gatekeepers who are diverse. It’s a process, and I’m hoping that this process leads to more women in charge in our business.
What would you say today to a young woman starting her career?
Don’t look at feminism as a dirty word. It just means equal, and surely you want to be equal. And surely you want your children, your girl children and your boy children, to be equal. I would also say, in terms of work, don’t think that you can just go from zero to 60 overnight. You have to work hard to get to a place of competence, achievement and success. Then ask yourself: What does success mean? I hope it doesn’t just mean money and fame. I hope it means a sense of purpose, a sense of mission, a sense of being part of a community, part of a civil society…Love what you do and do what you love. Find something in this world that you love, and be prepared to work your butt off to get where you want to go.
What about the MeToo movement? Some say the pendulum has swung too far.
I don’t think the pendulum has swung too far. I think that is always the whiny comment of those who are being exposed. I also don’t think that we should have a knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all solution to all the issues that come up, because I do think that there are gray areas….Some crimes, because they are crimes, need to be dealt [with] at the highest level of law or rules or regulations of whatever organization. But I think that there are others that have a different, perhaps, level of severity. Each and every one of them should be taken and dealt with according to what they are. I don’t think necessarily that every infraction means a person’s life and career should be ruined. On the other hand, I also don’t believe that those who committed the most serious crimes, which is forcefully assaulting women on the job, should be allowed to keep their job.
Did anything surprise you during your reporting for “Sex & Love Around the World”?
One of the most surprising things was how women and girls all over the world, in the most unlikely places, also had a very, very strong sense of self and of the boundaries around themselves. Not every one of them had the legal and traditional rights to be able to protect themselves in that regard. There [were] a lot of patriarchal societies. I found a lot of arranged marriages and arranged family situations. But in general, I was really, really excited to find how much these women and girls wanted to talk about sex and love, and really about love. Sex was almost incidental. They absolutely wanted to have control over their bodies, over their own sexual satisfaction, over who were their partners, who they could choose or not choose…It was really interesting asking women in patriarchal societies, or in places like the Middle East or wherever it was, do you feel you can ask your male partner…can you explore your sexuality with them? Can you explore your relationship with them? Can you tell them what you like, what you don’t like? Can you have a partnership in that regard? And those questions and answers were, for me, the most fascinating.
What do you feel is the most underreported story today?
If you ask me right now what the most important issue is that we should be talking about…to our survival as a species, it’s the climate. We have not done a good job in general of reporting it properly. First of all, we’ve spent decades being seduced by liars, who are the deniers…who are deliberate obfuscators of the truth based on their own ideology or their own business interests. So we the press, the media, the public conversation has wrongly equated one side and the other, and has engaged in the practice of moral and factual equivalence, which is something that I have rejected and learned about ever since Bosnia, because there is, in many cases, no moral or factual equivalence…We have spent decades falling into that trap, and now we’re at a point where we really face a huge, huge crisis.
Who are your own role models?
I always come back to Nelson Mandela. Not just because it’s an easy name, but if you really dig down into what he did, he emerged from nearly 28 years in prison…with forgiveness. He set the stage for a successful South Africa. If he had come out with even a hair on his head that wanted revenge, then it never would’ve worked. He had to look forward and not look back. There were many on his own side who didn’t believe that, who were upset that there wasn’t more accountability, more revenge. I always find that the most remarkable lesson…And it matters today, when our leaders have no concept of consensus, of bipartisanship, of forgiveness, of listening to the story of the other.
Is there “one that got away” in terms of stories you wish you’d covered?
I think I’ve covered all the big stories in my wheelhouse over the last 25 years, but there are people who I wish I had interviewed and who I’d like to interview. I’d still like to interview the pope, especially as we talk about the ongoing struggle for accountability in this terrible crime that we’ve known about at least since 2000, with the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team illuminating the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the Catholic Church. It was the press that blew the whistle, and we should be proud of what the press did. Still they haven’t managed a zero-tolerance policy, and still we’re seeing a piecemeal approach to this, not so much in the assault now but in holding those who covered up the assault accountable. I’d like to interview Kim Jong-un, for obvious reasons. I’d like to interview the Queen of England, for obvious reasons.
So you’re still knocking on the door of the Vatican, Buckingham Palace…