CNN’s Amanpour Packs The Press Club

It was standing-room only at the National Press Club Monday night as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour appeared on the Kalb Report.

She spoke of witnessing the Iranian Revolution and how that shaped her view of the world and sparked her interest in current events. She also jokingly lamented ending up in journalism because she didn’t have “good enough grades to get into medical school.”

When asked if she thought Iran might be developing nuclear weapons, she responded “I wouldn’t know a nuclear weapon if I fell over one. That’s not my job.” Adding that her job is to present the facts as she sees them.

Kalb inquired as to how Amanpour got the job at CNN, adding “You’re not the blond we normally see. You have an intriguing accent, but certainly not an American one,” and that at the time CNN was not being taken seriously — referring to it as the Chicken Noodle Network. Amanpour explained that while working in local news in Rhode Island, she heard about a cable network “where some people had British accents” and applied to work there. The process included a ten-question quiz — one of which was, appropriately enough, to name the capital of Iran. Shortly after starting at CNN, according to Amanpour, someone approached her and said “Hey, you’re foreign. There’s an opening at the foreign desk.” Thus began the path that would lead her to be CNN’s Senior Foreign Correspondent.

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In speaking of her coverage of various political and military conflicts during her tenure, she mentioned charges of moral equivalence that had been leveled against her. “Fairness is giving both sides a fair hearing,” Amanpour said, seemingly taking offense at the charges, “not treating both sides equally.”

On the subject of the lead-up to the war in Iraq, Amanpour said that Americans were “clearly not” given all of the facts before the invasion, and that journalism “failed as a profession” in doing so. She also said that, in the months preceding the war, CNN was intimidated by the Bush administration and its “foot soldiers” at Fox News. When asked how that could have happened, she frankly said that 9/11 was a terrible, terrible thing and that journalists were not immune. She also said that she believed that many journalists internalized President Bush’s “with us or against us” mantra and did not want to be seen as “against” America.

Kalb went on to ask if there was any point where covering a certain story is not worth the risk in terms of personal safety. Amanpour said that such a decision is a personal one, but that she feels like she belongs to a certain “band” of people that choose to do such demanding and difficult work. She did say, however, that covering dangerous issues became more difficult after she became a mother.

The discussion then turned to the issue of “news as entertainment,” or the goal of profit over good journalism. Amanpour said such a debate has been going on for years and, while good journalists may be endangered, they are certainly not extinct nor are they necessarily dying off. She went on to say that society can’t survive without access to the facts.

After her interview with Kalb, Amanpour fielded questions from the audience, including questions about the ability to exercise good journalism in the 24 hour news cycle, the frustrations of a media that seems able to only cover one story at a time, even her on-air wardrobe. During a question about media access in North Korea, she spoke of the need for patience and perseverance in getting through the barrier to information set up by the Kim Jong Il government. “Each little chink is an important chink in the wall,” she said. The unfortunate choice of words drew some snickers and giggles, mostly from the younger members in the audience.

As for the question about her wardrobe, she was asked if she worried about looking too feminine or too masculine. Amanpour answered, quite simply, that she doesn’t worry about that at all. Her only wardrobe concern, she said, is to look presentable. Not exactly a simple task for someone who appears on television — from war zones no less — with Amanpour’s frequency.