This Sunday, former CNN war correspondent and television host Christiane Amanpour will take over as host of ABC’s venerable public affairs show “This Week.” Her selection for the post, however, has caused a surprisingly potent backlash. Putting aside issues such as the suitability of a foreign affairs reporter for a show on domestic politics and reports of behind-the scenes opposition to her appointment, most of the criticism has concentrated on Amanpour’s political views and her allegedly biased reporting. In one form or another, this kind of criticism has dogged Amanpour for a very long time.
Amanpour’s career took off during the Bosnian wars and, according to many of her colleagues, this was well deserved. In a New York Times profile published at the time, they were almost unanimous in their belief that Amanpour is a gifted war correspondent. Dominic Robinson, a CNN producer, is quoted as saying, “In TV, she’s the best. She knows what she wants and how to get it. She’s really hot.” Another observer put it in vaguely politically incorrect terms, saying, “She gives great war.”
Nonetheless, many of her peers also expressed strong misgivings about Amanpour’s style. They were concerned because, in a way many journalists do but prefer to pretend they do not, Amanpour openly took sides in the Bosnian conflict. The Times profile quotes an anonymous “insider” who “has doubts about Amanpour’s commitment to objective journalism.”
“I have winced at some of what she’s done, at what used to be called advocacy journalism,” he said. “She was sitting in Belgrade when that marketplace massacre happened, and she went on the air to say that the Serbs had probably done it. There was no way she could have known that. She was assuming an omniscience which no journalist has.”
Indeed, Amanpour herself openly admitted to her biases. In 1996, she told the British newspaper The Guardian,
It drives me crazy when this neutrality thing comes up. Objectivity, that great journalistic buzzword, means giving all sides a fair hearing—not treating all sides the same—particularly when all sides are not the same. When you’re neutral in a situation like Bosnia, you are an accomplice—an accomplice to genocide.
This is an understandable and, perhaps, noble sentiment. Nonetheless, the basic idea behind advocacy journalism — that it is morally wrong not to be biased in certain cases — is somewhat dangerous for a journalist to adopt. In fact, it is at the very moment when a journalist is absolutely certain of the right and wrong of a situation that they ought to strive to be as objective as possible. If only because this is the moment at which wishful thinking and self-deception are likely to be most powerful.