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.
Amanpour’s dedication to advocacy journalism has been criticized in other areas as well, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East in general. The most bitter of these critiques was occasioned by Amanpour’s 2007 documentary series God’s Warriors. The series examined religious extremism in three parts — on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, respectively. Many Jews and other supporters of Israel were outraged both by the format of the documentary, which equated Judaism and Christianity with radical Islam, and the content of the episode on Judaism, which many considered to be inaccurate, biased, and perhaps worse. Citing such lines as “Six thousand miles from Israel’s settlements, in the heart of Manhattan, defiance of international law comes dressed in diamonds,” some charged that the series was all but openly anti-Semitic. One did not have to go this far, however, to see that something was deeply troubling about it. “By its very structure of equating the three different situations,” wrote critic Jonathan Tobin, now executive editor of Commentary magazine, “the series was nothing short of a brazen lie.”
Even worse, the show seemingly accepts the discredited canard of Israeli and American Jewish control of American foreign policy put forth by such risible figures as former president Jimmy Carter and academic John Mearsheimer whose views were treated with respect rather than journalistic skepticism.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, was less diplomatic, stating in a press release,
This is one of the worse pieces of television journalism we’ve ever seen. It is filled with falsehoods, distortions, omissions, and a clear, monstrously biased agenda against Israel…. By attempting to equate Jewish and Christian extremism with Islamist extremism, Amanpour actually downplays the very real present massive threat posed by Islamist terrorists who have struck and are striking around the world.
The activist group CAMERA, which analyzes and critiques the portrayal of Israel and the Mideast conflict in the media, attacked the series and Amanpour several times, claiming that “Amanpour’s biased rendition of Arab-Israeli issues reached a new low in her recent three-part series.” The group asserted that Amanpour failed “to distinguish the vast difference in scale of and support for violence in the respective faiths,” and called the first episode “the most poisonously biased and factually shoddy feature to air on mainstream American television in recent memory.”
Jewish and pro-Israel organizations were not alone in their concerns about the series. Then MSNBC host Dan Abrams called it a “defense of Islamic fundamentalism and the worst type of moral relativism.” Abrams was particularly troubled by Amanpour’s inclusion of Jewish lobbyists in the United States among the extremists she profiled. “She takes Jewish and Christian political movements,” he said, “even Jewish lobbyists in Congress, and lumps them in with God’s warriors, thereby equating them with the radical Muslim warriors.”
God’s Warriors was neither the first nor the last time Amanpour had been criticized for her reporting on Israel. A search for her name on CAMERA’s website reveals more than a dozen articles, many of them quite lengthy. In general, these critiques charge that Amanpour is biased toward the Palestinians, ignores Israeli suffering and casualties, and tends to assign disproportionate blame for the conflict to Israel. One CAMERA article on a report she filed from Gaza states that “the bad guys were not the Islamists who rule Gaza, teaching hatred of Christians and Jews, and attacking Israeli civilians with suicide bombers and thousands of rockets. Instead Amanpour’s bad guys were the Jews of Israel.” Another article points out Amanpour’s tendency to make statements about Israeli malfeasance in the context of otherwise unrelated issues, saying “Whatever the subject of the program, she’s inclined to inject mention of Israel and its alleged myriad faults.”
Many critics of Amanpour see her style of advocacy journalism and her alleged bias as symptoms of a much larger problem. To them, she is simply another in a long line of liberal journalists who are more or less openly biased toward the left of the political spectrum and thus unreasonably critical of the United States. The Media Research Center, a conservative advocacy group, has called her “a leading example of biased mainstream media journalism.” Pugnacious conservative writer Michelle Malkin, referring to a tense exchange with Amanpour over waterboarding, called her “happy to spread disinformation about America’s efforts in the war against terror,” and holds that, for Amanpour, “the U.S. is no different than the murderous Khmer Rouge.”
It must be said that they have a point. Amanpour certainly seems to have fairly liberal politics, and often confuses political grandstanding with sober analysis. Her reaction to President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is a case in point. The prize was self-evidently given for political reasons, and just as self-evidently unjustified, something even the recipient himself admitted. Amanpour, however, remarked that criticism of the award was “overdone,” and went on to say that Obama had “obviously done something very significant, and that is, after eight years in which the United States was really held in contempt around the world, the United States has now had a new relationship with the rest of the world.” This was not the statement of an objective or informed journalist, but of someone who has bought into the charismatic political movement Obama inspired.
Indeed, if there is anything that seems to drive both Amanpour’s journalism and her view of the world, it is the politics of the liberal establishment. The LA Times recently quoted the dean of the College of Communications at South Carolina University as saying, “I would be disappointed if Christiane would become another Washington insider. Christiane could very well be the one to infuse a broader perspective.” But there is no indication that Amanpour is or ever has been anything other than a consummate insider. While she sometimes recounts her career as that of a struggling young immigrant girl made good, the reality seems to be that Amanpour has benefited from her membership in and connections to the establishment from a very early age. In one unusually candid conversation during the ultimately tragic search for John F. Kennedy, Jr., Amanpour recounted to Larry King how she had been the JFK Jr’s lifelong friend. “It began nearly twenty years ago in college,” she said. “We were college mates. I didn’t go to the same university as he did, but we shared a house off-campus, along with others of his friends who remain friends today.” No one, it seems obvious to point out, who is “college mates” with JFK Jr. can possibly be described as an outsider to the establishment.
“I get afraid,” Amanpour once told CBS’ Lesley Stahl, “when I read something and I just don’t know – is that the fact, is that the truth, is that somebody’s political bias, or somebody’s cultural bias? And that frightens me.” Ironically, Amanpour’s own biases are fairly obvious. They are the biases of the establishment to which she is loyal perhaps without even realizing it. She has been part of it for a long time, and she by and large shares its interests, its hatreds, its loyalties, its obsessions, and its prejudices. It is not her style, her interests, or her ethics, but the bubble she lives in that defines her.