Christiane Amanpour on Replacing Charlie Rose: ‘It Sends a Really Big Message’
The acclaimed journalist on her new show, defending the press against Trump’s attacks, and what it means to be the woman replacing the disgraced Charlie Rose.
BEVERLY HILLS, California—Legendary journalist Christiane Amanpour walks into the room trailed by the most impressive of clouds: a cumulonimbus of fortitude, pierced by solar flares of her signature erudition.
We attempt a joke. “Nice to meet a fellow ‘enemy of the people,’” transforming President Trump’s controversial characterization of the free press from a scorching threat on democracy to an interview icebreaker.
“I refuse even to joke about it,” Amanpour says, grinning gamely but preparing to deliver the first in a series of manifestos that would score our conversation about the state of journalism-under-fire.
“I resist that,” she says. “We live in a democracy. As a foreigner, I take America’s constitutional protection of the press very seriously. These are very precarious times. We all need to be very alert.”
Of course, Amanpour is not one who needs a siren call to report for duty. As her industry has gone the way of bellowed punditry, harsh extremism, and the risk of dismissal by a blowhard conspiratorial commander-in-chief, she’s remained the decades-long baseline of globe-saving journalism.
“What we’re doing is protecting real-life evidence, real-life fact, real-life truth,” she says. “I think it’s been shown in this current era that more and more people do turn to us. We are actually flourishing even though we are under such withering attack from the highest levels of government.”
Amanpour was in Beverly Hills away from her home base in London to pitch and promote her late-night news series, Amanpour and Company, which will air on PBS starting in September in the slot formerly occupied by Charlie Rose.
The series, which will feature contributing segments from NPR’s Michel Martin, author Walter Isaacson, Bustle and Fusion’s Alicia Menendez, and PBS NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan, aims to put American news in global perspective, and crystallize global news for American audiences. At a time when the very concept of news is challenged in its accuracy and its value, the series hopes to underline the importance of reporting and objectivity—not exactly the easiest selling point in today’s TV news landscape.
It is, as Amanpour says, a “difficult” and “weird” time to be launching a news show, in a climate stormed by “fake news” pitchforks and the spectacle of partisan punditry. But for Amanpour, it’s prudent to fall back on a mantra she coined years ago.
“I believe in being truthful, not neutral,” she says.
“I learned that in Bosnia when I was covering the genocide that you couldn’t equate the victim with the aggressor, otherwise you’re just adding to the noise,” she explains. “You’re not adding to the truth or the understanding. So I think that’s what I have sort of internalized over the last 18 months of unprecedented attacks on the press in such a concerted way. I think that this kind of show should be almost like an explainer: ‘Here’s the noise, now let’s get to the truth of it.’”
Amanpour is also candid about the circumstances in which Amanpour and Company exists.
Her flagship CNN International program, Amanpour, first began airing as an interim replacement for Charlie Rose’s indelible interview series in December after PBS cut ties with the venerable journalist in the wake of investigations revealing that nearly 30 women had accused Rose of sexual misconduct, making him one of the most high-profile media personalities implicated in the #MeToo scandals.
“I’m proud to say that I’m delighted that PBS chose a woman, a proven woman, to be able to fill in this slot,” Amanpour says when we ask her about it. “I think it’s really important. It’s a great message. It goes beyond gender, obviously, because it’s about my career, my competence, my record. They don’t just put any woman. And I’m really proud of that. And to all the women out there, I think it sends a really big message. To all the men out there, I think it sends a big message, too.”
What follows is a State of the Union, of sorts: of the industry of journalism and of our global situation, from one of the most reputable reporters and observers of its evolution. This is the journalist who interviewed Palestinian Authority leader Yassar Arafat in 2002, who was the sole journalist inside the courtroom for Saddam Hussein’s 2004 trial, and was the final reporter to interview Muammar Gaddafi before the Libyan autocrat’s bloody death in 2011.
President Trump has put journalism under siege. Christiane Amanpour is here, as always, to fight on its behalf. Here is our conversation.
In the wake of Trump’s line that journalists are the “enemy of the people,” there was passionate reaction to New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s meeting with him to discuss his use of that phrase. Many people were affronted that Sulzberger would even entertain that audience, given President Trump’s rhetoric. Where do you stand on that?
I think that’s wrong. I think that our leaders need to engage to President Trump to convey to him, on a daily basis, if possible, that he is wrong; that, of course, we are not enemies of the people. We are precisely the opposite. In the United States of America, more than any other country, the press is constitutionally protected. The press calls itself the Fourth Estate. With that leadership comes the responsibility and a duty to protect. So A.G. Sulzberger or Jeff Zucker or Neil Shapiro, whoever, leaders of the press, I believe the more they can engage President Trump and convince him that this is an American tradition, and American right, and should not be spat upon, castigated, denigrated, disrespected, and constitutionally violated, then that’s the right thing to do.
How does the press grapple with its duty of service at a time when the president is spouting that rhetoric that we are the enemy, peddlers of fake news, and there are people—people we are supposed to be in service of—who internalize that message because it is coming from a place of power?
Look, through time immemorial, there have been people who don’t like the press. But that’s the minority. I’ve covered this stuff in every dictatorship and authoritarian regime out there. I know what it’s like to be on the other side of a dictator or an authoritarian who disrespects the press and whose country there is no guaranteed protection of the press. We all need to stand together to defend the truth and defend facts. I think it’s been shown in this current era that actually more and more people do turn to us. We are actually flourishing even though we are under such withering attack from the highest levels of government.
When you’re launching a new show at a time both when the president is triggering the conversation we’re having now but also when televised news seems to be defined by bellowed punditry and harsh extremism, how do you lay out a mission statement amidst those factors?
They’re very difficult factors, and it is a very difficult environment to be in. I’ve never been political. I’ve never been politicized. I’ve been a foreign correspondent all my life. I have treated everything, including Washington, as a story rather than partisan warfare. I think you do this kind of program seeking the players, not pundits. I’m going to the source rather than people talking about the source. That helps a lot because you get it from the horse’s mouth rather than posing a situation and then having people, equal and opposite, yell about it. I think that this kind of show should be almost like an explainer.
An explainer how?
It would be: “Here’s the noise, now let’s get to the truth of it. What is it really about trade wars and tariffs? How bad is it really? How dangerous is it, or not? What is this noise? Is it really going to change the dynamic on the ground, or is it just noise for political reason and here is where policy is happening.”
Will audiences, especially given these times, respond to that?
I would say that Americans have been under attack by their presidents for a long time over the press. Not in the kind of way that it is right now. The American press has long faced pushback from the administration. This one, because of the social media power of Twitter and the hyper partisanship of society now is much more acute, and you feel like you have to fight back a lot harder. What I don’t want to be is the opposition. We are not the loyal opposition or the organized opposition. We’re the press. And we keep doing our work.
It can be hard, especially for younger journalists, to see the bigger picture when every day is such a crisis. Can you put the time we’re in, not just as journalists but as citizens, in context?
We are in an unusual situation. President Trump, by his own admission, is an anti-establishment, non-politician leader. He has publicly said that his mission is to disrupt—there is such thing as the chaos theory—and see where the pieces land and try to re-organize society and policy to benefit what he believes needs to be changed. It’s unusual. There’s no doubt about it. But in the end, it’s another spike in the continuum of history.
Isn’t that dejecting?
I’m not saying that we should be accepting new normals, or that we should be accepting being called the enemy of the people. It’s unacceptable, because we are a part of the democratic civil society. But I would say to young journalists and to young people: Try to shut out the noise. Try not to let the noise and the whole Twitter environment, not just the president, crush you. Try to see the big picture and where you fit into the big picture. Go find out what is going on and report back. That’s the most and the least of what we do. That is on behalf of the people, not against the people.
Seemingly every day there is another recognizable man implicated by #MeToo reporting. Les Moonves is the latest big name. Obviously there’s a connection to Charlie Rose and your program. When this keeps happening, how do we continue to process it?
On that issue, I’ve been public. I’m proud to say that I’m delighted that PBS chose a woman, a proven woman, to be able to fill in this slot. I think it’s really important. It’s a great message. It goes beyond gender, obviously, because it’s about my career, my competence, my record. They don’t just put any woman. And I’m really proud of that. And to all the women out there, I think it sends a really big message. To all the men out there, I think it sends a big message, too. We need in life, parity. Not domination, parity. That will make our whole lives 1,000 percent more productive and more healthy, and the nation more productive and more healthy.
When there are so many names, is there the risk of being desensitized to each successive report?
Regarding all the other names that have been coming out, you know this has been going on since time immemorial. It’s going to take a long time to do the laundry; however, it’s important that there’s zero tolerance on this issue. I believe that young women and young men and whoever else is involved in this will not be desensitized, because it’s happening. And you know what? Every one doesn’t have to be a cataclysmic event. But every one has to be held accountable and investigated, and then corrective action taken.
I’m interested in the time immemorial bit of what you said. This has been an issue for time immemorial, yet it is now a watershed moment. Why now?
I believe it happened because of the work of some dogged reporters. So, far from being the enemies of the people, they have worked really hard on behalf of I’d say the whole population. Not just women who I’d say make up half the world’s population, but men as well. It’s over now, this idea of male domination and the patriarchy and women don’t dare stick up for themselves or are unable to be professionals in their realm because of some weird tradition that has lasted for all these years. So I would say thank you to Ronan Farrow, and I would say thank you to all the New York Times and Washington Post, all the journalists, wherever they may be. Don’t forget: the journalists did this.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.