This is a briefing of Christiane Amampour's lecture at the Edward R. Murrow Ceremony, if you are interested in the entire text, please email me and I will gladly send it to you.Although six years old, her views are visionary and spot on over the controversy of the news media industry in the USA. It also brings light to life on the road as a war correspondent. At least for me, it is a must read for those interested in journalism. I hope you will enjoy it.
Edward R. Murrow Awards Ceremony RTNDA2000
Minneapolis September 13, 2000
I remember the day I arrived at CNN with a suitcase, my bicycle and about 100 dollars… It was exciting… a band of young college graduates thinking we'd get some practical experience on the job, hoping it would be a steppingstone to the big leagues. Little did we know it would become the big league... Because I am foreign I was assigned to the foreign desk. I kid you not.
I was just the tea boy really, but I quickly announced innocently but ambitiously that I was going to be a foreign correspondent.
I am sorry to say my first boss was a woman… if I had thought I would get a sympathetic hearing, some female solidarity, I was sorely mistaken. She hated me… made fun of my ambitions and basically said I would never make it at CNN…all character-building stuff. Well I worked my way up through every level…writer..producer...field producer…reporter…I managed to convert a few believers in management, and here I am.
We thrived on the pioneer spirit of CNN…we adored being the little network that could….we loved the fact that we were mocked as chicken noodle news… as we kicked ass all over the world. We were thrilled and privileged to be part of a revolution…because make no mistake about it...Ted Turner changed the world with CNN. Not only did he create 24-hour news, and all that has meant, he truly created the global village.
As corny as that may sound, nothing has been the same since. With all my youthful exuberance and all my high-faluting dreams...nothing really prepared me for the intensity of the work I have done over the past 10 years. I was an adventurer…I thought CNN would be my ticket to see the world, and be at the center of history…. On someone else's dime.!!!!! Well, it was… and I did… but soon the reality of the business I had chosen began to sink in.
I have spent the past ten years in just about every war zone there was…I have made my living bearing witness to some of the most horrific events of the end of the 20th century. I am so identified with war and disaster that wherever I go these days. People joke….or perhaps not…that they shudder whenever they see me: Oh God... Amanpour is here… is something bad happening to us?
U.S. soldiers…with whom I now have more than a passing acquaintance… joke that they track my movements in order to know where they will be deployed next. I calculated that I have spent more time at the front than most normal military units.
I have lost many friends, to the sniper, the mortar bomb, the land mine…the crazed Kalashnikov-wielding druggie at the checkpoint. It occurred to me that I have spent almost every working day of the past ten years living in a repressed state of fear. I very rarely talk about it because it is impossible to talk about….but I ask you tonight whether anyone in this room knows what it must be like to live on fear…fear of being shot…of being kidnapped, of being raped by some lunatic who hates your stories or blames you for bringing NATO bombs down around them.
We manage the fear, but the strain takes its toll. And then there's the horror of what I have seen…in Rwanda piles of bodies lifted by bulldozer and dumped into mass graves. In Bosnia little children shot in the head by a guy who thinks it's okay to aim his gun at a child. In Somalia and Ethiopia, walking skeletons. And always the weeping….children, women, even men. These images and sounds are always with me.
Yes I have often wondered why I…why we… do it? After a few seconds the answer used to come easily: because it matters, because the world will care once they see our stories…because if we the storytellers don't do this, then the bad guys will win. We do it because we are committed, because we are believers.
One thing I knew for certain…I never could have sustained a relationship while I worked that hard, or was that driven by the story… Indeed in the full flush of journalistic conviction I once told an interviewer that of course I would never get married. And I definitely would never have children. If you have a child, I said, you have a responsibility to at least stay alive. That was seven years ago.
I have been married two years and I have a five-month-old son. Before my son was born I used to joke about looking for bullet-proof Snugglies…Kevlar diapers…I was planning to take him on the road with me. At the very least I fully expected to keep up my hectic pace, and my passion as a war correspondent…. but now When I think of my son…and having to leave him…and I imagine him fixing his large innocent eyes on me and asking...mummy, why are you going to that weird place…what if they kill you…I wince. I know what I want to say…I want to say because I have to…because it matters…because mummy's going to tell the world about the bad guys and perhaps do a little good. But a strange thing has happened…something I never expected….motherhood has coincided with the demise of journalism as I knew it…I am no longer sure that when I go out there and do my job…it'll even see the light of air…if the experience of my network colleagues is anything to go by.
More times than I care to remember I have sympathized with too many colleagues assigned like myself, to some of the world's royal bad places. They would go through hell to do their pieces…only to frequently find them killed back in New York, because of some fascinating new twist that's been found on I don't know…..killer Twinkies or Fergie getting fatter, or something. I have always thought it morally unacceptable to kill stories that people have risked their lives to get.
My son was barely two months old when two of my best friends and colleagues were murdered in an ambush in Sierra Leone. …I was devastated and really angry…does anyone even know where Sierra Leone is? If not, why not? How many of you aired their footage? It made me think long and hard about what we do...I asked myself why do I still do it? Do I have anything left to prove? Am I a war junkie? Why do any of us do this? There are of course a lot of reasons….mostly a desire to do a bit of good, and the quaint notion that this is what we signed up for…this is the business we have chosen. If the storytellers give up, the bad people will certainly win.
I am not alone in feeling really depressed about the state of the news today. A veteran BBC reporter, with supreme British understatement said recently …news is heading down rather a "curious corridor." A long-time, and highly awarded colleague of mine, has gotten out of the business altogether, saying news and journalism died in the nineties. Now I do not share that much pessimism…but something has got to change. All of us on this room share in this most ludicrous state of affairs. So much so that I recently carefully clipped the following cutting and just about slept with it under my pillow….WBBM-TV in Chicago is going back to basic journalism! A rare example of dog bites man actually being news!!!! I don't dare ask how this radical experiment is doing in the ratings….all my fingers and toes are tightly crossed.
You get the point….the powers that be...the moneymen, have decided over the last several years to eviscerate us. It actually costs a bit of money to produce good journalism….to travel, to investigate…to put on compelling viewing. But God forbid they should spend money on quality…no, let's just cheapskate our way into the most demeaning, irrelevant, super-hyped, sensationalism we can find. And then we wonder why people are tuning out in droves…it's not just the new competition, it's the drivel we spew into their living rooms.
David Halberstam…recently wrote that journalism today is basically tailored to the shareholders. Perhaps all of you are raking in the profits…but let me throw down a challenge: what's the point of having all this money if we are simply going to drive ourselves into the ground? Makes you wonder about all those mega-mergers. Yes, you are running businesses but surely there is a level beyond which profit from news is simply indecent. We live in a society after all, not a marketplace. News is part of our communal experience…a public service.
Surely a news operation should be the crown jewel of any corporation…the thing that makes a corporation feel good about itself. We all love "Millionaire," make your money off that….make your super-dollars somewhere else. Leave us alone, with only good competitive journalism as our benchmark. I know I do not need to remind you of all the quality programs that make money too…60-minutes, Nightline…are just a couple. No matter what the hocus-pocus focus groups tell you, time has proven that all the gimmicks and cheap journalism can only carry you so far.
Remember the movie "Field of Dreams" when the voice said, "Build it and they will come." Well, tell a compelling story and they will watch. Lest you think these are woolly-headed musings …we are not dinosaurs…we are the frontier. You've mastered the hardware…we are the software. And that will never change. Today's buzzwords seem to be content, and platforms. Well, we produce the content for all your different platforms…and that will never change. Humble newsprint, the New York Times, still rules the world. As someone else might have said, "It's the content stupid." You've invested so much money in technology…perhaps it's time to invest in talent…in people…do you know how many people in newsrooms I know have a hard time even recognizing news anymore….
I am personally thrilled by the changes at CNN, because it means we are responding to the times. I'm sure we will regain our unique niche, stop trying to be all things to all people, and find our way again to doing what we do best, what we alone can do…gather the news first, and send it
out the farthest.
Here in the United States, our profession is much maligned, but I work all over the world, where people actually see us as serious players. They take journalism seriously because they know what a force it can be. In emerging democracies like Russia, in authoritarian states like Iran, Yugoslavia, journalists play a critical role in civil society…they form the very basis of those new democracies and civil societies. Russia's new president Vladimir Putin is hell-bent on silencing the voice of independent media, unless they toe his line. When he failed the test of leadership and lied to his own people when their nuclear submarine sank. It was Russian journalists who exposed the Kremlin's double talk and KGB-style propaganda: Russian journalists revealed there were in fact no survivors, no-one was hammering on the inside of the hull…Russian ships were not in fact supplying oxygen to the stranded crew, as officials repeatedly claimed.
In Iran the whole reform and democracy movement has been based on the emerging free press. So powerful in fact that now the hard-line mullahs have cracked down, and closed down the outspoken new journalists. I am proud of the work western journalists did spurring action…eventually…in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, bringing the famines of Ethiopia and Somalia to light...getting those people help…. often our words and pictures are their only opening to the world. And there is so much good stuff being produced here in the United States….but think how much more of a contribution we could make to this great society if we weren't so dependent on what those hocus-pocus groups tell us people are not interested in…oh Americans don't care about serious news…oh Americans don't care about this presidential election….oh Americans don't care about foreign news. Oh Americans don't care about anything but contemplating their own navels. It's just flat out not true… what Americans don't care much about is the piffle we put on TV these days, what they don't care about is boring, irrelevant, badly told stories, and what they really hate is the presumption that they are too stupid to know the difference. That's why they are voting with their off switch.
For example, why are we terrorizing the country at large leading with murder and mayhem when crime is actually on the decline? Why have we given George W. Bush such an easy ride...until now, that is...when actually his qualifications are questionable? The way the mass media treats the democratic process here must have a lot to do with the reason so many Americans are alienated from it. That's bad for the greatest country in the world, who seeks to project her values and beliefs around the world.
I'm part English, part Iranian, and I have always had an outsiders' respect for the American people…. The way I tell my stories reflects that. It seems simple to me...if we have no respect for our viewers…then how can we have any respect for ourselves and what we do….it's time the cost-cutters, the money-managers and the advertisers gave us room to operate in a way that is meaningful, otherwise we will soon be folding our tent, and slinking off into the sunset. No new media vehicle has ever killed off another….it's the age of interactive, yet newspapers, radio, television, are all still here. But we the people are in danger of doing what no new technology has ever done, becoming extinct. Only we can stop it.
I recently came across the following quote from the indomitable Martha Gelhorn…wife of Ernest Hemmingway (though she hated to be introduced that way) and war correspondent par excellence: "
All my reporting life I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple.I don't need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort. I belong to a global fellowship, men and women, concerned with the welfare of the planet, and its least protected inhabitants. I plan to spend the rest of my years applauding that fellowship and cheering from the sidelines….good for you never give up."
I still have many years left in me, but that's what I'll tell my son when. he's old enough to torture me with painful questions…I'll tell him I am a believer and I believe that good journalism, good television, can make the world a better place. …..and yes…I believe good journalism is good business.