Stay Tuned Transcript: Truthful Not Neutral (with Christiane Amanpour)

Stay Tuned Transcript: Truthful Not Neutral (with Christiane Amanpour)

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Please enjoy the following Transcript from Preet’s conversation with Christiane Amanpour:


Preet Bharara
: Christiane Amanpour, thank you so much for being on the show.

Christiane Amanpour: It’s a great pleasure, Preet.

Preet Bharara: How’s your new show going?

Christiane Amanpour: I think really well, but you’d have to ask the viewers. But by all accounts, it’s going really well. And I’m very, very, very happy about it. It’s in practically all the PBS households and markets. And it’s doing incredibly well according to the metrics they have. But more to the point, according to the response that I get, and I just think and I hope that it’s because these times demand and require some really deep conversation, and not necessarily too much shouting, too much talking head. We try to take on the breaking news of the day and the main news of the day, but to go behind it as well, and sort of dig down and have real conversations on the real sort of policies and substance that affects people on a day to day basis.

Preet Bharara: I think it’s terrific. And I think that you do a terrific job. My question, though, is: Why isn’t there more programming like that? There’s a lot of programming. It’s three minutes with a panel of seven. Nobody ever digs deep. What’s the reason?

Christiane Amanpour: I’m not the one to ask about that. You’re going to have to ask the bosses. I’m just a humble … What can I say? A humble servant.

Preet Bharara: Why can’t you become, with all this experience and all these connections, why can’t you become a media titan? And start-

Christiane Amanpour: Have you seen what’s happening with the media titans right now?

Preet Bharara: Well.

Christiane Amanpour: I’m happy just to be a good old foot soldier in the trenches. That’s who I am. It’s what I am. I’m a reporter. I always have been. And perhaps, honestly, perhaps that is what I’m transferring to my studio show, the fact that I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. I continue to be out there talking to the people, whether they’re civilians, or the policy makers, or whoever it is, that are the real players. And so I think that hopefully people see a sense of experience that I bring to the table, a very, very, very high BS meter, a very, very high level of refusing to take no for an answer, and demanding a question to be answered for the people who are, I like to say, my constituents. And I don’t say that in any arrogant way, but the people who turn on the TV, or turn on their laptop, or their phone, or whatever platform they’re using, to try to figure out what we’re saying on the show on any given night.

So I take it very seriously. I don’t think people are watching or listening to the podcast just because. There’s so much option. There’s so much alternative out there. There’s so much product out there that I just want people to know that when they turn to me, they can get the real deal. And they know that I’m being honest with them and as truthful as I can. And I’m not mixing neutrality with truth. And I’m not pretending to equate two very different things. I insist on being truthful and not neutral, and I hope that shows.

Preet Bharara: We’re going to get to truthful, but not neutral. But let me ask you this. Do you think that folks underestimate what the public wants, that they emphasize too much entertainment, rather than understand that lots and lots of people want to be informed as well?

Christiane Amanpour: I think maybe that was the case in the past several years. But I do believe that since we’ve entered this vortex of a different kind of politics, I think many, many people are actually looking for real news, facts, truth. Clearly, there’s a lot who don’t really care, who buy into conspiracy theories, who still go to Facebook and other places where they can find fake new. I do think that people have to take on a responsibility of their own right now. It’s not enough just to say, “Oh, well, I saw that online,” or, “I saw that on social media,” or, “I heard that one the radio.” Or, blah, blah, blah. People in this environment, if they really want to be informed, if they really want to be safe and secure by knowing the facts and the truth, have to also take on the responsibility themselves as buyers, if you like, as consumers. They would in any other aspect, right? Whether they were searching for a good loan at the bank, or a mortgage, or the best buy on a car, or whatever it might be, the school for their children.

They go out and they shop around, and they get the best that they can. And they must do that right now when it comes to information because we are being inundated by charlatans who don’t give a damn about the effect they’re having on people. And they just care about click bait and just care about racking up their own dollars, their own profit margins. It is a disgrace. It is immoral. It is the marketplace. So I think that people need to be responsible and choose their destination carefully, and come to people like us who are tried and true and tested and proven brand names in this sphere.

Preet Bharara: You said a couple of minutes ago something that I think is very important, that you have a high BS meter. How’d you develop that? And how do ordinary people develop a good BS meter?

Christiane Amanpour: Well, Preet, I think you obviously in your career have a very highly developed sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s true and what’s false.

Preet Bharara: We’ve prosecuted a lot of bad people.

Christiane Amanpour: And I think that it’s a question of what you choose to do with your career, with your life, how you decide to interpret that. And mine is in reporting. It’s in news. It’s in journalism. And that means we are trained, and it’s in our DNA to make sure that we are the purveyors, not just of the truth, but we can extract the truth and discard the BS because of our experience, because of what we’ve learned, because of how long we’ve been in the field, because of the number of people who we’ve spoken to, the amount of research we’ve done. I mean, this isn’t just a roll in and roll out kind of job. It’s not just punching a clock and sort of reading a script and not really having any involvement with it.

For those of us who have achieved a certain level, it really is because, I think, and I like to think anyway, that we do our homework. And we do our research. I mean, it’s almost scientific in that regard. I often say that every day for me is like doing a PhD thesis. I’m having to interview all these people. It’s not like an expert in all these topics, but I have to really make myself one. And when I sit in front of a world leader, I have to know as much about him or her as they do, or as their children, or their parents do. And that takes a lot of research and a huge team. We have a very, very dedicated team, researchers, producers, et cetera.

Preet Bharara: You mentioned a principle that’s clearly near and dear to your heart, and so much so that it is your pinned tweet. Truthful, not neutral. Can you develop that a little bit more because it might be confusing to folks?

Christiane Amanpour: I don’t think it should be confusing. There’s the truth, and there are facts. And there’s empirical evidence. That’s truth, (and that’s being truthful when you seek and report in those parameters.) Neutrality is often confused by people for objectivity. People sometimes think that our golden rule, which is objectivity, means neutrality. It does not. Neutrality is when you essentially put two opposing thoughts on the same platform, and give equal weight to two opposing thoughts. Now sometimes you can, but often you cannot. And let’s just take genocide for instance, which is where I learned my craft. There is no moral or factual equivalence between the gross violation of humanitarian law and mass killing of people based on their ethnicity or their religion. There’s no equating the perpetrators with the victims.

And I found that out in Bosnia and in Sarajevo during the seize during the ’90s because world leaders tried to say that all sides were equally guilty as a way of not intervening and not having to take the uncomfortable but legally binding steps to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide. So I learned that really, really quickly, that objectivity means giving all sides a hearing, but not conflating all sides and making them neutral, or morally, or factually equivalent. I learned that very, very quickly. And you can transfer that, that doctrine if you like, to anything of massive importance. For instance, climate change, let’s just take that, something that is an existential threat to our civilization. By the way, not to the planet, the planet will continue to exist. Our civilization may very well not.

So there’s no equivalence between the science, the overwhelming 99% of science, and the very tiny .1%, I’m making that up, but tiny, tiny, tiny minority of deniers. And so again, you are truthful when you report the facts about climate change and humans’ involvement in that. And you are not neutral. You don’t say, “On the one hand, the seas are rising and Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay may sink into oblivion in 25 to 50 years. And 700 people will lose their livelihoods and potentially their lives and certainly their homes.” You don’t draw an equivalence with that fact and those who say, “Oh, well, we can’t do anything about it. It’s got nothing to do with us,” et cetera, et cetera.

I feel that this is really important, particularly in today’s age where, unfortunately, the line between truth and falsehood has been blurred to an extent that I never, never, never believed I would have to witness and work around in my lifetime and in my career. It is really a dreadful thing when people say to me that we just don’t know where to find the truth. I mean, it’s like a dagger to my heart. It just is like a dagger to my heart.

Preet Bharara: Whose fault is it that we’re in this predicament that’s great than-

Christiane Amanpour: I don’t know whose fault is it. I mean, I think it’s a growing phenomenon that’s come to a head right now.

Preet Bharara: Don’t be neutral on whose fault it is.

Christiane Amanpour: No, no. I’m not neutral on whose fault it is. I think it’s sort of a big bowl, a cauldron, that’s been stirred over the years. And I think that what happened now is that the falsehood and the fake-ness has been completely and utterly exponentially increased by the reach of social media, and by the internet and social media platforms, which refuse to accept the responsibility that they are media platforms, and they’re not just exchange networks. They’re not just publishing outlets. They should be bound by the same constraints on truth and falsehood that we are as journalists. That’s one thing. Social media, the same.

But then you have governments, including governments and administrations in the most developed democracies in the world, not to mention those which are dictatorships and authoritarians who don’t give a damn about the truth. But in places where our Constitution calls for the freedom of expression, and that perpetrating lies and falsehoods are correctly punished under the law. When administrations and leaders of the United States, or some European nations and others, they’ll call themselves democratic, and say that they are proud to be a constitutional nation, that’s a problem. The problem is many, many fold. And I think that we all need to sort of take a real deep breath and recommit ourselves to protecting, it’s not just our livelihoods or our profession, it’s the working of our democracy and of our civil society.

The difference between democracy and dictatorship is the difference between truth and lies. And it’s not a hard fact to grasp. It’s only 25, 30 years ago since the wall came down, the Berlin Wall, and we knew what happened behind the Berlin Wall. It was based on lies, lies, lies. The Soviet Union, the East European Soviet Block, and that’s how they kept that authoritarian, dictatorial system together. The minute the truth was let out, and people could breathe the oxygen of truth, and see the light of truth, the whole world changed. And we need to remember that.

Preet Bharara: Can you broadcast and tell the truth through storytelling? Or is there a danger in narrative? And I think you’ve said something like this. Is there danger in narrative that causes people to leave our facts because they don’t fit in a narrative? Is there a problem there?

Christiane Amanpour: Well, I mean, look. I think those people who choose to leave out facts and choose to distort the narrative, yeah, there’s a danger there. But my experience has been at a mainstream network, which is bound by the established rules of the game. I have spent my life working inside those parameters, and therefore, all my storytelling has been like that as well. I go out and I get the facts, and I tell the story. And I don’t leave out inconvenient truths to create a different narrative to suit mine or anybody else’s political view. I’m not political. I don’t go out to cover war and peace and genocide, famine, civil conflict, religious conflict, terrorism, climate. I don’t go out to cover those according to somebody’s political narrative. I cover them as they are, life as it is, truth as it is, fact as it is.

And the people who say, “Oh, that’s not possible,” that everybody’s compromised, that everybody has their own context, well, people do have their own context. But if you are a professional in this craft, your own personal context is second to your professional duty and your professional guidelines. And that’s not a hard concept to grasp.

Preet Bharara: You were very good friends with the late, great Anthony Bourdain.

Christiane Amanpour: I was, yes.

Preet Bharara: Whose loss has been mourned by lots and lots of folks. He one time called you a badass.

Christiane Amanpour: I didn’t know that, but that’s great.

Preet Bharara: Are you?

Christiane Amanpour: I guess I am, if Anthony Bourdain says I am. You know, I wear it as a badge of honor if he said that. Look, he was a good friend. I wish I’d known him even better. I wish I’d been able to help. I just feel terrible that he couldn’t turn to his friends in his last hour of need. I feel terrible about it because he was, I always want to say is, a great, great person, and a great force of nature. And I think that he came from a very interesting background, partly very troubled background. He’s been very open about his own struggles with substances and abuse, and how he came out of that and created this phenomenal … What’s the right word? It’s not persona, just this phenomenal gift to the world by who he was. I don’t think he was an actor, or inauthentic, or fake. He was really himself. And I think that’s what resonated.

And he had such a curiosity and such an interest about everything that he touched, whether it was food, whether it was his teams in the kitchen when he was a chef, whether it was being one of the kitchen staff–very menial jobs in his first restaurant jobs–to then branching out as a really important writer, and then an important broadcaster. I think people could see that he was the real deal. And he was authentic. And he was colorful. And of course, he had his own perspective. But I don’t think he lied about what went in to the recipes he was producing in his restaurant, or to the stories he was telling in Parts Unknown in the last part of his career. And I think that’s why he resonated so much, and that’s why his death is a great, great, great punch to the gut and leaves a huge vacuum and a void where he should still be. Badass, he was a badass. And you know, I’m a badass too.

Preet Bharara: It takes on to know one.

Christiane Amanpour: Somebody called me OG the other day. Do you know what that is?

Preet Bharara: No.

Christiane Amanpour: Apparently, it’s original gangster. That’s pretty cool too.

Preet Bharara: That might be better than badass. Well, one of the reasons that he might’ve said this, and that people think this about you, is that you cut your teeth on, and spent a lot of time in war zones, the most difficult place to report and to be. And you seem not to have done that reluctantly. You seem to have embraced it and loved it. You once said, “I sleep better in Sarajevo than anywhere else.” And I wonder if that’s because there’s a particular mattress that they have there.

Christiane Amanpour: I’d like to think it was the mattress. In fact, I’m going to stick with that thought, Preet, because it is not because I’m addicted to war, or I get off on this stuff. And it irritates me that mostly men, who write about war coverage keep talking about the addictive drug of war and the sort of getting off on all this misery, and how much it’s better to be out there than it is at home. I have a fairly different interpretation. Clearly, we all have adrenaline. You can’t go into a war zone if you don’t have the adrenaline that arms you against the danger and prepares you for fight or flight. So yes, we all have a surge of adrenaline in order to keep ourselves alive and to keep doing the job.

But as much as I said that about Sarajevo, it’s probably true. I was young. I was exhausted. Every day we went out with our teams and put our lives on the line, and came back and just flopped down and sunk into oblivion ready to get up for the next morning. But I think that…I still consider myself that reporter. I still don’t think of myself as a presenter, or an anchor, or anything. I still call myself a correspondent because those were the formative and fundamental years and fundamental experience of my professional life. And I honestly don’t believe that I could do what I’m doing now if I didn’t have that. I don’t think I could do it with any sense of authenticity or grounding and security. I need to feel secure when I’m interviewing all of these world leaders, that I actually know what I’m talking about. Or at least I can ask them informed questions, or at least try to seek relevant information.

And I feel that if I can try to do that job, it’s because of my training in the field. And that will never leave me. And it’s the most important work that I’ve ever done. In fact, it’s the most important thing that I’ve ever done, bar having my son. He’s the most important thing in my life. And as a result, I kind of tailored my career to make sure that A, I stayed alive as a mother, and B, I was there as a mother.

Preet Bharara: I think that you’re correct that anchors and presenters, who earlier in their career experienced the reporting life, do a better job ultimately. They ask the better questions. They’re better grounded. Let me ask you to explain to folks something on a pragmatic level. So you go into a war zone, Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, wherever, and you’re a reporter. You’re not part of the military. What precautions do your media outlets take? Do you have armed escorts? Do you have special phones? Do you have regular check ins? Do you have a speed dial to the embassy if there is a US Embassy in the area? What do you do to make sure that you’re safe in those places?

Christiane Amanpour: Well, to be honest, my career has sort of spanned the gamut of all those things that you say. When I first started, the first Gulf War was my first big story, so that was 1990, 1991, and we were part of a massive group of foreign correspondents who landed in Saudi Arabia to cover the US military and the massive coalition that President George H.W. Bush had gathered to push back Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait. And therefore, there was a lot of connection between us and the military. We were reporting on the military. Sometimes we got them angry because of what we reported about their preparedness, or what the troops were saying, waiting for the buildup to the war. But nonetheless, we were there. And by and large, they kind of knew where we were, so there was that kind of security.

Also, we were kind of obvious because it was one of the first places where we had this amazing satellite technology that kicked in on a big, big level. And I think that’s where CNN became dominant in the public consciousness because it was the first, really the first time war was broadcast in real time into people’s living rooms. So in that regard, we were quite safe. The worst thing that could happen was that we could either be caught in the crossfire somewhere, or as one of my colleagues from CBS, well a group of my colleagues from CBS, they were captured by crossing the line unknowingly. And they were captured by the Iraqi troops. And they were held for the rest of the war. Those were the difficulties then.

Then carrying on, Bosnia, there was no security, no safety. Bosnia was where reporters started being deliberately targeted. No longer were we caught in the crossfire and accidentally hurt or killed, but deliberately targeted. And that was very, very troubling. And I lost many friends to snipers’ bullets, and to shelling. And I had many, many friends and colleagues wounded. And each time I say this, I’m sorry, you’re going to hear me bang on the desk and bang on the wood, I thank God that I survived, and that my team survived. But that was a very scary development.

And only after a good handful of people had been killed, did our organizations start stepping up the security. So we began to get armored vehicles, that we would tape with TV. We began to get bulletproof vests, then later, helmets. And then later, later, later, after 9/11, they started with the certain amount of security traveling with us because then you got to the militants in Iraq, which then morphed into ISIS, who were really not just deliberately firing at you from afar, but now coming up to you, grabbing you, and slitting your throats, and kidnapping you for money and that kind of thing. So as the danger increased, the level of protection and security by our companies increased as well.

Preet Bharara: Which is good. You have interviewed a lot of people, including heads of state, over the course of the years. And you mentioned earlier in this interview that there are certain kinds of people, dictators, who don’t care about truth at all. And you’ve interviewed some of them too. Two questions. One is: Do you have a favorite dictator interview that you’ve done? And then second, more substantively, do you prepare different for that kind of interview, and more at length for that kind of interview, knowing that the person you’re interviewing cares less about truth?

Christiane Amanpour: Yes and no. I think from depending on who you’re talking to, you’re trying to extract different things. And then also, you have to think about your audience, what’s important for them to know, which might not be always what I want to know. I guess my favorite authoritarian, because he was elected democratically, who has a hard time with the truth would be President Erdoğan of Turkey. When I say favorite, my favorite to challenge, because I do regularly. And I just put out the words and confront him with the things he’s said, the things that have happened. And I do quite like seeing the sort of contortions that various of my interlocutors twist themselves in, trying to extract themselves and carrying on with just claiming what they’re claiming. I just sometimes know that I’m never going to get them to change or to bend, but I have to at least put forth the facts, so that they know that I know, that they know that I know, and that they know that the world knows now.

Preet Bharara: But is there real value in … Can I just push back a second? If that’s going to be the nature of the interview, is there … Explain the value.

Christiane Amanpour: Then I don’t do it for a long time. I don’t spend a whole interview doing that. There’s no value in constantly going on and on and on and on, and 50 different times asking the same question. There’s no value. But I do think there is some value in getting the lay of the land of that particular person. I mentioned Erdoğan, there are many, many like it. I’ve interviewed Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. I’ve interviewed the world’s longest serving dictator, the President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. And I’m telling you, those guys were quite scary because they come in, in full military regalia with all their military henchmen standing around them, practically armed. And I’m still trying to ask them these questions. And I’m sometimes worried whether I’m going to get hauled out of the seat and defenestrated, as they say. Anyway, is there a value? Up to a point, there isn’t a value in doing it over and over and over and over again, and sitting with the same person and getting the same answer over and over again, so I take your point on that.

Preet Bharara: What was it like to be present for the trial of Saddam Hussein?

Christiane Amanpour: That was remarkable. I can still remember it as if it was yesterday. And it wasn’t even the beginning. Well, it was the beginning of the trial. And you’ll know much more about the procedures than I do, but he was brought in for his first arraignment essentially. And this was after he hadn’t been seen by anyone. He had just been yanked out of this … What do they call it? A foxhole or something, by the US military, some months previously. He was completely disheveled and bedraggled, still. Although, the US had found some suit for him, some kind of weird, dark, pinstripe suit and a white shirt with no tie. And the thing that I’ll never forget was managing to force myself into that jury rigged courtroom in a former Saddam Hussein palace, no less, that the US was running there in the new transitional authorities in Iraq, because they didn’t want us in. They just wanted pool. And I managed to force myself in there and report it for CNN.

But the most startling recollection I have is of suddenly being told, “Okay. He’s coming in.” And all I could hear, because the door was open, were these chains clanking. He was still chained. His hands and his feet were chained. And he was walking into this courtroom-esque. And suddenly, this person who had been so terrifying, remember, he had committed genocide against the Kurds in the ’80s. He had invaded Iran and used chemical weapons. He had terrorized, tortured, imprisoned, and put in gulags his own people. He had threatened the West over and over again. This monster, who had been so bigged up for all these years, suddenly arrives as this pathetic shadow of a person into this courtroom. But I also will never forget, he still had a measure of pride left. I remember the first question was, “What is your name?” And he said, “My name is Saddam Hussein, President of the Republic of Iraq.” I’m thinking, “Boy, you still got it. You’re still trying.” So it was quite dramatic.

Preet Bharara: He had been talking to Baghdad Bob. This is a radical shift because we’re running out of time. And this will sound to the uninitiated like an impertinent question when I saw, Christiane, tell me about Sex and Love.

Christiane Amanpour: Not impertinent at all, Preet.

Preet Bharara: There’s a show. You did a wonderful show that you can watch on Netflix.

Christiane Amanpour: I certainly did.

Preet Bharara: Called Sex and Love.

Christiane Amanpour: Around the World with Christiane Christiane Amanpour. But I was just talking about it. This was Anthony Bourdain and I came up with this idea. I’d come up with this idea to try to delve deep into people’s personal lives and their intimate lives. And it was really based on just a thought that flashed by me when I was getting ready for work one day. How do all these war refugees, particularly the women and the young girls, how do they come out from their homes in one country, and end up in containers or tents, cheek by jowl with thousands and thousands of other people, and A, maintain their humanity, their privacy, their intimate lives? How do they have sex in a container? You know what I mean by a container, these metal containers that refugees get stuffed into. And that’s their lodging for the next foreseeable future. But they don’t have bedrooms in there. It’s all one room. And many of them have multiple children. How do husbands and wives conduct their intimate lives? What do these mums tell their girls about sex and love and what they’re going to be confronting? What are the birds and the bees stories?

Anyway, I brought that idea to Tony Bourdain. And he thought it was a great idea. And so we took it to CNN and his company. Obviously, they were intimately involved with CNN, produced it for me. We did a series of six in six different cities, Tokyo, Shanghai, Ghana, Berlin, Beirut, and Delhi. And I looked at it very much through a woman’s lens. It was an intimate look at women and what empowers them sexually, emotionally. How did they get their own pleasure? How do they make it clear what they want? Can they? How do they date? What about in traditional societies where there’s been no dating because it’s all been arranged marriages? It sort of broadened from my initial idea.

But I’m so happy that it aired on CNN and that it is airing on Netflix and that I get a lot of people now saying, “Wow. I just saw your … ” And I’m thinking, “What interview?” And they say, “Sex and Love.” And I’m so happy that young people are connecting with it. And I really, again, thank Tony Bourdain for believing in it and making it happen for CNN, for commissioning it and doing it. And it was a great pleasure to do.

Preet Bharara: Christiane Amanpour, our time has been too short. When the original gangster has more time, we’ll do a longer interview. Thank you so much.

Christiane Amanpour: I didn’t even know what it meant. Thank you.

Preet Bharara: Thanks Christiane.

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