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Monday, July 27, 2020

‘My decision was to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular it made me’

UPDATED: Virtual lecture series to wrap up in mid-August
UPDATED with a new date for the final lecture.

CNN International: "go there" - Christiane Amanpour - YouTubeIn the current politically charged climate, journalists often face accusations of bias in their reporting. Christiane Amanpour got her first taste of those attacks as a CNN international correspondent reporting on the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.

“Everybody comes to the world with their own lived experiences and their own biases,” Amanpour told several hundred viewers during the recent livestream discussion of the University of Rhode Island’s Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment Rights

“Our job [as journalists] is not to say we don’t have biases. Our job is to report the truth and do it objectively, despite whatever biases we may have.”

Amanpour ’83, H’ 95, CNN’s award-winning chief international anchor, was the second speaker in the three-part, virtual lecture series honoring esteemed WJAR-TV investigative reporter Jim Taricani, who died last year at age 69. 

This summer’s lecture series is a preview to the annual, in-person Taricani Lecture that will begin next spring. The lectures are endowed by Laurie White-Taricani ’81, the Taricani family, and friends.

In the early 1990s, Amanpour was reporting from the war zone and witnessing attacks on Bosnian Muslims and Croats, targeted by Serbian forces for ethnic and religious reasons. She reported what she saw – in the face of opposition from world leaders who labeled the killing and torturing of civilians as “just centuries of ethnic hatred,” she said.

“Me, young reporter, first real story after the first Gulf War, I was faced with a decision,” she said. 

“And my decision was to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular it made me. That’s when I solidified for myself – and I hope for a lot of people – what objectivity means. Objectivity does not mean neutrality. It does not mean drawing a false equivalence between victim and aggressor. … I thought that if you cannot be objective and truthful, then you are an accomplice to the worst of the perpetrators.”

In a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion, Amanpour, seated in the kitchen of her London home, answered questions on numerous topics – including reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic and during a time of great political dissent, dealing with hate speech, and the importance of the First Amendment.

She also echoed the taped sentiments of URI journalism students Will Pipicelli ’22 and Aniekan Okon ’23 about the lessons they’ve learned from Taricani’s legacy. They were lessons Amanpour learned as an intern at WJAR-TV working side-by-side with Taricani.

“I learned all those principles in my journalism classes at URI,” said Amanpour. “Then I went to intern at WJAR and I saw them put into practice. And then all those years later, when [I saw] Jim stand up for the principles of protecting your sources, defending the First Amendment and what it cost him, he’s just a remarkable personality, a remarkable professional and a remarkable person.”

During the pandemic, Amanpour has been filming her CNN shows from her home in London. She’s been limited to interviewing guests via Skype or other web-conferencing tools, instead of face to face. But there’s been one advantage.

“People are at home and they are available for interviews. They have no more excuses,” said Amanpour, also the host of CNN’s global affairs show, “Amanpour.” “So, we’re getting a lot of guests who we might not have easily brought onto the show every night.”

Asked to reflect on the importance of the First Amendment as someone who has lived and traveled around the globe, Amanpour said the amendment is an example to the world. No other country guarantees freedom of expression, speech and assembly, she said.

“I may be British and Iranian, but I grew up in terms of my profession in the United States, learning all of these lessons and carrying these principles, these morals, these values in my work around the world,” she said. 

“It is absolutely vital [especially] under the most difficult of circumstances where we find ourselves right now under attack as American journalists. … That is unacceptable and we have to continue to fight against it.”

Of attacks labelling journalists “the enemy of the people” and calling their reporting “fake news,” Amanpour says she won’t even “repeat those slogans.”

“I will write my own narrative, and we should write our own narratives, which is the narrative of truth,” she said.

Because of the pandemic, Amanpour has been unable to travel to the U.S., where she spent her “formative years.” If she was in the U.S., she said, she would likely be covering the pandemic and the uprising sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota.

“I take great exception to the way it was described by leadership in the U.S. as rioting or as violence or thugs,” she said. “It was an uprising for racial justice. Foreign correspondents like myself who work for American organizations have since time in memoriam gone to places [around the world] where we have seen uprisings for justice. What do we call them? Uprisings for dignity and justice?

“So, we have to be very clear in what it is we’re seeing and how we report it,” she added. “We have a responsibility as journalists to understand what we’re looking at and report it as such, and not be swayed by the politics and the agenda of those who would knock us off the route of truth.”

The Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment Rights is hosted by URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media, the Journalism Department and the College of Arts and Sciences. The three-part series concludes on November 10 with a discussion on First Amendment rights featuring a panel of local journalists. To view Amanpour’s lecture, click here.