I met up with Christiane at the Mark hotel in New York, where she was already packed for a trip to Dubai. Considering that she is a globe-trotting mom on the move, she was incredibly generous with her time. As she filled me in on life on the front lines, mothering while at war, and the real meaning of risk, I saw that reporting isn't a job for her, it's a mission.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Christiane Amanpour
This interview appeared in the September 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: When you're covering a crisis such as poverty in Africa, do you feel that your role is just to tell the story?
Christiane: The politically correct thing to say is that it's not a journalist's role to be an advocate, to have an agenda, to agitate on behalf of any kind of political position. But in my work, basic matters of life and death are on the table—whether it's genocide in Africa and the Balkans or violations of human rights. I'm not just a stenographer or someone with a megaphone; when I report, I have to do it in context, to be aware of the moral conundrum. If I'm talking about genocide, for instance, I have to be able to draw a line between victim and aggressor. It would be irresponsible for me and CNN to tell you what the person being gang-raped says, what the rapist says—and to give each equal time and moral equivalence. I can't do that because it means being neutral in the face of unspeakable horror. When you're neutral, you're an accessory.
Oprah: That's right. Where are you headed next?
Christiane: First to Dubai, then to Africa. I really believe our generation can end extreme poverty in places like Africa. If you asked most Americans how much of our budget goes to foreign aid, many would say 15 percent. Only about 0.1 percent of America's gross domestic product goes to foreign aid. Europeans are somewhere around 0.4. I think there's a lot of space for Americans to support their government in giving more aid in places where it can do a lot of good.
Oprah: The reason there's extreme poverty is that the world allows it.
Christiane: True. In many parts of the poor world, there are obviously corrupt governments, and a lot of work needs to be done on that. But you can't say that we'll only help if there's a good government. Yes, we have to lobby for good government, but we also have to help the poorest of the poor. It's our responsibility. We're so rich—we have all the technology, money, power, media. This is our moment. If commitments aren't made now, they may not be made again in our lifetime. I don't believe the conventional wisdom that Americans don't care what happens in the world. Individual Americans had an incredible reaction to the tsunami—much faster than their government's reaction. Americans are a very moral and compassionate people who believe in extending a helping hand, especially when they get the full facts instead of one-minute clips.
Oprah: Do you have trouble getting CNN to allow you to do longer pieces?
Christiane: Fortunately not. I just have to present a compelling case and make sure the story is valid. I'm lucky.
Oprah: I understand that the rest of the media wouldn't have covered the Bosnian War the way they did ten years ago had it not been for your insistence.
Christiane: Well, look, that's a big compliment and very flattering. I consider Bosnia the most important work I've ever done. All during the war, CNN was there every day, and we weren't only covering car and suicide bombs; we did human interest stories. That made a difference. I'm absolutely convinced that had we not been there—not just CNN but every news organization there—perhaps the West might not have intervened.
Oprah: The news was in our face.
Christiane: Americans are concerned with human rights. Their principles and honor couldn't tolerate it anymore. Western democracy cannot sit by forever while a genocide is perpetrated. But let me tell you the flip side of that story—the time when we didn't shine the spotlight enough and the world did sit by.
Christiane: In just three months, nearly a million people were slaughtered in Rwanda. That will forever be a badge of shame—for me personally, for our networks and news organizations, for the president, for the head of the United Nations Security Council and the Secretary-General of the UN, for the whole world.
Oprah: Why do you call it a shame for you personally?
Christiane: Because I was occupied with Bosnia.
Oprah: That's my point. You're one person, and you were already in Bosnia.
Christiane: I still feel it. I'm part of this sorority of journalists. As a profession, we failed.
Oprah: Even Bill Clinton sees it as a failure.
Christiane: Yes. He has gone to Rwanda and apologized, and so has Kofi Annan. Every time I get an opportunity, I apologize. I still find it very emotional. We were consumed by the good-news story in South Africa, the first democratic elections, the triumph of Nelson Mandela walking out of jail after all those years of apartheid. A lot of our resources went to covering that story as well as the O.J. Simpson trial.
Oprah: That's right. I just saw your eyes tear up as we were talking about Rwanda.
Christiane: That's because of the shame.
Oprah: At a dinner recently, I had the honor of sitting next to Paul Kagame—the man who led the rebel forces in Rwanda and later became president. He said the horror was unimaginable—no words to explain it.
Christiane: Taking it in is corrosive. It all happened in 100 days. People say that it was an even more rapid killing machine than the Holocaust. And it wasn't industrial. It was personal—people with machetes and clubs attacking their neighbors, their friends. Here's another big shame for the media: A radio station there was used as the propaganda arm of this genocide, constantly egging on the extremists and the militias. "Kill those Tutsi; we let them go last time; kill their children; don't let the cockroaches survive!"
Oprah: That's just as it was depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda.
Christiane: It was a constant diet of hate that we also witnessed in Bosnia.
Oprah: Isn't it astonishing that you can get friends to turn against friends in an instant?
Christiane: It's brainwashing that appeals to the most base instincts in a human being.
Oprah: Years ago on my show, we did an experiment with a teacher who taught in a little town in Iowa in 1968, the year Dr. King was assassinated. She was trying to explain to her third graders what prejudice was, so she divided the class into two groups: those with brown eyes and those with blue. She allowed the brown-eyed children access to recess and gave them special treats, and in two days she saw the difference in terms of hate and prejudice. So we brought her in to do a similar experiment with our audience—we gave her false credentials and said that she'd discovered blue-eyed people were stupid. In just an hour, people were calling in to the show saying things like, "I always knew there was something wrong with my sister-in-law!" And then when we said, "You know what? This is just an experiment," people were infuriated.
Christiane: Because they'd been caught. That's amazing. That's why we have to educate people and use the media responsibly.
Oprah: Right. I once read an article in which you said that of all the tragedies you've witnessed, Rwanda was the worst.
Christiane: That's true. Yet Bosnia was difficult because we lived with the civilian population through years of being besieged and bombarded.
Oprah: How long were you there?
Christiane: From start to end—1992 to 1996. I quickly recognized that it was an important story, and I stuck with it. We went out with the women who were trying to get water at the pump. Then a mortar would fall and all the women and children would be killed. We saw people trying to run across the airport in a desperate attempt to get a couple of apples for their children.
Oprah: Where were you living in the midst of it?
Christiane: In a hotel in the center of town. I was right on the front line. No shelter, no protection, no water or heat in our hotel.
Oprah: Weren't you frightened?
Christiane: At moments, yes. One morning I woke up to the incoming whistle of artillery. I was desperate to get out of my room, but I couldn't find the key to unlock the door. I thought, "Whatever happens, happens." Then it went silent. I thought maybe I'd dreamed it. A few hours later, my colleagues and friends came banging on my door, saying, "Have you seen?" Just two doors down from me, this 105 millimeter howitzer shell came through an empty room. It could have taken off the whole floor and all of us with it, but it was faulty, so it didn't explode. Touch wood. [Knocks on the wooden end table.]
Oprah: Didn't that shake you up? If there's a Mack truck and I swerve so it doesn't hit me, I have to pull over to the side of the road to gather myself. After an artillery shell hits, do you just go have a croissant?
Christiane: There were no croissants, but I might have done that. When you're much younger and less experienced, that's part of the whole survival drama: "Wow, we made it."
Oprah: You did at least acknowledge that you could have died?
Christiane: Of course. During my first trip to Sarajevo in June of 1992, the city was under siege. Even the zookeepers had been scared away, and the animals were starving. My camerawoman, my producer, and I went to check it out. When we got there, we did the story, and the animals did look scrawny. But we stayed just a little too long. The gunners on the hills figured out that we were there, and it started raining mortars. I remember kicking down the door of a building and sitting in the doorjamb. If you should sit under a doorjamb during an earthquake, I reasoned, maybe that would work in a mortar attack. All I could keep saying to my crew was, "If you die, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." The minute the shooting stopped, we ran out of there.
Oprah: Did your life flash before you?
Christiane: No. I was too busy apologizing. Maybe it was my mechanism not to think about it. [Knocks wood again.]
Oprah: Do you sleep well at night when you're in a war-torn area?
Christiane: Yes. But that's getting more difficult now because I'm often up round-the-clock. There's so much demand for live coverage. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but one of the great things about Bosnia is that we didn't have a live dish for a long time. When we got it, it increased the demand on reporters. What's prime time in the United States is bedtime for us abroad. So I spend a lot of time awake.
Oprah: Do you get punchy?
Christiane: A bit. I've learned how to catnap in downtime.
Oprah: Has proper media attention been given to the genocide that's happening in Sudan right now?
Christiane: Not enough—though columnist Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times stands out as an exception. We're trying to go there, but the government of Sudan has essentially shut down all media organizations for the past several months. Last summer I went there twice with my team. First we went to Chad and saw all the people being herded out. Then when we finally got visas, we went into Darfur and did a week of programming. I had an exclusive interview with the president of Sudan. They let me in at ten at night, and I had the flu and a sore throat, and it really was a surreal kind of thing. It was at a time when he was trying to make better relations with the rest of the world, so he was saying all the right things—but doing all the wrong things.
Oprah: Now the media is banned?
Christiane: We can't get visas. That has a real impact on our ability to tell the story. I can't do it based only on the pictures I took last year. But every opportunity I have, I talk about it.
Oprah: What did you see when you were there?
Christiane: We didn't actually see the marauding and killing, but we saw people with severe malnutrition living in camps. We heard stories of women who'd been brutalized.
Oprah: It's not like Rwanda?
Christiane: There aren't thousands of corpses piled up, but it's still a very brutal assault on the people by government-backed militia.
Oprah: Is there a story you wanted to cover but didn't?
Christiane: There are lots of stories. One person can't get to everything. I really love to report on women and children. Women are the backbone of so many families and societies. They are also, by and large, the oppressed members of so many parts of the world. I love success stories, when I can show women who've beaten the odds, women who found their voices. As for children, few lobby for them; they don't have their own organizations. Sure, there's UNICEF and certain nonprofits, but children have virtually no rights.
Oprah: No voice.
Christiane: The next big issue I want to cover is pediatric AIDS. Some inroads have been made on adult AIDS in Africa and in other parts of the world. People have given a lot of money and berated a lot of drug companies to make affordable medicine. But what about the children's crisis? I've heard that in one year, 500,000 children die of AIDS and there are no drugs for the poorest. Drug companies are saying, "Give half the adult dose to a child." But a child's biochemistry is different from an adult's.
Oprah: True. What reporting have you done that makes you proudest?
Christiane: Bosnia. That's my most significant, extended body of work. Just by doing my duty as a reporter—along with my colleagues—I believe we made a difference. My proudest lifetime achievement is my son and my family.
Oprah: Did the way you told the stories of children change after you had your son?
Christiane: It did. In Bosnia, seeing children victims of this genocide was more than I could tolerate. It was really painful to see children who'd deliberately been scoped through a sniper's sights and killed. It's a kind of horror that you don't believe is possible. I'm always moved by the plight of children because they're so defenseless. When I became a mother, it was a thousand times more emotional for me. I cry when I go into hospitals and see children.
Oprah: When you became pregnant, did you think twice about whether you'd continue as a war correspondent?
Christiane: I was very cavalier when I was pregnant. I was conscious of being a woman and not letting them say, "Now you're a mother and you can't do this anymore. Let the guys do it." I was a little over-the-top. I was like, "Nothing will change. I'll take my child with me. All I need is some bulletproof diapers." The minute my child was born, everything changed. There's a love inside you that you never knew existed. There's a protectiveness you never knew you were capable of. And there's no way in hell I would take my child to the places I go. That would be completely irresponsible. I'm also much more concerned about my own safety, about surviving.
Oprah: You weren't before?
Christiane: Not as much. I had a feeling of invulnerability.
Oprah: Not everybody has that.
Christiane: I couldn't have done the work I did if I'd been married or had a kid. All my energy, my emotion, my intellect went into my work. During the nineties, people would ask me, "When are you going to settle down?" and I'd say, "I don't think I'll ever have a child." But there came a moment where I flipped the switch and said, "Okay, self. You can be proud of the work you've done. You wanted to be a foreign correspondent, you're a foreign correspondent. Maybe now it's time to look for some personal happiness and fulfillment." It took me a couple of years, but I consciously changed myself.
Oprah: And then you met Jamie?
Christiane: Yes, about six months after that turning point.
Oprah: Before that you were fulfilled in giving all your energy to your work. I completely understand that. Now you still seem to be everywhere.
Christiane: I'm actually not. I still go to all of these places and try to shine the light on corners that need illuminating. But I can't spend months and months away from my child.
Oprah: What's the longest time you've been away?
Christiane: I try not to stay away longer than two weeks at a time. For me, 9/11 was a big challenge because I was away for three months. I did come home from Pakistan for a couple of long weekends. My child was just 18 months old. I have been so fortunate. Jamie is a true hero. He was in the Clinton administration, and when that ended in 2000, my husband, a Democrat, didn't have an administration to work for. So he, my son, Darius, and I benefited from the fact that Jamie didn't have to travel much. He moved to London with me and went into private work. That's rare. Jamie is the poster child for good husbands.
Oprah: Was moving a hard decision for him?
Christiane: Jamie worked for Senator Kerry during this last election. Had Kerry won, we would have moved back to the States. And if Jamie and I were both on the road, I couldn't have traveled as much. I would have had to give up my job. I couldn't have left my child.
Oprah: I read that he just gave up everything for you and put on an apron.
Christiane: He's not a househusband—that's a myth. He worked for a private company and wrote speeches. Post 9/11, he became Jamie Rubin, the voice of Americans overseas.
Oprah: Do you want more children?
Christiane: It would be nice. But I'm 47 and a half years old. I think I've come to the end of my natural...
Oprah: There's a woman who just had a baby at 66.
Christiane: You can believe that was with plenty of aid.
Oprah: What makes you happy?
Christiane: A lot of things. I love my child. I love my husband. I love my life. I love going out to good dinners and seeing great plays. I love going to hear Eric Clapton, as I just did in the Albert Hall. We saw Cream—they reunited the band. Tell me this isn't amazing: Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce, all over 60.
Oprah: Eric Clapton looks good.
Christiane: How can you tell them they're old when they're still pulling the young ones into the tent? It's about talent and passion. It's about people believing that you're the real deal. And they are.
Oprah: Just like you. You're the real deal, girl.
Christiane: Oh, you're sweet.
Oprah: I can tell you still have the fire for your work.
Christiane: I do. That makes me a bit of an endangered species. I think we need to stop undermining ourselves and realize that journalism is an incredibly noble profession. Look at Woodward and Bernstein. What heroes! Their Watergate investigation inspired a whole generation of journalists. They've never lost their integrity. One thing that pains me is that public trust of journalists is diminishing. There have been stupid mistakes. But we [journalists] really do have trans-parent investigations of them. We bring outsiders in and investigate from top to bottom.
Oprah: That's at your level. But the truth is that in this country, the lines are so blurred between tabloid journalism and mainstream press.
Oprah: As you travel, what do you hear about how the world feels about America?
Christiane: It's still very tense, though not quite as tense as it was at the height of anti-Americanism post 9/11. A couple of issues remain unresolved. The Iraq war is not going as well as had been expected or hoped. The constant bloodletting there is a source of great fear around the world. Many are saying, "If that's change, are we ready to pay the price in our blood?" In one month, around 700 Iraqis were killed—a huge number for such a short time. There's a lot of work to be done.
Oprah: I've noticed that when I'm abroad, I get more international news. Earlier this year when I was in the Oslo airport, I heard the total number of Iraqi deaths. That's not discussed in the United States.
Christiane: Iraq is not a foreign news story. It's an American story. Though it's difficult to report from Iraq because it's so dangerous, everything's at stake in this war. The success of the democracy experiment is going to live and die in Iraq; the success of combating terrorism will be proved or disproved in Iraq. For that reason alone, I believe the war should be on the front page of every newspaper every day and at the top of every newscast.
Oprah: When you're in Iraq, do you feel fear?
Christiane: Oh, yes. It's the scariest place I've ever been. You know that you're personally targeted. You also know you could get caught up in some suicide bomb that was meant for somebody else.
Oprah: At any time.
Christiane: Yes. I'm one of those people who believe that the Iraq war could have already been won. I was there when Baghdad was liberated. There was a real moment of opportunity when the people were thankful to the United States and so glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein. Because there weren't enough troops and allies onboard to pacify the situation immediately, there was a loss of authority. Then came an incredible orgy of looting and a basic breakdown of law and order. That sowed seeds of possibility among those who would do harm and cause mayhem. They saw that although the superpower was there...
Oprah: But there weren't enough troops.
Christiane: Which is why they took their chances. Now the reconstruction effort is hobbled by the insecurity. The people still don't have a properly functioning sewage system, they still don't have electricity 24 hours a day, and the medical situation is terrible. Doctors are fleeing because of the violence. It's all very sad.
Oprah: How do you see it ending?
Christiane: I honestly don't know. I hope for the best. I'm an Iranian. Saddam Hussein invaded my country. My family fought against the Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq War. My cousins fought on the front line.
Oprah: And your family eventually fled, right?
Christiane: We left partly because of that war. So I have no love for Saddam Hussein and his regime, as a human being and as an Iranian. Everybody in their right mind is glad to see the back of that man. We just wish the postwar had been better planned, that there had been more allies onboard and a way to win the peace. In conventional warfare, I believe America will always win the war. It's a superpower that no one can challenge. The real challenge is for the Unites States to win the peace. And it must win, because otherwise we're all at risk.
Oprah: How do you define risk?
Christiane: Several ways. There's the obvious: physical risk of your life. Every time I go into a scary situation, I weigh its worth—"should I or shouldn't I?" Then there's what I call intellectual risk. Do you tell the truth? Do you speak out? Do you push the limit with your bosses, colleagues, friends, and family? Do you stand up for what you believe is right? And are you prepared to live with the risks of doing that?
Oprah: You are one gusty, ballsy sister. Did you always know you wanted to be a foreign correspondent?
Christiane: Oh, yes. I knew when I went to college. I was old enough to understand the revolution in Iran and to know that I wanted to be part of that kind of earth-shattering world event.
Oprah: Were you brave as a child?
Christiane: I remember being very shy. I was also very curious—some people would say nosy. I always wanted to be around the grown-ups and listen to what they were saying. I rode horses from the age of 5. If I'm asked to trace my...
Christiane: I'd have to say it has something to do with falling off a very, very fast horse a lot. I was literally picked up and put back on the horse by the scruff of my neck. My riding teacher gave me no choice.
Oprah: Where were your parents?
Christiane: They were the kind who sat there and watched, and obviously, they wouldn't let their child be abused. But I was taught courage and sticking power. Then when you lose your country, when you lose everything important to you, when members of your family and friends are executed, when you go through a revolution, you survive with a certain fortitude.
Oprah: How old were you during Iran's revolution?
Christiane: That was in 1978, so I was 20 when it all started rumbling.
Oprah: How do you relax, for goodness' sake?
Christiane: Very easily. I have a great family structure and great friends. I've still got friends from childhood. I'm really proactive in the way I keep them around me. When I come back from the road, it's as if I've never gone. We go out to dinners, to movies. I have family lunches every week in London. I order out Persian food, and all ten of us gather.
Oprah: Wow. I would think that when you come home from such intensity, you'd need alone time to breathe.
Christiane: There's not much alone time when you have a kid. I put a lot of energy into being a good mother and wife. Life is fun, things are good, and I'm really lucky.
Oprah: Now that you have a child, do you take fewer physical risks?
Christiane: I'm more careful about wearing the bulletproof vest and availing myself of whatever security is available.
Oprah: When was the last time you were in Iraq?
Christiane: In January for the elections. I spent nearly three weeks there, which is a long time for me now.
Oprah: Even with the level of anxiety there, you still go?
Christiane: Yes. When I'm there, I turn off the fear switch. So I'm actually relaxed. Know what I mean?
Oprah: No, I don't know what you mean!
Christiane: When I board a plane to fly to Baghdad, I do get fearful. I don't know whether I'll get shot out of the sky. Then I don't know whether I'll make it from the airport to the base. I think, What am I doing here? It's a war zone. But I always end up going back.
Oprah: Good God. All I can say is that the horse worked for you! Do you think you're brave?
Christiane: I don't think about it.
Oprah: Just like I don't think of myself as being famous, because fame is something that happens outside of yourself. You don't wake up and think, "Gee, what a brave woman I am." But let me tell you, you're a brave widdle wabbit!
Christiane: I wake up thinking about what a scaredy-cat I am these days. After I make it into Baghdad, I high-five my colleagues.
Oprah: Five years from now, do you see yourself going around the world wherever there's a need?
Christiane: I don't rule anything in or out. I've still got a lot of energy, passion, and commitment. I really believe in the power of mass media to do good. I believe that we are indispensable forces in proper functioning democracies and proper civil societies. If you look around the emerging democracies in the world—like Iran, for instance—it's often the journalists who are on the cutting edge of reform. We have an enormous role to play. Television brought you the abuses at Abu Ghraib. News like this is vital. If we don't respect our profession and we see it frittering away into the realm of triviality and sensationalism, we'll lose our standing. That won't be good for democracy. A thriving society must have a thriving press.