In the public collection of the Newseum, the seven-story mecca of American journalism located four blocks from the Capitol Building, in a war reportage exhibit displaying CNN's baby-blue Gulf War body armor and the notebooks of Boer War reporter Richard Harding Davis, is Christiane Amanpour's laptop. A foreign correspondent turned CNN anchor whose recent selection as host of ABC's Sunday news show This Week has been hotly debated, Amanpour carried the laptop across some of the 1990s' roughest conflict zones. The obvious wear and the many stickers, one of which reads "don't tread on me," reveal an owner who traveled widely, believed strongly, and carried herself proudly. It belonged, that is, to a reporter.
Critics like the Washington Post's Tom Shales are absolutely right to consider Amanpour "the opposite of the perfect candidate" for This Week. Second-ranked in ratings of the three Sunday news shows, This Week is otherwise indistinguishable from Meet the Press and Face the Nation. But the Sunday shows, once irreplaceable stalwarts of the political media, have themselves become indistinguishable from a rising tide of Beltway-centric online outlets.
Political blogs in general and Politico in particular fulfill the role once reserved for the shows: Investigating policy, evaluating politics, and debating both. Why should a viewer interested in, say, health care reform watch a 20-minute Face the Nation segment when Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias go into such greater depth on their blogs? Why tune in to a Meet The Press face-off over Israel when the fireworks between, for example, Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg are so much more compelling? The Sunday show formula is clearly doomed. But a foreign reporter like Christiane Amanpour, a seasoned correspondant who cut her teeth in the Gulf and the Balkans, can save it.
Political reporters and bloggers have a lot going for them, but exploring the physical world is not a strength of the medium. A globe-trotter like Amanpour has seen and touched an incredible range of human cultures and conditions. That her years of traveling outside America does not seem immediately relevant to chairing a show on American politics is precisely the point. There's a good reason that most every presidential candidate for a century has campaigned as an outsider who will fix Washington. This town has a lot of bad habits, chief among them navel-gazing. Beltway pundits tend to emphasize Beltway concerns, like electoral campaigns and private scandals and colorful personalities.
Foreign reporters' great strength, however, is their ability to see politics not as theater but as an extension of cultural, social, and economic forces. If Amanpour brings this approach to This Week, it would be more than just a breath of fresh air in the homogeneous Sunday line-up. Her international perspective on domestic concerns could shed new light on the most pressing issues facing the Obama administration. The slow climb out of a recession, high unemployment, a severely depressed Midwest, and national security are all challenges that look a lot like those faced by 1990s conflict regions. What has she learned by watching Somalia dissolve or Rwanda rebuild that another D.C. partisan pundit might not be able to tell us?
To understand how political reporters can sometimes get it wrong, remember back to the 2002 and 2003 run-up to invading Iraq. The roles were reversed: As the Bush administration machinated, White House reporters were acting as foreign correspondents, covering Baghdad's every movement. But the traditional model of political reporting—everything is a campaign—failed. By treating the story as a competition between George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein, obviously the tyrannical dictator lost out. But important questions never got asked: What to do with the Baathist army? How will the oppressed Shia majority react? Won't Iran's influence inevitably seep in? It's impossible to know for sure if bringing a war zone reporter like Amanpour to cover Pennsylvania Avenue would have changed any of this. But surely it could not have hurt.
Critics' questions about Amanpour's ability to engage "tough" beltway figures like Karl Rove or Hillary Clinton reveal not only the pompous self-regard of Washington, which is begging to be deflated, but just how misguided Amanpour's critics really are. Reflecting on her interviews with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, whose reign is considered one of the world's most brutal since World War II, Amanpour recently quipped, "He would slap you on the back, offer you a drink. He tried to be charming. But many of them do. You have to be on your guard." Surely she can handle John Boehner.
Skepticism about Amanpour's fit at This Week turned into Furor when Shales raised questions about her objectivity. His suggestion that she was biased against Israel in particular has been rightly revealed as absurd, but Shales was correct in general about Amanpour's neutrality. She has said of her own unrestrained coverage of the 1995 genocide at Srebrenica, "There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn't mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing." Beltway TV moderators can afford to take a more rigidly objective stance when it comes to debates such as whether Sarah Palin is more populist than Barack Obama. But foreign reporters know that, sometimes, there's just too much at stake to stand passively by. With America facing serious challenges but its politics and pundits still stuck in the same he-said, she-said bickering, maybe a war-weary outsider like Amanpour is exactly what we need.
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