Politics & Policy

This Week with Amanpour: International and Parochial

Her distance from American concerns disables her from being a fair moderator of American debates.

On May 26, Christiane Amanpour addressed Harvard’s 2010 graduates. She had the difficult task of capturing the significance of their educations and at the same time inspiring them. Her ringing words? “Renew your passports.”

As one graduate explained to me afterward, “I guess internationalism is just her thing.” No kidding. With a British accent, an Iranian father, a former assistant secretary of state for a husband, and almost three decades as CNN’s chief international correspondent, Amanpour is a citizen of the world. She’s also the new hostess of This Week, a show previously known for interviews of Washington insiders and sharp debates over American politics, policy, and culture.

Amanpour’s agenda was visible in the most recent episode, which had a decidedly international focus and perspective. She interviewed Afghan president Hamid Karzai, discussed the effects of the Ground Zero mosque controversy on the Muslim world, and then moved on to corruption in Afghanistan. It wasn’t clear why she bothered to broadcast from Washington.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Her intentions were clear from the outset.

In ABC’s promotional advertisement, a montage of scenes from foreign conflicts set the background as Amanpour intoned, “Sunday morning, see your world: This Week on ABC,” and then, “This week, the world’s newsmakers answer to you.” No picture from Washington made the montage. No mention of politics, just “the world” and “our world.”

On the eve of her debut, she reminded TopLine – before the show’s hosts could sneak in a question — “You know, I’ve spent my whole career traveling the world in a quest for understanding and explaining the world.” So what was she doing taking on an American political show, just before huge midterm elections? “I’m fascinated also in exploring the nexus between domestic American policy and foreign policy,” she explained. “Because the truth of the matter is, this is the most powerful country in the world, but it’s no longer an island.”

Fair enough. But, as Tom Shales put it, the show was “hardly a haven for isolationists” before her debut. When TopLine asked her whether the show would acquire an international focus, she dodged. “What I’m looking to do is bring in different perspectives. . . . We’re going to discuss the substantive matters that matter to the world.” She promised repeatedly to “open a window to the world.” America had so far, evidently, been shut in.

Her August 1 debut episode opened with Amanpour dramatically striding before a spinning globe as she explained, “After 20 years covering the world, the story in this country is turning into one of the most fascinating [sic].” The script revealed Amanpour’s view of America: The country is a nexus, a microcosm, and a center of power for the world over, a good vantage point from which to see everything else. That is what makes American politics relevant to Amanpour.

Amanpour is, no doubt, accomplished, sharp, and tough. Her first episode included an interview of Nancy Pelosi. She confronted the speaker with the famous Time magazine cover photo of a woman disfigured by the Taliban, and asked about the Democrats’ exit plan for Afghanistan. Pelosi hedged. Then, Amanpour said that Democrats might “lose their majority in the House” and asked how that happened. Pelosi tried to slip away. “Well, that’s one version of the story and –” but Amanpour gripped her. “I know you’re putting on a great face because you have to . . . [but] your own president’s spokesman said that you might [lose the majority].” The speaker of the House quivered. Her lips curled to a smile, but her eyes did not.

Amanpour is nothing to scoff at. But American politics are not her forte. Plus, she commands a salary of $2 million even as ABC is cutting back on other expenses. So why didn’t they select Jake Tapper, who served as a White House correspondent and host pro tem of This Week from March through July? For some reason, ABC was willing to dish out a lot of cash for a new, international take on politics.

Jake Tapper’s final episodes focused on the hot spots of American cultural politics: Shirley Sherrod, the NAACP, and the tea party. America’s brightest talked through America’s tensest conflicts. The guests, particularly George Will, exchanged sharp words and withering snark. They were exciting, visceral, engaging, and fun.

But Amanpour’s four episodes have been focused overseas: the effects of WikiLeaks on Afghanistan, the floods in Pakistan, withdrawing from Iraq, the psychiatric problems of deployed soldiers, the effect of the mosque controversy on American-Islamic relations. One discussion actually took place abroad, with a missing spot at the roundtable filled by a video of a foreign journalist. She also did something totally new, honoring “all those who died in war this week,” instead of limiting herself, per tradition, to slain Americans.

Amanpour hasn’t come off as aggressively opinionated or anti-American. But her internationalist perspective shapes the conversation. For example, during the August 8 roundtable on “Amending the 14th Amendment,” Gillian Tett of the Financial Times explained American concerns about immigration with a British accent: “You only have to go back to the era of the great crash, the Great Depression, to see what happens when you have a period of profound . . . economic dislocation and pain, and people start putting up barriers and pointing the fingers.” She worried about our “culture of hate, and this, you know, scapegoating that’s going on right now.” Tett’s explanation and characterization of American opposition to illegal immigration — one concordant with the international interpretation of American politics and with faddish pop political psychology — went unchallenged. Perhaps there is something other than a “culture of hate” at work, but no competing explanation was heard around Amanpour’s table, nor was one asked for.

The August 15 episode featured a roundtable on “Mosque Madness.” Amanpour opened the discussion with a leading question: “[The president] said the United States could not afford to have yet another generation of Muslims viewing it as the enemy. So do you think it’s wise to have this huge hubbub over it, or it should just go forward, this mosque?”

Note the implicit assumptions: (1) The concern is the mosque’s effect on international relations — not on 9/11 victims. (2) The blame for “this huge hubbub” lies with the critics of the mosque — not with Imam Rauf. (3) Just letting it go forward is the way to stop the hubbub — changing the location will not. (4) American acts cause Muslim enmity — Muslims are so fragile that debating a mosque’s location will destine a generation to anti-Americanism.

Despite her physical relocation to Washington, D.C., Amanpour still seems to be observing American politics from overseas. She doesn’t advance a position — she merely asks whether Americans should continue their mean-spirited bigotry toward innocent Muslims. She reports, you decide.

Amanpour’s innuendos reached a peak in Sunday’s episode. One section was, “Debating the Ground Zero Islamic Center.” Don’t let the name fool you. There was no debate. It was an interview with Daisy Khan (the wife of Imam Rauf) and Joy Levitt (an adviser on the mosque project). Amanpour claimed that a “backlash against Islam has been seen across the country.” She didn’t say how peaceful requests for a new location constitute a “backlash.”

As This Week is becoming more international, it is also becoming more parochial. Amanpour’s voice, and the voices she brings in, may have more countries of origin, but they are narrower — all members of the same cosmopolitan clique, to whom it would not occur to doubt the assertion that opponents of illegal immigration are a “culture of hatred and . . . scapegoating.” This new international voice has never conversed with, and cannot sympathize with, the policemen, firefighters, veterans, and Teamsters who protested at Ground Zero on Sunday morning during Amanpour’s broadcast.

Amanpour may have been a fine foreign correspondent, at least when Israel was not involved. But her distance from American concerns disables her from being a fair moderator of American debates. This Week is a one-stop shop for American political debate no more.

– Matthew Shaffer is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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